Tricks of a Hotshot Flier
June 12th, 1942, was an interesting day in the Bay Area. Four US Air Army Forces pilots in Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters looped around the Golden Gate Bridge. Then one of them “buzzed” – made a low-level pass – over the house of a newly married pilot in nearby San Anselmo. The hotshot also flew low over San Francisco’s Market Street, waving at startled secretaries as he zoomed past their office windows. That was not all. Flying low over Oakland, his prop wash blew a housewife’s recently cleaned laundry off a clothesline where it had been hung up to dry and into the dirt.
Understandably, the poor woman was not happy, and she reported the stunt to the military authorities. The complaint made its way to General George C. Kenney, commander of the Fourth Air Force, an air defense and training outfit based in San Francisco, to which the daredevil pilots belonged. The chief offender, Second Lieutenant Richard Bong of the 49th Fighter Squadron, 14th Fighter Group, was an unlikely culprit. Bong was an introverted and unobtrusive type on the ground. Once strapped into a cockpit and up in the air, however, he seemed to undergo a personality change and morph into a breathtakingly aggressive aerial buccaneer.
His flying that day had crossed the line, however, and Bong was called to the carpet for a royal ass-chewing. “Lieutenant Bong,” General Kenney ordered 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, when the clothes are dry, take them off the line and bring them into the house. And don’t 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 change my mind. That’s all!”
Kenney also grounded the young flier, and when his group left for England the following month, Bong was not with them. He did not stay grounded for long. As Kenney told him: “If you didn't want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn't have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say.” Kenney, a great leader of men who went on to play an important role in securing American victory in the Southwest Pacific, understood that people who burned with an inner fire as hot as Bong’s were rare. He instinctively grasped that the trick was to put such a fire to good use and not let it burn the whole place down.
As the general wrote later: “We needed kids like that.” He also had an ulterior motive in grounding Bong long enough to keep him from leaving with his unit to England. Kenney knew he would be assigned a combat command before long and wanted a strong core – the 50 best P-38 pilots he knew – to take with him to his new assignment. Bong was one of the 50. Kenney’s hunch about the young flier’s meriting a second chance turned out to be right. Over the war-torn skies of the Pacific, many Japanese pilots who ran into Richard Bong discovered that he posed a danger to more than just clean laundry.
Bong’s Journey to Becoming an Aviation Legend
Richard Ira Bong, who was often referred to by the nickname “Dick,” was born in 1920 in the small town of Poplar, Wisconsin. He was raised on a small farm, one of nine children of a Wisconsin-born mother and a father who had emigrated from Sweden as a child. Growing up, Bong enjoyed the outdoor activities available in Wisconsin’s pristine woods, such as hiking, hunting, and fishing. He also helped around the farm and learned his way around agricultural equipment. That early experience with machinery came in handy when he took up a career as an aviator.
Bong had a passion for building model airplanes when he was a kid. He caught the flying bug at an early age, ever since he first saw an aircraft flying over the farm to deliver mail to President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House in Superior. In high school, he played basketball, baseball, and hockey and graduated 10th in his class of 428 in 1938. Bong attended the predecessor of today’s University of Wisconsin-Superior to study engineering, but he had not lost any of his childhood passion for flight.
While in college, Bong enrolled in the Civilian Pilot-Training Program, which was sponsored by the US government to increase the number of civilian pilots. The program also wanted to expand the pool of potential military aviators in case of war. He took private flying lessons to speed up his qualification, soloed on his twentieth birthday, September 24th, 1940, and earned a private pilot’s license in a Piper Cub. Eight months later, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Training Program, where one of his flight instructors was Barry Goldwater, the future US Senator, and 1964 presidential candidate.
Goldwater said of Bong:
“He was a very bright gunnery student. But the most important thing came from a P-38 check pilot who said Bong was the finest natural pilot he had ever met. There was no way he could keep Bong from getting on his tail, even though he was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane.”
When General Kenney took command of the Fifth Air Force in Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Theater, he assigned Bong to the 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group, which flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks out of Darwin, Australia.
There was little reason to waste Bong’s talents on the nearly obsolescent P-40 when he had already mastered its replacement, the P-38 Lightning. So while the 9th awaited the arrival of P-38s, he was temporarily assigned to the 39th Fighter Group, 35th Fighter Group, which already had Lightnings and was based in Port Moresby, New Guinea. It was with the 39th that Bong claimed his first victories on December 27th, 1942, when 40 Japanese airplanes attacked Allied targets at Buna and were met by 12 P-38s of the 39th.
