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A monument to America's ace of aces.

A SHINY GLASS-AND-SILVER exterior makes the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center look like an airplane hangar. That makes sense, since an aircraft hangar is part of what it is--a place that houses aircraft. But it also houses more than 7,000 war artifacts, including many from World War II. And in case that isn't enough, it serves as the local tourist information center for Superior, Wisconsin.

The Bong center was founded on the banks of Lake Superior as a tribute to Major Richard I. Bong, America's WWII "Ace of Aces," and inside the building, visitors find among the various offerings a comprehensive overview of the wars in Europe and the Pacific that highlights the contributions and stories of local men and women. Many artifacts collected by Wisconsin veterans are on display. Some are quite remarkable, such as the vial of sand from Iwo Jima, the giant swastika chopped out of the tail of a German Dornier bomber, and the engine of a Japanese "Betty" bomber that one man recovered from Wake Island after the war.

Sometimes it's the most mundane items that send the most powerful messages. This is true of the museum's insignia collection. After GIs returned home from the war, the veterans who patronized the local Harbor Tavern spontaneously began tacking up their shoulder insignia on the wall. Later the tavern owner glued the patches to the back of an old Coke poster for display. By the time the place closed in 1990, there were 95 patches representing the army, navy, marines, and merchant marine. Now displayed at the Bong museum, the poster is a poignant reminder of just how deeply World War II penetrated into everyday American life.

Despite all the emphasis on local veterans, visitors are never left doubting that Richard Bong is the star of the show here. On June 10, 1944, a ferocious-looking Lockheed P-38 Lightning swooped down into the streets of Milwaukee, streaking just feet above the rooftops and sidewalks. The city was not under attack. Rather, Bong was in town to sell war bonds. Few pilots could get away with such antics, but this Wisconsin native was no ordinary flyboy. With 40 confirmed kills, he had shot down more enemy aircraft than any other pilot in US history.

Although Bong earned his place in the pantheon of America's WWII heroes, he's nearly forgotten today outside Superior. But here, not far from his native Northwoods community, his memory is alive and well. Born the son of Swedish immigrants in 1920, he grew up on a farm near the village of Poplar, a mere wide spot in the road 15 miles east of Superior. As a boy he spotted a plane delivering mail to President Calvin Coolidge, who was vacationing nearby, and became obsessed with aviation from that moment on. He took flying lessons while attending Superior State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-Superior) and was an army aviation cadet at Luke Field, Arizona, when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred.

The army sent Bong to the Pacific, where he claimed his first two aerial victories at Buna, New Guinea, on December 27, 1942. During the next two years, he was a one man reign of terror against Japanese planes. On several days he downed more than one plane, and on July 26, 1943, he registered four kills. In December 1944 he received the Medal of Honor, which is on exhibit as one of the museum's most precious objects, its ribbon faded from years of sun exposure. After that he was returned to America to promote the sale of war bonds and serve as a test pilot. He died in a crash near Los Angeles on August 6, 1945, while testing the Lightning P-80 Shooting Star, one of America's first jet fighters.

Shortly afterward, locals made plans for a museum to commemorate Bong. The foundation they established built a small memorial room in Poplar's high school and obtained a P-38 that it proudly displayed in the village. It struggled to raise enough money for a full-fledged museum, and years of harsh Wisconsin winters left the plane in terrible condition. But foundation members never gave up, and a half century of work resulted in the museum opening in 2002 with the P-38 as its centerpiece.

The P-38 on exhibit here was built in 1945 and never left the United States, but it has been restored to look like the one Bong flew. Both planes share the name Marge, which Bong chose in honor of his wife, whom he met during the war. Her name and portrait appear on the fuselage of the restored P-38, as they did on the original.

Surrounding the plane in the museum are exhibits that bring Bong's world into focus. Video clips that play inside a Quonset hut tell the story of Bong and the air war against Japan. Nearby is a Marston Mat, one of the perforated steel plates that were laid down and linked together to construct airfields and roads in remote areas. Bong flew many sorties from such runways. Jutting out from the mezzanine above the plane is a mock-up of a bamboo air control tower. Inside, exhibit panels provide technical information about the P-38.

It's ironic that Bong survived all his time flying in skies filled with enemy planes and anti-aircraft flak only to go down after he'd been sent back stateside to safer surrounds. News of his untimely death in August 1945 was overshadowed in most parts of the country by news of the dropping of the atomic bombs and the Japanese surrender. But the tragedy was a great shock to northern Wisconsin, and it dampened victory celebrations here. Thousands attended his funeral in Superior and lined the highway as his body was taken for burial in a family plot in Poplar Cemetery. Thanks to a number of the mourners in attendance that day, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is here today to keep alive the memory of America's greatest WWII ace.

IN A NUTSHELL

WHAT Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center

WHERE Superior, Wisconsin

WHY 7,000-plus war artifacts, including equipment, photos, diaries, newspapers, and maps from World War II * an M7 Snow Tractor that was used to rescue downed aircrew in winter conditions and an M53 Air Drop Scooter designed to be airdropped as ground transportation for paratroopers * one of the world's few surviving Lockheed P-38 Lightnings

For more information call 715-392-7151 or visit www.bvhcenter.org

Mark D. Van Ells teaches at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York and is the author of America and World War I: A Traveler's Guide. His website is markdvanells.com.
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Title Annotation:LANDINGS; Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center
Author:Van Ells, Mark D.
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Feb 1, 2015
Words:1111
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