R.I.P. Major Richard Ira Bong September 24, 1920 – August 6, 1945.
Major Bong had 40 confirmed kills and 3 probable.
Richard Ira Bong (1920-1945) fell in love with flying at the age of eight. President Calvin Coolidge spent the summer in Superior, Wisconsin and had his mail flown in daily, with the mail carrier flying exactly over the Bong family’s farm, setting Richard on a track that would define the rest of his life.
He enlisted in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at the age of 18 and in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in 1941. His talent as a pilot was recognized when he became the only cadet of his class who could stay on the tail of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning while flying a much slower AT-6 training plane. After a short stint as a gunnery instructor, he was transferred to Hamilton Field in California, where his enthusiasm got him into all kinds of trouble. Flying a loop around the Golden Gate Bridge, buzzing the home of a fellow pilot who had recently gotten married and flying so low over San Francisco’s Market Street that he could wave at secretaries in their offices earned him a grounding. On one occasion, he flew so low that turbulence from his propeller ripped off the drying clothes from a line and scattered them around. As punishment, he was sent to the address and told to help the lady there with her next washing.
Bong’s squadron was sent to the Pacific in September 1942. There, he quickly acquired both the nickname “Bing Bong” and a reputation as a quiet and introverted person on the ground who got extremely aggressive in the air. In December of the same year, he claimed his first two victories on a single day.
On a trip back home, he met Marjorie Vattendahl, a local beauty from Bong’s native Douglas County, and the two fell in love. Once he got back to the Pacific, he had Marjorie’s portrait painted on his brand new P-38 Lightning.
Throughout his career, Bong claimed 40 victories. He also shot down a Japanese transport plane carrying high-ranking officials but he didn’t claim it as it was destroyed on the runway, rather than in the air. Even though he was a gunnery instructor for a short while, he felt his aim to be pretty bad and compensated for it by flying very close to his targets before firing. Another typical Bong maneuver was to attack the enemy head-on, a position where his stable, well-armed Lightning had an advantage over Japanese Zeros and Oscars. He scored at least 16 of his 40 victories with this method.
In April 1944, he matched and broke American World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 kills. Upon hearing of the news, Rickenbacker sent him his personal congratulations and the promise of a case of Scotch. General Kenney, the man who grounded Bong for his stunt flying over San Francisco, sent a case of champagne. General of the Army, later of the Air Force, Henry “Hap” Arnold knew Bong preferred Coca Cola to alcohol and accordingly sent two cases of the drink. Pilots from other squadrons helpfully declared that if Bong doesn’t like the booze, they would be happy to take it off his hands.
Soon afterwards, Bong was assigned as an advanced gunnery training instructor. This was a non-combat position but he was allowed to accompany others on missions as an “observer” to see how well they did. Bong, of course, used the chance to improve his score even further. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in December, 1944 and was sent home to the States for good the following year.
Back home, Bong took part in war bond drives and other PR activities, and married his love Marjorie. Unfortunately, their life together wouldn’t be very long. Bong was fascinated with the development of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. jet fighter to see operational service, and accepted a position as a test pilot.
On August 6, 1945, something went wrong during takeoff. As far as could be determined, the primary fuel pump likely malfunctioned and Bong either forgot to switch over to the auxiliary pump or was prevented from doing so by the malfunction. It’s also been suggested by renown test pilot Chuck Yeager that Bong hadn’t familiarized himself with the controls well enough and had simply forgotten the correct takeoff procedure. Either way, the plane apparently didn’t have an ejection system, so Bong popped open the cockpit and tried to jump out with his parachute. He was either too low for the parachute to deploy or it got entangled in the plane which dragged the pilot to his death.
America’s greatest fighter ace died the same day Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima as the first of two devastating nuclear strikes that would force Japan on its knees and bring an end to the war. The following day, Bong’s death shared the headlines with the atomic bomb on the front pages of newspapers across the country.