Bong’s flight leader shot down an enemy plane, and then a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” got on his tail. Bong side slipped, shot it down, and was immediately jumped by three Zeros. He dove to the ground to escape them and pulled up “2 inches above the shortest tree in Buna,” as he put it later. He got away from his pursuers, and just as he pulled up, there was a Japanese Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber pulling up from its bombing attack. It was lined up perfectly before Bong’s guns. Bong gave it a blast that set it on fire then headed back to base. Second Lieutenant Bong earned a Silver Star for his two victories that day. He was just getting started, and there would be many more to come.
Becoming America’s Ace of Aces
Bong rejoined the 9th Fighter Squadron in early 1943 after it replaced its P-40s with P-38s, and he kept piling up the kills. Memorable encounters include one on March 3rd, at the start of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, when he flew escort for B-17 and B-25 bombers that targeted a Japanese convoy off Lae, New Guinea. The bombers sank eight transports and four destroyers, and Bong shot down a Zero that tried to have a go at them. He downed two more Zeros on March 11th and added a bomber to his score on March 29th.
General Kenney promoted Bong to Lieutenant on April 6th, 1943, and on April 14th, dozens of Japanese warplanes attacked American ships at Milne Bay, New Guinea. In the ensuing aerial melee, Bong shot down a bomber for his 10th confirmed victory. That made him a double ace and earned him an Air Medal. Bong did not consider himself a great gunner, but he was an aggressive pilot and came up with a solution to compensate for poor gunnery. He flew as close to the enemy as possible so he couldn’t miss when he opened fire. Sometimes he flew through the debris of exploding Japanese planes and even collided with a target on one occasion.
Flying close to targets was not limited to enemy airplanes. During a rescue mission in New Guinea, as Bong flew overhead while three American pilots crossed a lake in a small rubber boat to reach a downed comrade, he noticed a crocodile trailing close behind them. So he flew low until he was nearly skimming the water and blasted away the croc with a 20mm round. Another preferred Bong tactic was approaching his opponents head-on. That gave his P-38, a stable gun platform whose firepower eclipsed that of Japanese planes, an advantage. At least 16 of his kills were scored in head-on duels.
Bong had an especially great day on July 26th, 1943 when he flew one of ten Lightnings on a sweep near Lae, New Guinea, that encountered 20 Japanese fighters. He missed in his first pass, dove to gain speed, then went head-on against a Nakajima K-43 “Oscar” and set it aflame. Next, he blew away chunks from the rear fuselage of a Kawasaki K-61 “Tony,” turned left, and got in the rear of another Tony; he promptly destroyed it. For Bong’s fourth kill of the day, he downed another Oscar in another head-on pass. That earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, and a few weeks later, he was promoted to captain.
While on leave that November, he met Marjorie Vattendahl in Wisconsin and began dating her. When he returned to the Pacific in January 1944, he named his P-38 Marge and adorned its nose with her photo. His first victory in “Marge” came on February 15th, 1944, when he downed a Tony. Two weeks later, Bong destroyed a Japanese transport plane loaded with high-ranking Japanese officers as it taxied along a runway. On April 12th, 1944, he broke Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record of 26 planes when he downed two planes to bring his total to 27.
He was promoted to major and sent on leave back home to see the Army Air Forces’ commander, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. Bong returned to New Guinea in September 1944 and was made a gunnery instructor. He was allowed to go on missions but not to seek combat. He sought combat anyhow, and by December 17th, 1944, his kill total had reached 40, the highest of any American, ever. He received a Medal of Honor presented by Douglas MacArthur shortly thereafter, and in January 1945, Kenney sent America’s “Ace of Aces” back home for good. By then, Bong was a bonafide hero and celebrity, and his return to the US was greeted with significant fanfare and media attention.
Bong’s marriage to Marjorie Vattendahl on February 10th, 1945 became a news sensation. Uncle Sam took advantage of the heightened public interest in Bong by sending him war bonds, sale tours, and other PR activities. Next, Bong started a new career as a test pilot assigned to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, where he helped develop new airplanes such as the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. On August 6th, 1945, he took off in a P-80, but its fuel pump malfunctioned, and he was killed in the subsequent crash. Bong’s renown was so great that his death shared the front page with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred that same day.
Some Sources and Further Reading
History Net – The Spectacular Combat Career of America’s Ace of Aces
Kenny, George C. – Dick Bong: America’s Ace of Aces (1960)
National Aviation Hall of Fame – Bong, Richard Ira
National World War II Museum – Ace of Aces: Major Richard Bong
Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center – Richard Bong Biography
Yenne, Bill – Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II (2009)