Friday, March 13, 2015

Bong Highway? -- March 13, 1950

Major Richard Bong, Medal of Honor winner, the "Ace of Aces"
Ah, what might have been . . .

On this date in 1950 – March 13 – The Chicago Tribune reported that the Cook county council of the American Legion adopted a resolution proposing that the proposed northwest super-highway – now the Kennedy Expressway, heading toward the northwestern suburbs and O’Hare Field – be named in honor of Major Richard L. Bong, a Medal of Honor winner, the “Ace of Aces,” responsible for downing 40 enemy aircraft during World War II, a record that stands to this date.

The American Legion’s resolution read –

Whereas, many cities and towns have erected or otherwise established suitable memorials honoring heroes of the army, navy, marine corps, and air force.

And whereas, the city of Chicago has in like manner honored certain heroes of the armed services but has failed to honor any hero of the air forces,

And whereas, a superhighway from Chicago’s loop to the northwest sections of the city is presently under construction, partly completed, or contemplated, and is known as the northwest superhighway,

Now therefore, be it resolved that the northwest superhighway be dedicated and named in honor Maj. Richard I. Bong, hero of the army air forces, in recognition and remembrance of his outstanding services during World War II.  [Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1950]

Major Bong grew up on a farm outside the small Wisconsin town of Poplar.  At the age of 22 he earned his Army Air Corps commission and the chance to fly the new Lockheed fighter, the P-38 Lightning.  In San Francisco as he flew under bridges in San Francisco, buzzed Market Street, and blew wash off clothes lines, he attracted the attention of General George Kenney.  When one housewife complained, General Kenney called the young pilot in and told him:

Monday morning you check this address out in Oakland and if the woman has any washing to be hung out on the line, you do it for her.  Then you hang around being useful – mowing the lawn or something – and when the clothes are dry, take them off the line and bring them into the house.  And don’t drop any of them on the ground or you have to wash them all over again.  I want this woman to think we are good for something else besides annoying people.  Now get out of her before I get mad and change my mind.  That’s all.”  []

Major Bong
The discipline evidently worked.  He was dispatched to the Pacific in September of 1942 and between the end of December of 1942 and the end of July Second Lieutenant Bong shot down 15 Japanese fighters.  In the following nine months he shot down an additional 13 planes, surpassing the World War I record of Eddie Rickenbacker, and was promoted to major. 

In December, 1944 Major Bong was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The citation read:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from 10 October to 15 November 1944.  Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Maj. Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines.  His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down 8 enemy airplanes during this period. 

He was relieved of wartime duty and sent home on a public relations tour in early 1945, and married his wife, Marge, on February 10 of that year.  After their honeymoon Major Bong went to work as a test pilot at Wright Field in Ohio.  Just six months after his marriage on August 6, 1945, the same day that the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Bong died when his P-38 malfunctioned during take-off.

Major Bong and Marge (
If you are headed for Milwaukee one fine summer’s day, on your way to a day at Summer-Fest, the world’s greatest warm-weather party, you will pass the Bong State Recreation Area on the west side of I-94, a small tip of the hat to a larger-than-life aviator and hero.

Illinois could have been first.  We could have honored the Medal of Honor winner, who grew up in a small farm in Wisconsin, the first of nine children, and played clarinet in the high school band. 

We could have said WITH PRIDE, “I’m on the Bong, stuck in traffic on my way to O’Hare.”  

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