By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Jun 04, 2004 at 5:15 AM

{image1}With so much attention being paid to D-Day and World War II these days, Richard Bong and the center that bears his name has to be featured in this Beyond Milwaukee.

The Richard I. Bong WWII Heritage Center in Superior keeps the memory of the great fighter pilot and all World War II vets alive.

Bong, who was from Poplar, right outside of Superior, was named the Ace of Aces for his heroics in World War II. He downed 40 enemy planes in the Pacific theater and helped establish the P-38 squadron of the Fifth Air Force as one of the dominant forces in the war.

The Center will honor the second annual Bong WWII Heritage Festival this coming weekend. On Saturday, three World War II veteran pilots will speak of their experiences. On Sunday, the 60th anniversary of D-Day will be celebrated.

According to the Center's mission statement, the facility exists to "honor the memory of Major Bong and all the brave men and women of World War II who contributed to winning the peace."

Bong was born in 1920, as one of nine children on the family farm. He became enamored with flying by watching planes carrying mail to President Calvin Coolidge, who established the summer White House in Superior.

As a college student, Bong learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. At 20, he became a flying cadet in the Air Corps.

Gen. George C. Kenney picked Bong and a handful of other skilled pilots to establish a P-38 squadron, based in Australia and New Guinea during the war.

Bong became a fearless fighter, mastering the techniques of swooping down on his targets and hitting them at close range. His 40 downed enemy aircraft have never been matched.

For his heroics, Bong was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and received it from none other than Douglas MacArthur.

{image2}After more than two years of intense fighting, Bong was sent back to the United States by Kenney, who said his orders were, "to marry Marjorie (Bong's lifetime sweetheart) and start thinking about raising a lot of towheaded Swedes."

But, Bong couldn't stay out of the air and became involved in the testing of the first Lockheed jet fighter plane.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the same day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Bong was killed when his jet stalled and crashed. His death shared the front page headlines with the attack on Japan in newspapers around the country. He was only 24.

Kenney mourned with an emotional tribute, "You see, we not only loved him, we boasted about him, we were proud of him ... Major Bong, Ace of Aces in all our wars, is destined to hold the title for all time ... His country and the Air Force must never forget their number one fighter pilot, who will inspire other fighter pilots and countless thousands of youngsters who will want to follow in his footsteps every time that any nation or coalition of nations dares to challenge our right to think, speak and live as free people."

A memorial was constructed in 1955 at Bong's resting place in Poplar. Closer to Milwaukee, the Bong Recreation Center in Kenosha County bears his name.

The Bong Center in Superior opened in September 2002 and had a special dedication on D-Day of 2003. It includes historic displays, archives and is dedicated to preserving the P-38 Lightning, called "Marge," used by Bong.

The center is located at 305 Harbor View Parkway. Admission is $8 adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for children older than five.

You can learn more about the center at 888-816-WWII. The Web site is

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.