Wisconsin Veterans Museum reopens with new Bong exhibit

Closing during the COVID-19 pandemic gave museum staff an opportunity to refresh exhibits with stories of veterans throughout the state.
Richard Bong (right) receives the Medal of Honor from Gen. Douglas MacArthur in this undated file photo. (Photo courtesy of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center)

The pandemic prompted the closure of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in March 2020.

On Thursday, July 1, the museum at 30 W. Mifflin St., Madison, will open refreshed to share the stories of veterans statewide, including local Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Richard I. Bong.

Bong grew up on the family farm in Poplar and was enamored with flying as a boy. He watched planes fly over the farm carrying mail to President Calvin Coolidge at his summer White House in Superior. As a student at Superior Teachers College, he learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program. At age 20, he became a flying cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

RELATED: Preserving history: Douglas County officials digitize military service records The discharge papers date back to the Spanish-American War.

RELATED: Remembering Maj. Richard I. Bong, Poplar's flying hero Organizations that bear Maj. Richard I. Bong's name pay tribute to the nation's Ace of Aces 75 years after his death during a test flight.


During World War II, Bong earned more than 20 decorations while flying more than 500 combat missions in a P-38 Lightning. He earned the moniker America’s Ace of Aces with 40 combat victories in the air. A dozen of those victories were achieved while the major was serving as an instructor — a noncombat role — in the Pacific.

But it was back in the United States, when Bong was test piloting the P-80 Shooting Star near Burbank, California, that his life was cut short on Aug. 6, 1945. He was 24 years old.

“COVID was a challenge, but it also gave us an opportunity,” said Chris Kolakowski, director of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “I told our team that ‘all the changes you’ve wanted to make to the exhibits over the years, here’s your chance to do it.' It’s not a complete overhaul, but it’s enough of a change where we’re calling it a refresh. We’ve gotten some new stories. We’ve gotten some objects.”

Bong’s story was chosen to be among the new exhibits for a couple of reasons as the museum aims to share the stories of veterans throughout the state, Kolakowski said.

“The Medal of Honor, and the fact that he’s a significant figure in Wisconsin military history … Dick Bong has an incredible story with a tragic ending,” Kolakowski said. “But he was one of the great flyers of World War II and there are a lot of people who kind of know his name because of the bridge, the center, there’s a state park, but may not realize who this guy really is. This gave us a chance to share his story.”

What To Read Next
Get Local