Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TFH 11/15: Ace of Aces

Richard Ira Bong was born September 24, 1920 in Superior, WI. When he entered the US Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in 1941, one of his flight instructors was Barry Goldwater, later a distinguished US Senator and conservative icon. Bong received his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant on January 9, 1942 as America's direct involvement in World War II began.

Bong flew all of his missions in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning against Japan in the Pacific campaigns. While serving as a gunnery instructor from October 10-November 15, 1944, he repeatedly volunteered for combat missions and shot down eight enemy aircraft over both Borneo and Leyte in the Philippines. For his courage and tenacity in the air, he received our Nation's highest honor:

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II:

BONG, RICHARD I. (Air Mission)

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. Birth: 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.

It's a rare occurrence indeed, but Richard Bong's Medal of Honor citation doesn't even come close to recognizing the amazing ability of this courageous airman. He was first recognized for his flying skills in late 1942 when he shot down his first two planes in December 1942, earning the first of his two Silver Star Medals

In July 1943, he shot down four Japanese fighers over Lae in New Guinea, earning him the Distinguished Service Cross, one notch below the Medal of Honor.

By April 1944, Bong was credited with 27 aerial victories making him the greatest air ace in US history, surpassing the 26 kills of fellow Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I. By January 1945, Richard Bong's victory total stood at no less than 40 enemy planes destroyed. In addition to the decorations already listed, he also earned seven Distinguished Flying Crosses and fourteen Air Medals for his incredible exploits in the skies. Now, a well-known national hero, he returned home Stateside and participated in numerous PR appearances to help the war effort on the home front.

Eager to get back into the air, he became a test pilot later in 1945. He was assigned to work with Lockheed on the United States' first jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star. On August 6, 1945 - the same day the final act of World War II began with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima - Bong was killed in his P-80 when the fuel pump malfunctioned. His death received co-top billing with the atom bomb in many newspapers.

The two units that Bong flew with for most of his time in the Pacific, the 35th Fighter Group and the 49th Fighter Group, still are active with the United States Air Force today. The 35th Operations Group is now the flying arm of the 35th Fighter Wing. They fly General Dynamics F-16CJ Fighting Falcons tasked for enemy air defense suppression out of Misawa Air Base in Japan. The 49th Operations Group flies America's newest fighter, the F-22A Raptor, with the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

I'm sure that today's airmen in those units carry on the tradition of excellence in the skies that Richard Bong so most definitely embodied. Major Richard Bong rests today near the place of his birth in Poplar, WI.

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