Aces Dick Bong and Tommie McGuire flew fighters in the Pacific war, racking up a combined total of 78 confirmed victories, a still unsurpassed record. These two very different young men were both awarded the Medal of Honor. McGuire was killed in action in January 1945; Bong died in August 1945 while testing jet aircraft for Lockheed. Enthusiastic World War II readers will be drawn to this.
Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War IIby Bill Yenne
Capturing the hearts of a beleaguered nation, the fighter pilots of World War II engaged in a kind of battle that became the stuff of legend-and those who survived showdowns earned the right to be called aces. But two men in particular rose to become something more./b>
They were two of the greatest heroes of World War II. But only one could be top gun...
Capturing the hearts of a beleaguered nation, the fighter pilots of World War II engaged in a kind of battle that became the stuff of legend-and those who survived showdowns earned the right to be called aces. But two men in particular rose to become something more.
Richard "Dick" Bong was a bashful, pink-faced farm boy from the Midwest. Thomas "Tommy" McGuire was a wise-cracking, fast-talking kid from New Jersey. What they shared was an unparalleled gallantry under fire which earned them each the Medal of Honor.
What they had between them was a closely watched rivalry to see who would emerge as the top-scoring American ace of the war. What they left behind is a legacy and a record of aerial victories that has yet to be surpassed anywhere in the world.
Aces Dick Bong and Tommie McGuire flew fighters in the Pacific war, racking up a combined total of 78 confirmed victories, a still unsurpassed record. These two very different young men were both awarded the Medal of Honor. McGuire was killed in action in January 1945; Bong died in August 1945 while testing jet aircraft for Lockheed. Enthusiastic World War II readers will be drawn to this.
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Table of Contents
PART I - BOYS
CHAPTER 1 - The Roaring Twenties and the Lone Eagle
CHAPTER 2 - Changes and Challenges
CHAPTER 3 - A World Goes to War
CHAPTER 4 - Americans Prepare
CHAPTER 5 - Young Men and War
CHAPTER 6 - The Daring Young Lieutenants and Their Flying Machines
CHAPTER 7 - Their Warhorse, Their Fork-Tailed Devil
CHAPTER 8 - Ups and Downs
PART II - WARRIORS
CHAPTER 9 - Into the Band of Brothers
CHAPTER 10 - Into the Cauldron
CHAPTER 11 - January 1943: The End of the Beginning
CHAPTER 12 - February 1943: The Calm Before the Storm
CHAPTER 13 - March 1943: A Rising Star
CHAPTER 14 - April 1943: Deaths in the Families
CHAPTER 15 - May 1943: Passing in the Night
CHAPTER 16 - June 1943: Into the Interior
CHAPTER 17 - July 1943: Four in One Day
CHAPTER 18 - August 1943: Black Days
CHAPTER 19 - September 1943: Air Supremacy
CHAPTER 20 - October 1943: Down in Flames
CHAPTER 21 - November 1943: The Pied Piper of Poplar
CHAPTER 22 - December 1943: Vals for Christmas
CHAPTER 23 - January 1944: The Next Great Ace?
CHAPTER 24 - February 1944: The Flying Circus
CHAPTER 25 - March 1944: And Then There Were Two
CHAPTER 26 - April 1944: Cases for the Ace of Aces
CHAPTER 27 - May 1944: Modesty Equal to Merit
CHAPTER 28 - June 1944: “And the Angels Sing”
CHAPTER 29 - June 1944: A Stranger Comes to Hollandia
CHAPTER 30 - July 1944: The Lone Eagle on His Wing
CHAPTER 31 - August 1944: Just Doing His Job
CHAPTER 32 - September 1944: Very Little and Very Safe
CHAPTER 33 - October 1944: Shooting Gallery Skies
CHAPTER 34 - November 1944: The Race for Glory
CHAPTER 35 - December 1944: Medals of Honor
CHAPTER 36 - January 1945: Never to Be Forgotten
CHAPTER 37 - February 1945: The Roses Were Victory Red
CHAPTER 38 - Spring 1945: The Lure of Jet Planes
CHAPTER 39 - Summer 1945: Home Sweet Home
CHAPTER 40 - August 1945: By His Example to Inspire
PART III - REMEMBRANCE
CHAPTER 41 - Aces High
CHAPTER 42 - Those Who Remember Them
WIDELY USED ACRONYMS
APPENDIX 1 - Cumulative Scores
APPENDIX 2 - Official Texts of Medal of Honor Citations
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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May you grow up dreaming of heroes,
and once grown, may you be regarded as one yourself.
