Dick Bong suddenly realized that the fighter on his wing was not that of his usual wingman. He glanced at the machine. The vivid red meatballs of Japan glared back. His “wingman” was a Zero!
The Pacific Theater produced the two top American aces of the World War II, Richard Bong and Thomas B. McGuire. Both were majors, and both flew the P-38, an aircraft generally considered by pilots to be third best of the P-51, P-47 and P-38. Bong’s forty aerial victories make him the greatest American ace of all the wars, and McGuire’s thirty-eight victories rank him second only to Bong.
According to the book Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. by Raymond F. Toliver & Trevor J Constable, Major Dick Bong has become one of the immortal American heroes. His legendary career as a fighter ace has been extensively publicized, and little can be said about him that has not been repeatedly said before. He was an expert at teamwork. A firm believer in having a strong, aggressive protector of his flanks, he usually flew with the most capable and battle-tested wingman available. Bong was a master tactician and an outstanding shot.
Already an ace at the end of his first combat tour, Bong was returned to the US for rest and recuperation. After this, he went to the Air Force Gunnery School. On his return to Pacific combat duty, and many times thereafter, Bong made the following cogent comment:
“If I had only known as much about aerial gunnery on my first tour, as I did when I came out of gunnery school, I might easily have scored eighty victories.”
Since Bong was not a boastful man, why did he frequently reiterate this view? He was rough on himself with his answer:
“The Jap fighters I failed to down escaped because I just did not know enough about the mechanics and art of air-to-air shooting.”
Coming from a pilot who was already considered a top deflection shot in combat, this surely indicates that the art of air-to-air shooting can be improved by diligent study of the mechanics involved — like all arts. Bong’s statement serves to confirm and support the postwar statement of Saburo Sakai, the greatest living Japanese fighter pilot. Sakai has said that many times American fighters had him cold, and yet their shooting was so poor that he repeatedly escaped from what he felt was certain death at the hands of the Americans.
Bong always told the story of one of his missions a little ruefully, since he was no rookie at the time. With twenty victories to his credit, Bong intercepted a Japanese formation escorted by fighters, and prepared to attack. Bong suddenly realized that the fighter on his wing was not that of his usual wingman. He glanced at the machine. The vivid red meatballs of Japan glared back. His “wingman” was a Zero!
Bong slapped his left throttle closed and flipped the P-38 into a split-ess and a vertical dive. Unable to locate the Zero in his mirror, Bong leveled off at 15,000 feet to see if he had actually lost the enemy machine. Once in level (light, the Zero popped back into his mirror, still behind him, just a little too far away for accurate shooting.
Flipping quickly to the right, Bong split-essed again and drove the P-38 wide open to the deck. Leveling off a few feet above the waters of Oro Bay in New Guinea, he had gained a few hundred yards on the Zero. The Japanese machine could not dive with the P-38, but was still hanging on.
Pulling away now to about a mile lead over his pursuer, both engines screaming wide open, Bong whipped the P-38 into a tight left-hand turn. He went zooming into the middle of an unobserved formation of nine Zeros. All of them became instantly intent on the demise of Richard Ira Bong.
Like Captain Arthur Raymond Brooks of World War I fame, who landed in a similar mess with covey of Fokkers, Bong knew there was only one course of action — aggression. Like the ace he was, Bong tore into the Zeros. immediate psychological advantage passed to the American as he flew head-on at the lead Zero, and turned it into a flaming fireball with a short burst.
The eight other Zeros, higher and diving to the attack, seemed unnerved by the dramatic, fiery loss of their leader. Wavering in purpose, their fire went wild. Bong exploited their confusion. Picking out another Zero, Bong turned it into another fireball, then went twisting upwards at full throttle, throwing a snap shot from his vertical climb into a third Zero. This machine did not explode, but slowed sharply, began smoldering, and went staggering out of the battle.
Pulling every ounce out of the P-38’s screaming engines, Bong went streaking away. Outdistancing the now disorganized and demoralized remnants of the Zero formation, Bong returned successfully to base. The great ace frequently told this story on himself to fledgling pilots under his command, and to others he later trained.
The melee that almost cost Bong his life, illustrated in classic fashion why a fighter pilot must know everything going on around him in combat. Many pilots have flown similarly into enemy formations, never to emerge. In Bong’s own words, “There is nothing more frightening in this world than to look off your wingtip and see a long line of enemy propeller spinners lining up for a pass at you.”
Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force; Top image:P-38J Lightning ‘Marge’ (Richard I. Bong, Top WWII Allied Ace), by Koike Shigeo