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Major Dick Bong: The Most Unfortunate Name You Should Know

An edited version of this article appeared on

Names tend to follow people throughout their lives, whether they are nicknames or the ones bequeathed at birth. Dick Trickle, Harry Baals, and Tokyo Sexwale were all, believe it or not, real people with incredibly unfortunate names. Nevertheless, each earned varying levels of notoriety despite or perhaps, because of their wildly unusual names. However, the man with the most unfortunate name, maybe ever, the one you really should know based on his incredible feats was Major Dick Bong.

Dick Bong Found His Calling Early

Born Richard Ira Bong, the eldest of nine children 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, tells the story of discovering Dick Bong’s talent. “He 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, even though he (Bong) was flying an AT-6, a very slow airplane.”

“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. According to reports, he enjoyed flying his Lock­heed P-38 Lightning under the Golden Gate Bridge and drifting close enough to the office buildings to wave at the secretaries.

Eventually, his antics got him in hot water with Major General George C. Kenney after one of his flybys expelled the clothes drying on the line of a housewife. She reported Dick Bong and Kenney called him onto the carpet for a chewing out. 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

Despite his eyebrow-raising name, Dick Bong’s squadmates found him introverted and subdued on the ground. That all changed once he got 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 the southwest Pacific.

Bong was so special his flying inspired a comic

He took down a Zero, an agile Japanese fighter plane, that assailed his wingman. Then, as three more Zeros came on him, he dove. As described by Major Dick Bong, he pulled out the dive “2 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 Fly, Ever

Over the course of World War II, Dick Bong earned his stripes and then some. By March of 1943, he rose to the rank of first lieutenant thanks to downing a Japanese reconnaissance plane after 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 was considered 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 Dick Bong accomplished that feat an astounding 40 times during his tours 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 follow in his footsteps. “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 he judged the odds were stacked against him, he’d quit the fight and live to fly another day. Supposedly, the humble Wisconsin claimed to be a poor shot. However, his squadmates said Bong 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.”

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