This Day in History: Major Richard Bong, Ace of Aces

On this day in 1945, America’s “Ace of Aces” is killed during a routine test flight in California. Major Richard Bong’s death came just as aviators on the other side of the world were dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

News of both events stunned the country.

No one could quite believe what had happened: Bong had survived more than 200 combat missions during World War II. He’d smashed Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record for the most aerial victories: Rickenbacker was credited with taking down 26 enemy planes, but Bong had taken down 40.

The newly married aviator had his whole life before him! How could he have died in this manner, after all he’d been through?

“I stopped thinking of the atom bomb which had wiped out Hiroshima that morning,” General George C. Kenney later said, “stopped speculation about the effect of the coming entry of Russia into the Pacific War, even stopped thinking of the capitulation of Japan . . . . we had lost a loved one, someone we had been glad to see out of combat and on his way home eight months before. Major Richard I. Bong of Poplar was dead.”

Bong was a legend in his own time. Some pilots become Aces because of one or a handful of stunning battles, but not Bong. Instead, he methodically took out one Japanese plane after another over the course of years. Many of these victories had been head-on duels. He liked to get close enough, as he said, to “put the gun muzzles in the Jap’s cockpit.”

One humorous story is often told about Bong: He’d been training in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning during the summer of 1942, flying low over San Francisco and looping around the Golden Gate Bridge. He flew so low that he knocked laundry off a clothesline! General Kenney called Bong into his office. It was the first time he’d met the young pilot.

“If you didn’t want to loop around that bridge or fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force,” Kenney told Bong, “but you are not going to do it any more.” He liked what he saw in Bong, but he needed to scare him straight. Bong was dispatched to the house of the woman who’d lost her laundry. The speed-loving aviator spent the day helping with laundry, mowing the yard, and generally making himself useful.

Unsurprisingly, Kenney later became a mentor to Bong.

Bong’s Medal action was actually a series of risky actions that occurred between October 10 and November 15, 1944. Bong was then in the Pacific as a gunnery instructor. He didn’t have to participate in combat at all, but he repeatedly volunteered and placed himself in hazardous sorties. He shot down 8 enemy airplanes that month.

Bong received his Medal in December 1944 and was sent home. He was engaged to a woman by the name of Marjorie Vattendahl. The two were crazy for each other! During the war, Bong even had her picture painted on his P-38, the “Marge.” The two got married in February 1945.

If only the story ended there. But it doesn’t.

Bong was testing a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star on August 6 when a fuel pump malfunctioned during take-off. Bong attempted to bail out, but he was still too low to the ground and his parachute never deployed.

He didn’t make it.

“The crash site was in an empty field near what is still the power company right-of way,” one of his biographers writes. “It seemed as though Dick Bong had deliberately pointed the aircraft for that spot, an island of nothing in a vast sea of suburban homes.”

Bong had stayed with the plane too long to save himself, but long enough to save those around him. A hero to the end.

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