The Greatest Fighter Pilot In American History Was Named Dick Bong
Names tend to follow people throughout their lives, especially when they make people giggle. Dick Trickle, Harry Baals, and Tokyo Sexwale were all real people with incredibly unfortunate names. However, the man with perhaps the most unfortunate name, which unfortunately overshadows his incredible feats in life, was Major Dick Bong.
Dick Bong Found His Calling Early
Born Richard Ira Bong, the eldest of nine children, he grew up in Superior, Wisconsin. He found his calling at an early age when President Calvin Coolidge spent his summer in America's Dairyland.
"The President's mail plane flew right over my house,” Bong remembered. "I knew then I wanted to be a pilot." It's a good thing the President decided to summer in Wisconsin. As it would turn out, Major Dick Bong was born to fly.
Top Gun with a Saturday Night Live Name
In 1938, Dick Bong enrolled in the Civil Pilot's Training Program. After two years of college, he followed his dream and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet Program in 1941.
His captain, Barry Goldwater, recalled that Dick Bong "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 ever met. There was no way he could keep Bong from getting on his tail."
"Permission To Buzz The Tower"
Naturally, the hotshot pilot with an unforgettable name soon earned himself a measure of infamy while training at Hamilton Airfield in the Bay Area. He enjoyed turning nearby San Francisco into his personal playground, which was fitting, as many San Francisco residents would soon do the same to their own bongs. According to reports, he enjoyed flying his Lockheed P-38 Lightning under the Golden Gate Bridge and flying close enough to the office buildings to wave at the secretaries.
Eventually, his antics got him in hot Bong water with Major General George C. Kenney after one of his flybys blew the laundry off a housewife's clothesline. He sternly ordered Bong to do the lady's laundry while silently promising to take the flashy pilot with him on any combat assignment he received.
More than a Flash in the Pan
According to Bong's squadmates, he was mellow on the ground, but that all changed once he was in the air. On December 27, 1942, Bong got his first chance to prove himself when the Japanese launched their first major joint air and sea operation in Southwest Pacific.
He took down a Zero, an agile Japanese fighter plane, that assailed his wingman. Then, as three more Zeros came on him, he dove "two inches above the shortest tree in Buna." As he pulled out of the dive, he spotted a Japanese bomber and lit it up. Those two victories were recorded as the first for a P-38 pilot of the 49th Group.
One of the Best to Ever Fly
Over the course of World War II, Dick Bong earned his stripes and then some. By March 1943, he rose to the rank of first lieutenant after chasing down a Japanese reconnaissance plane during a 20-mile chase at 400 mph. That kill tied him with Captain Thomas J. Lynch, his friend and mentor, for the most air victories by an American "ace" in New Guinea.
Earning a single victory in air combat is an impressive feat; to do so twice means you’re a great pilot. To attain the title of "ace," a fighter pilot must down five enemy pilots in combat. Our high-flying hero did it an astounding 40 times during his tour of duty.
Major Dick Bong's Philosophy
In a letter to his mother on April 10, 1944, Major Dick Bong shared some words of advice to his younger brother, who was training to be a pilot. "He must not get contemptuous of any airplane, no matter how simple and easy it may be to fly. Don't just get in and fly it, but know what makes it tick ... If he forgets, why, any airplane in the world can kill him if he isn't its complete master."
Even though Bong started out as a showy hotdog, he didn't take that attitude into battle. If the odds were stacked against him, he'd quit the fight and live to fly another day. Supposedly, he claimed to be a poor shot. However, his squadmates said he hit his target 90% of the time.
Another secret to his success, according to Bong himself, was getting close enough to "put the gun muzzles in the Jap's cockpit." He also would strike enemy fighters head-on. At least 16 of his confirmed kills were scored in head-on attacks.
A Hero Who Should Never Be Forgotten
In the end, Major Dick Bong earned the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with six oak leaf clusters, and Air Medal with 14 oak leaves, making him one of the most distinguished pilots in American history.
Sadly, he died in a routine test flight on the same day the United States dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. General Kenney eulogized the man best: "You see, we not only loved him, we boasted about him, we were proud of him. That's why each of us got a lump in our throats when we read that telegram about his death."
H/T to Neal Lockwood for the conversation that led to this article