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70 years after buzzing downtown, Bong's legacy takes wing

Already an ace and just a few months from receiving the Medal of Honor, Maj. Richard Bong banked his silver, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning on a sunny day seven decades ago and buzzed the heart of downtown Milwaukee.

He was here for a war bond drive and the legendary photo snapped by a Milwaukee Journal photographer showed the Army Air Force pilot from northern Wisconsin flying past the Wisconsin Tower at 6th St. and Wisconsin Ave. — right along the roof line. Though there was plenty of news from the war front — it was less than a week after D-Day — the stunning picture ran front and center on the cover of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal exactly 70 years ago Wednesday.

Only 23 years old, Bong would get married early the next year after that photo was taken. Army brass worried the famous pilot would be shot down in the Pacific, so they brought him back to the safety of the United States. Bong raised money for war bonds and became a test pilot for the military's new jet fighter.

Then, abruptly, he was gone.

Killed in a routine flight in the skies over Burbank, Calif. Though he died on the day America dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, Bong's shocking death ran on the front pages of many newspapers across the country.

"It was the death of one of these really successful fighter pilots everyone had seen in the newspapers for three years," said Bob Fuhrman, executive director of the Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Bong receiving the nation's highest medal for valor, the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame is traveling throughout the state giving speeches and multimedia presentations on Bong's legacy. The next event is in July in Manitowoc.

'A terror in the sky'

America's top ace in any war — with 40 confirmed kills — came from a very large family and a very small town. Bong was the oldest of nine kids and grew up on a farm in tiny Poplar near Lake Superior. He wanted to be a pilot from the age of 7 or 8, but with money tight during the Depression he realized the only way he could achieve his dream was to join the military. Before World War II, anyone who wanted to be a military pilot needed at least 21/2 years of college so he went to Superior State Teachers College, now University of Wisconsin-Superior, took flying lessons on campus and earned his pilot's license.

When America entered World War II, Bong was sent to the Pacific, where he quickly began shooting down Japanese fighter planes. In less than two years he shot down 27, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 26.

"Rickenbacker promised a case of Scotch to the pilot who broke his record, but I think Bong got Coca-Cola instead," said Bill Streicher, presidentof the Mitchell Gallery of Flight at Mitchell International Airport. "He was a terror in the sky but a teetotaler on the ground."

When the Mitchell Gallery of Flight opened in 1987, a display case was devoted to Bong, filled with original newspapers featuring his exploits, photos, two books written by his brother Carl, a P-38 model and a recreation of his medal display. Much of the memorabilia was donated by Bong's family.

From accounts of the men who flew with him, Bong simply had a feel for flying. Bong admitted he wasn't a good shot but apparently was incredibly adept at getting into position to shoot down enemy planes.

"He had a very good sense of where he was in the air, especially when he starts flying the Lockheed (P-38) Lightning. It seemed like a really good match. He had a pretty good ability to anticipate things that would happen," Fuhrman said. "You read interviews with people who trained with him and they said he was 'the best natural pilot I ever saw.'"

As he racked up air victories, commanders began pushing to get Bong and other hotshot pilots featured in the press. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George Kenney, commander of Allied Air Forces in the Pacific, wanted Bong to get recognition — but also had another reason to spotlight his prowess.

"They were aware of the Allied governments' decision on a 'Europe first' strategy, so whenever they had any success they tried to trumpet it in the press to use it as leverage to say, 'Give us more resources; let us continue to make a push against the Japanese,'" said Furhman.

Bong returned to the U.S. for war drives and to visit his family, often trailed by reporters and photographers. When he got married to his girlfriend, Marge — whose photo graced the nose of his P-38 — at a tiny church in Poplar, it was front page news. Each time he returned to the skies over the Pacific, he shot down more enemy aircraft.

In December 1944, MacArthur presented him with the Medal of Honor, which is now on display at the Bong museum in Superior. The next month, with 200 combat missions in his log book, he was sent back to the U.S. for good. He spent his days doing war bond drives, appearances and interviews, something the soft-spoken and shy Bong at times found difficult.

He felt much more at home in a cockpit.

Loved flying low

In 1942, Bong was called to Kenney's office and reprimanded for buzzing Market St. in San Francisco, for flying a loop around the Golden Gate Bridge and flying low over the house of a fellow pilot who had just gotten married, blowing laundry off a neighbor's clothes line. Bong was afraid he was going to lose his wings.

Kenney wrote in his memoir that after asking Bong what it was like to fly low over Market St. he realized the earnest guy standing in front of him was the type of person the Army Air Force needed. He also told Bong to call the woman whose clean clothes were blown off her line, and offer to help her with her laundry.

Perhaps, then, it wasn't a surprise when Bong flew low over Milwaukee on June 10, 1944. On the front of the next day's Milwaukee Journal, his visit earned the headline: "There He Goes — Spare Our Buildings — Bong Was Here." A Journal reporter wrote about Bong's P-38 zooming across the business district north toward Shorewood and Whitefish Bay before banking sharply out over Lake Michigan and making a run down Wisconsin Ave., streaking between the Wisconsin Tower and the Schroeder Hotel, now the Hilton.

"He came so fast and was gone so fast, racing below the top level of the two buildings that watchers were left breathless at Bong's daring," the Journal reporter noted.

On the day he died, Aug. 6, 1945, Bong was scheduled to play golf with Bing Crosby but canceled when he forgot to bring his golf shoes. He decided to stop at the Lockheed plant and put in some flight time on the new P-80 Shooting Star, a jet that would see a lot of action during the Korean War. It was a routine flight. When planes came off the assembly line, a pilot put the aircraft through its paces to make sure it was sound.

The plane's primary fuel pump malfunctioned on takeoff. Bong either forgot or couldn't switch to an auxiliary pump and by the time he bailed out, he was too low to the ground for his parachute to fully deploy. His body was brought back to Wisconsin and buried in his hometown.

More online

To see a photo gallery, go to jsonline.com/photos

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For more information about the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame's Richard Bong multimedia presentations: wisconsinaviationhalloffame.org/events.htm

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