Major Richard I. Bong, USAAF (October 10 – November 15, 1944)

Richard Ira Bong was born in Superior, Wisconsin on September 24, 1920. He was a college student and already under instruction as a civilian pilot when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet  on May 29, 1941.

Bong received his pilot’s wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant on January 19, 1942 and was posted as an aerial gunnery instructor. He would go on to become the top ace of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.

Bong flew every one of his combat missions over the Pacific in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a twin-engine, long range fighter. He shot down his first two enemy Japanese aircraft on December 27, 1942. On July 26, 1943, Bong shot down four enemy aircraft during one mission and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Distinguished Service Cross ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Distinguished Service Cross ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)

First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Richard Ira Bong (ASN: 0-433784), United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-38 Fighter Airplane in the 49th Fighter Group, FIFTH Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 26 July 1943, during an air mission over Lae, New Guinea. In aerial combat on this date Lieutenant Bong destroyed FOUR enemy aircraft in a single engagement, bringing his total to this date to FIFTEEN enemy aircraft destroyed and becoming a TRIPLE ACE. First Lieutenant Bong’s unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 5th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.

By the fall of 1944, Bong had been promoted to Major and was a staff officer with the V Fighter Command of the Fifth Air Force. He was not required to fly combat missions, but he repeatedly volunteered to take to the skies against the enemy. For a portion of this period from October 10 to November 15, 1944, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Over Borneo and Leyte, 10 October to 15 November 1944. Entered service at: Poplar, Wis. G.O. No.: 90, 8 December 1944

Citation: 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, Maj. 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.

Major Bong was also a two-time recipient of the Silver Star and a seven-time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. All told, he was credited with destroying 40 Japanese aircraft in air-to-air combat, making him an “Ace” eight-times over. His final aerial victory came on December 17, 1944.

After receiving his Medal from General Douglas MacArthur, Bong was sent home to the United States and became a test pilot. The greatest Air Force ace of World War II was tragically killed when the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter he was testing crashed on August 6, 1945 – coincidentally the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Bong bailed out of his stricken plane, but his parachute failed to open enough to make an impact survivable.

The United States Air Force planned to build R. I. Bong Air Force Base in southern Wisconsin during the 1950s. The base was never completed, and the grounds today are known as Wisconsin’s Richard Bong State Recreation Area.

Major Richard I. Bong rests in peace in the Poplar Cemetery of Poplar, Wisconsin.

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