Friends, family and veterans gathered at Poplar Cemetery on Thursday, Aug. 6 to remember America’s Ace of Aces 75 years after he was killed while serving as a test pilot for the P-80 Shooting Star near Burbank, California.
The news of Maj. Richard I. Bong’s death on Aug. 6, 1945 shared the front pages of newspapers from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times with news the U.S. had dropped its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
But that’s not how Jerry Fetchelkotter, Bong’s younger sister, heard the news of her brother’s untimely death at age 24.
“I remember it so vividly, hearing it on the radio and dashing home to tell the rest of the family about it,” Fetchelkotter said. “It’s amazing 75 years have passed by. It’s hard to believe it.”
Bong grew up on the family farm in Poplar and became enamored with flying as a boy watching planes fly over the farm carrying mail for President Calvin Coolidge to his summer White House in Superior. As a college student at Superior Teachers College, he learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program before becoming a flying cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 20.
As World War II raged on, Bong would earn more than 20 decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Air Medal with 17 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Medal of Honor, presented by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, while flying more than 500 combat missions piloting the P-38 Lightning. Five days after the general presented the nation’s highest honor, Bong gained his 40th air victory over Mindoro in the Philippines.
According to the New York Times, 12 of Bong’s victories were achieved when the major was sent to the Pacific to serve as an instructor in a noncombat role. According to the Jan. 4, 1945 report, Bong cleared it up with a shrug and an answer: “Oh, demonstration is a pretty good way of teaching. Anyhow I had to get my flying pay.”
Bong earned the title of America’s Ace of Aces in April 1944 when he shot down his 27th Japanese plane, surpassing the score of World War I Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. He was ordered home after his 40th victory, and married his sweetheart, Marjorie Vattendahl, with Fetchelkotter serving as the maid of honor, before training to test the first Lockheed jet-propulsion fighter plane.
Bong had been in California for several weeks, attached to the Lockheed aircraft plant, where Bong took off in his final, tragic flight that ended about four minutes after takeoff in a fiery crash.
Bong was remembered Thursday by the American Legion and the veterans historical center in Superior that bears his name.
It’s important to remember the history, how the war started and how it affected people, whether they served or were the family back home, said William Britton of the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post 435.
“We can’t forget what he sacrificed,” said Dustin Heckman, director of the Bong Center.
Looking at the headlines about Bong’s death at that time, shared with the bombing of Hiroshima, he said people can see the significance of Bong’s service to the nation.
“Bong was a hero in a time of heroes,” Heckman said.
“It’s a tribute to him,” Fetchelkotter said. “It’s wonderful that people do it now. It meant so much to the country at the time. It was just wonderful the response he had.”