'Ace' takes to airwaves
The story of America's Ace of Aces, Maj. Richard I. Bong, as told by those who knew him was more than decade in the making.
It took inspiration from an astronaut to bring it to completion.
"Finally, I got help from northern Wisconsin's astronaut Col. Jeffrey Williams over dinner at Eddie's Ribs," said Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio's Superior bureau reporter. "I told him about the project but said I wasn't able to complete it yet. He said, 'What's keeping you?' Sometimes you need a nudge like that to realize we're the only ones keeping ourselves from finishing a job."
Simonson, with the help of other Wisconsin Public Radio reporters, has been gathering recordings and interviews since the groundbreaking of the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in 2001.
"Forever Ace: The Richard Bong Story," narrated by Wisconsin Public Radio's Jim Packard, airs at 7 p.m. Monday on KUWS-FM 91.3 in Superior and WUWS-FM 90.9 in Ashland.
"Forever Ace" runs one hour and 45 minutes and features remembrances of friends, family and even Bong's wingman, tent mate and crew chief during his service in the South Pacific. In addition, historians from the United States Air Force Academy and the Australian War Museum also talk about the significance of the time Bong served in World War II and the legacy he leaves even today.
"They've had some incredible living history people visit between then and now, including people who served with Major Bong and people who were eyewitnesses and participants in signpost moments of World War II," Simonson said of the Bong Center, which will celebrate 10 years since its opening in September. "The documentary features vignettes of these people sprinkled through it, including a member of the First Shot Club, a crew member of the cruiser that fired the first shot against the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, sinking a Japanese mini-sub. Also (interviewed were) a fighter pilot who was on the mission to kill Japanese Pacific Commander Yamamoto in 1943, and a P-38 fighter pilot who talked about the deadly fire power in that plane that Bong flew."
The documentary, in true Radio Superior-fashion, includes popular Big Band music from World War II and vintage audio clips of Richard Bong when he was on stateside leave.
Bong, a Poplar farm boy, gained celebrity-status and a Medal of Honor as the nation's most prolific fighter pilot. He shot down more enemy aircraft than did any other U.S. fighter pilot in history. His 40 kills remain unequaled by an American pilot.
"Descriptions by people who fought with him helped me understand Major Bong's tenacity, determination, guts, but not carelessness, when engaging Japanese planes -- gave me the best explanation about how he became America's leading ace fighter pilot," Simonson said. "It was no fluke, no accident. This guy was a great fighter pilot. He must have scared the hell out of enemy fighters. Once he was on the tail of a Zero, it was over."
Many of the veterans featured in this documentary were interviewed after visiting the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior; all of them thought it was important to share memories of serving with Bong from 1942 until 1945, Simonson said.
"The best research was interviewing these people who were there," Simonson said. "They made this documentary special. After 60 years, they still conveyed the urgency of that time, the sacrifice they made but they also made Richard Bong a real person. I've always felt he was portrayed as a rather black and white Teflon hero, but in fact, he got into his share of mischief, and obviously had a great sense of humor.
He also commanded a quiet but firm respect and admiration among the people he served with in the Pacific. All of them showed their devotion by making sure they visited the Bong Heritage Center, kind of a trek to Mecca for them."
Simonson said he consulted with retired Bong Center director, Christabel Grant, as well as brother Carl Bong's book and "The Complete History of World War II," lent to him by a Korea-era veteran, to put together the timeline of Bong's life, a life that ended Aug. 6, 1945, when the P-80 Shooting Star he was testing stalled and crashed.
Bong's widow, Marjorie (Vattendahl) Bong Drucker, describes that day and how she learned of her famous husband's death. A Superior native, she died in 2003 after a six-year battle with cancer.
Simonson said he was surprised to learn people still pay homage to America's Ace of Aces decades later.
"His sisters told me the story that many people still pay homage to him by leaving little model P-38 planes at his graveside in Poplar," Simonson said.