American fighter pilot Richard Ira Bong
recorded his first 'kill' on December 27, 1942. Less than two years later -- on December 16, 1944 - he recorded his last, giving him a total of 40 kills in the Pacific during World War II
and fame as America's Ace of Aces
Dick Bong1 grew up in the tiny farming community of Poplar, Wisconsin, located just a few miles from the western tip of Lake Superior. He went to college at nearby Superior State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin - Superior) where he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot training program. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
In the Air Corps, Bong's training included learning single-engine jet airplanes under then Captain Barry Goldwater. After earning his commission and a stint as an air gunnery instructor, Bong found himself training on a new twin-engine interceptor, a plane that would make him famous, the Lockheed P-38.
Though an average gunner, Bong's piloting skills were superb. Even flying older and slower AT-6's he was usually able to get on the tail of his instructors flying P-38's. Once inside the P-38 Lightning Bong was unmatched. His training forays around the San Francisco Bay area are legend; flying under the Golden Gate Bridge, buzzing Market Street, flying so low the wash from his plane would knock clothes off of clotheslines2.
Finally, in September of 1942 Bong was sent to Australia as a member of the 49th Fighter Group. After his first kill, just before New Year's, it took Bong less than 16 months to break Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 26 kills3. After breaking the record he was promoted to Major and taken out of action. Through the summer of 1943 Bong returned to the US and went on an Army publicity tour, selling War Bonds.
By September he was back in the Pacific - as an advanced gunnery instructor. He was allowed to fly combat missions, but told only to defend himself and not seek out the enemy. That fall he recorded 13 more kills giving him 40 total and earning himself the Congressional Medal of Honor:
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 8 enemy airplanes during this period.
After his 40th kill Bong was sent stateside
for good. He had flown 200 combat missions and logged 500 combat hours. He had also earned the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross
, the Silver Star
(with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster), the Distinguished Flying Cross
(with 6 OLC's), and the Air Medal
(with 14 OLC's).
Richard Bong married his high school sweetheart in February of 1945. After more publicity tours and War Bond drives, he was able to get back into an aircraft as a test pilot. On August 6, 1945 he died during what should have been a routine test flight of a P-80, but the plane malfunctioned and America's #1 Ace was dead.
Bong was mentioned in Harlan Elllison
's award-winning short story Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man
. In the story the Harlequin is compared to a list of heroic non-conformists and rebels: "He was considered a Bolivar; a Napoleon; a Robin Hood; a Dick Bong (Ace of Aces); a Jesus; a Jomo Kenyatta."
It's said that as punishment Bong was made to serve as a handyman for a day to the woman whose clothes he knocked off the line -- including washing and hanging out her laundry.
Bong was originally sent a case of champagne
as congratulations for breaking the record. When it was learned he didn't drink alcohol, the brass sent him two cases of Coca Cola