Richard Ira Bong was born on 24 September 1920. His father, a Swedish immigrant and mother, who was British, had nine children in total and raised them on a farm near Superior in Wisconsin. Richard grew up as a typical American farm boy and lived a very active lifestyle. He saw an aircraft for the first time at the age of eight and immediately realised that he wanted to become a pilot. After high school, Richard earned his private pilot’s licence in a government sponsored civilian pilot training programme. At the age of twenty Richard joined an Army Air Corps cadet training programme. He flew solo on a Boeing Stearman in California and later received advanced training on T-6 Texans in Arizona. After serving as an instructor for a few months, Richard was transferred to San Francisco, where he received training on Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. P-38s were brand new top-of-the-range fighters which were designed to help bring air superiority in the European and Pacific skies of World War II.
According to legend, Richard Bong performed quite a few remarkable feats whilst stationed in San Francisco. He is said to have gained the attention of General George Kenney, who would later become commander of Allied air forces in the Southwest Pacific region, by flying a loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. Bong was also known to fly low over washing lines, thereby blowing clothes off the lines. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, General Kenney summoned Bong and reprimanded him: “Monday morning you check this address out in Oakland and if the woman has any washing to be hung out on the line, you do it for her. Then you hang around being useful, mowing the lawn or something, and when the clothes are dry, take them off the line and bring them into the house. Do not drop any of them on the ground or you will have to wash them all over again. I want this woman to think we are good for something else besides annoying people. Now get out of here before I get mad and change my mind. That's all.”
World War II Combat
Later, when General Kenney went to the Pacific region, he hand picked Richard Bong to go with him and serve with the ‘Flying Knights’, a P-38 fighter squadron. In December 1942, Bong shot down his two first victims, a Japanese Zero and Oscar, thereby earning the Silver Star medal for valour in the face of the enemy. Within two weeks, Bong had shot down three more enemy aircraft, earning the title ‘ace’. P-38s were not as agile as Japanese Zeros, but they were much faster and could be used very efficiently in diving attacks. Bong quickly learned to use the P-38’s speed and excellent climb rate to his advantage and his number of kills began to grow steadily. Soon, Bong broke Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 27 kills, making him the highest scoring American pilot of any war: the ‘American ace of aces’. When Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous World War I ace heard about Bong’s 27th victory, he sent a message of congratulations. "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. However, in trying, use the same calculating techniques that have brought you results to date, for we will need your kind back home after this war is over."
Richard Bong then went back to the United States to participate in publicity tours, before returning to combat in the Pacific. Ultimately, Bong scored forty kills, before being grounded for safety reasons and sent home by General Kenney. Bong’s Medal of Honour citation read as follows, “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.”
Life after combat
Richard Bong returned to Superior and married his wife Marge Vattendahl, in January 1945. After their honeymoon, Bong was transferred to California, where he flew P-80 Shooting Stars as a test pilot. One day, whilst taking off, Bong’s P-80 stalled on take off. Bong bailed out too low and his parachute never opened. Apparently the P-80 occasionally suffered from a main fuel pump failure. However, it appeared that Bong forgot to switch on the emergency fuel pump which could have saved his life.
So on 6 August 1945, the same day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Richard Bong died. Upon hearing of Bong’s death, Eddie Rickenbacker commented, “Major Richard Bong was an example of the tragic and terrible price we must pay to maintain principles of human rights, of greater value than life itself. This gallant Air Force hero will be remembered because he made his final contribution to aviation in the dangerous role of test pilot of an untried experimental plane. A deed that places him amongst the stout-hearted pioneers who gave their lives in the conquest of sky and space.”
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2009 - www.africanpilot.co.za
More articles on exceptional pilots will be loaded on a regular basis.