Today’s entry from the RedState Department of History honors a man who, for one day in my part of the world, made bigger headlines than the other major event in history which occurred on this date — the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
On this date in 1945, the pride of Poplar, Wisconsin, Major Richard Ira Bong, was killed in a crash of a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter.
Bong was the top-scoring fighter pilot in American history, with 40 confirmed kills of Japanese aircraft to his credit. Compared to other nations, his total is not especially high — German Major Erich Hartmann was World War II’s top ace with 352 kills, including 345 Russian — but Bong flew in a time where vast numbers of American aircraft were beginning to dominate the skies of the South Pacific and swarms of American pilots were in heated competition to eliminate the Japanese air force.
After earning his wings in early 1942, Bong served as a gunnery instructor where his exploits in the P-38 over the city of San Francisco were as legendary as they were dangerous – flying underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and buzzing Market Street to name just two – but finally he went to the South Pacific where he began to shoot down enemy planes at a impressive clip.
In December of 1943, with his score standing at 21 kills, Bong returned home on leave to Wisconsin where he met a sorority sister at Wisconsin State Teachers College (now known as the University of Wisconsin-Superior) named Marge Vattendahl. When Bong returned to action, Marge’s image adorned the nose of Bong’s Lightning, in which he tallied an additional 19 kills.
On April 12, 1944, Bong shot down three Japanese planes, bringing his score to 28 and passing Eddie Rickenbacker‘s record from World War I. The famous ace sent Bong a telegram:
“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. My promise of a case of Scotch still holds. So be on the lookout for it.”
On December 12, 1944, Bong received the Congressional Medal of Honor from General Douglas MacArthur, who tossed away his prepared comments in favor of a shorter, more direct speech:
“Major Richard Ira Bong, who has ruled the air from New Guinea to the Philippines, I now induct you into the society of the bravest of the brave, the wearers of the Congressional Medal of Honor of the United States.”
On February 10, 1945, Bong married Marge Vattendahl after being sent home to the States for good. Their marriage lasted less than six months, as Bong’s P-80 malfunctioned just after takeoff on August 6, 1945, killing the “Ace of Aces” in the ensuing crash.
Bong was born in Superior but is buried in nearby Poplar, where he grew up. Marge Bong remarried, and I had the great pleasure of meeting the lady then known as Marge Bong Drucker in 2002 prior to the opening of the Richard Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. She passed away the following year.
Such was the impact of Major Bong in a local sense that the worldwide, world-changing news of the Hiroshima attack took second place in the local papers to the death of one of the region’s greatest heroes. The Bong Bridge, which connects the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, bears his name.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!