Richard Ira Bong, America's "Ace of Aces" in World War II was born Sept. 24, 1920, the son of Swedish immigrants in Superior, Wis. He had 40 aerial victories, 200 combat missions and more than 500 combat hours. At a time when he was not expected to fly combat missions, he volunteered for missions that resulted in eight enemy aircraft to be downed. For his bravery, he was awarded the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.
He started at Superior State Teachers College in 1938, where he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot training program, also taking private flying lessons. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program.
He did his primary flight training at Rankin Aeronautical Academy in California in June 1941, and completed basic training at Gardner Field, Calif. He went to Luke Field, Ariz., for advanced training in single-engine fighter planes, where he learned to master the AT-6 under Capt. Barry Goldwater. In January 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, Bong earned his Army Air Corps commission and his pilot's wings. After a few months he got the chance to train in Lockheed's new fighter, the P-38. While mastering the twin-engine craft at Hamilton Field near San Francisco, he first attracted the attention of Gen. George Kenney, his future mentor and head of the Fifth Air Force.
When General Kenney went to the Pacific in Sept., 1942, Bong was one of the pilots he tasked to join the 49th Fighter Group. Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron, the "Flying Knights," and was sent to Australia. While waiting for P-38s to be delivered, he flew with the 39th FS of the 35th Fighter Group, operating out of Port Moresby, New Guinea. On Dec. 27, 1942, while flying with the 35th, Bong scored his first aerial victories, a A6M Zero and a Ki-43 Oscar, and earned a Silver Star.
Bong began shooting down Japanese planes at a rapid rate. After his 27th victory, General Kenney took him out of action and promoted him to major. When Eddie Rickenbacker heard about it, he sent a message of congratulations reading, "Just received the good news that you are the first one to break my record in World War I by bringing down 27 planes in combat, as well as your promotion, so justly deserved. I hasten to offer my sincere congratulations with the hope that you will double or triple this number. But in trying, use the same calculating techniques that has brought you results to date, for we will need your kind back home after this war is over."
Bong was sent back home to instruct others in the art of aerial superiority at Foster Field, Texas. In September, 1944 he returned to the Pacific as a gunnery training officer, but he voluntarily flew 30 more combat missions over Borneo and the Philippine Islands, destroying more enemy aircraft.
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur presented the Medal of Honor to Bong on Dec. 12, 1944. The citation reads: "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from 10 October to 15 November 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Major Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down eight enemy airplanes during this period."
After Bong scored his 40th victory, he was sent home. He was America's "Ace of Aces," with 40 aerial victories, 200 combat missions and more than 500 combat hours behind him. Among his many medals were the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, 15 Air Medals, American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Silver Service Star for participation in the Leyte, Luzon, New Guinea, Northern Solomons and Papua Campaigns, two Distinguished Unit Citations, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with Bronze Service Star, Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation Emblem, and Philippine Independence ribbon. He was also given the Australian air force's Distinguished Flying Cross.
He went to work at Wright Field as a test pilot, helping to develop the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. He studied jet propulsion theory and learned the engineering details of the new plane for two months, before flying one. After being checked out in the P-80, he flew it 11 times that summer.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Bong stepped into an airplane for the last time. His P-80 malfunctioned just after take-off, and while he bailed out, he was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. After surviving two years of combat flying, Bong died on a routine acceptance flight.
General George C. Kenney described reactions to his tragic death: "His country and the Air Force must never forget their number-one fighter pilot, who will inspire other fighter pilots and countless thousands of youngsters who will want to follow in his footsteps every time that any nation or coalition of nations dares to challenge our right to think, speak, and live as a free people."
On Sept. 24, 2002, the Richard I. Bong WW II Heritage Center opened to the public in Superior, Wis. Housed in a structure intended to resemble an aircraft hangar, it contains a museum, a film screening room, and a P-38 Lightning restored to resemble Bong's plane. The work on the aircraft, begun in 1994 and coordinated by volunteers from the Minnesota Air National Guard located in Duluth required more than 16,000 hours of labor.
There are numerous memorials to Major Bong, including bridges in Duluth, Minn. and Townsville, Australia. At the University of Wisconsin, an Arnold Air Society chapter is also named in his honor. In southeastern Wisconsin, you'll find the Richard Bong State Recreation Area.
Information sources: Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center, Air Force Historical Research Agency and military personnel records.