With a name like Dick Bong, I just couldn’t resist. Sadly, his life was tragically cut short by an accident, which … sort of makes me feel bad about laughing at his name. But not bad enough, apparently.
Richard Ira Bong was born on 24 September 1920, the eldest of nine children. His parents had emigrated from Sweden to Wisconsin, where they had a farm. According to the delightfully hokey biography on the website of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center: “Dick Bong's upbringing epitomized the values and expectations of that era - loyalty to his family and a deep sense of patriotism. Like all farm children, he had chores to perform and was expected to drive farm machinery at an early age. He hunted and fished in the surrounding woods and streams, played on his school athletic teams and sang in his church choir; as his 4H project he planted the extensive evergreen windbreak on the family farm, still in the family. At that time he modeled the ideal all-American boy.”
In 1938, Richard started attending Superior State Teachers College, where he began to take flying lessons. In 1941 he joined the Army Air Corps (what later became the Air Force) Aviation Cadet Program. One of his flight instructors was Barry Goldwater! Yes, the same Barry Goldwater that Lyndon Johnson implied would get you blown up by atomic bombs should he have been elected president.
The Air Corp commissioned Richard as a second lieutenant (he ended his career as a major). Richard flew P-38 Lightning planes. He was supposed to go to England, but Richard was grounded (on account of flying his plane down the streets of San Francisco) when his squadron left for Europe. Consequently, Richard was transferred to another squadron in the Pacific theatre, the “Flying Knights” based in Darwin, Australia (which was indeed named after THE Charles Darwin, although the name has evolved).
Between December 1942 and December 1944, Richard shot down 40 enemy planes, which is a record for the US. Richard is considered an Ace of Aces, which is a designation given to the most active military ace in a time of war. Richard received a Congressional Medal of Honor in December 1944 and was sent back to the states in January 1945.
Back in the USA, Richard married Marge Vattendahl, whom he had met back in Wisconsin while home on leave in November/December 1943. Richard did some public relations work, such as shilling war bonds, before returning to flying. Richard became a test pilot for P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at a testing facility in Burbank, California. Sadly, something went wrong during one of his test flights, his plane blew up over North Hollywood, and Richard Bong was killed on 6 August 1945. At the time, Richard was so beloved and famous that his death shared the headlines with the bombing of Hiroshima, which had also occurred on 6 August.
Richard was buried in his hometown of Poplar, Wisconsin.