NOTES ON SQUADRON NOMENCLATURE AND ORGANIZATION
During World War II, the organizational structure of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) began at the top with numbered air forces, of which there were sixteen by the end of the war. Both Richard Bong and Thomas McGuire were assigned to the Fifth Air Force for their combat tours. In turn, each of the numbered air forces contained commands, usually a bomber command and a fighter command, among others. These were designated with Roman numerals.
Bong and McGuire were fighter pilots and therefore were in the V Fighter Command of the Fifth Air Force. Generally, the next level down was the group, which usually contained three squadrons.
For most of his combat career, McGuire was assigned to the 431st Fighter Squadron within the 475th Fighter Group, known as “Satan’s Angels.” From April to December 1944, McGuire was the commander of the 431st.
During his early combat career, Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron within the 49th Fighter Group, known as the “Forty-niners.” After February 1944, he was assigned directly to the V Fighter Command and allowed to “freelance,” attaching himself to various units at his own discretion. These included squadrons within both the 49th and 475th fighter groups.
The USAAF itself was formed on June 20, 1941, as an autonomous component of the U.S. Army. It was the successor to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and it absorbed the functions, assets, and personnel of this organization. In 1947, the USAAF was replaced by the U.S. Air Force, an entity entirely independent of the U.S. Army.
The skies over New Guinea were their battlefield. Flying from bases here, Bong scored his first twenty-eight victories between December 1942 and April 1944, and McGuire scored his first twenty-four between August 1943 and October 1944. (U.S. Army)
The race between Bong and McGuire reached its crescendo over the Philippines. Bong scored his last twelve victories here between October and December 1944, and McGuire scored his last fourteen here during the same period. (Author’s collection)
Anyone who writes of America’s two highest-scoring aces must stand on the shoulders of Charles A. Martin, who spent many years compiling original documents related to the life of Tommy McGuire, and Carl Bong, whose privately published collection of his brother’s letters are invaluable in both understanding Dick Bong and in tracing his career. In addition to these essential sources, the author wishes to thank Robert Fuhrman, executive director of the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center; Gary W. Boyd, McGuire Air Force Base historian; and U.S. Air Force historian David Chenowith, who supplied photographs. Finally, a tip of the cap to my friend Dan Roam, who urged me and encouraged me to finish this book.
Knights of the Air
We sigh for our own lost youth as we think of him, with all the world before him—the medieval world, with all its possibilities of wild adventure and romantic fortune—with knights to overthrow at spear point and distressed damsels to succor and a princess’s smile to win at some great tournament. And rank and fame to gain by prowess and hardihood, under the eye of kings, in some great stricken field.
—WALTER CLIFFORD MELLER, A Knight’s Life in the Days of Chivalry (1924)
THE image of the lone warrior is one of the most enduring in human literature. He is the European knight-errant. He is the Japanese samurai. He is the lone rider of the American West. The solitary warrior is a powerful global cultural icon.
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously observed that war is hell, but war is also a paradox. On one hand, it is an all-consuming blood-bath; yet on the other, it is an endeavor that embodies gallantry and heroism that both inspires and excites. It turns the stomach and it stirs the heart. It induces nightmares and it inspires magnificent images that lift the soul.
It is that image of the lone warrior that arouses the imagination that paints warfare not as hell but as glorious. He is not lost among the anonymous dead, but preserved on the pages of great literature or carved in marble for the ages.
Since antiquity, volumes of epic poetry have celebrated Roman equites or medieval knights, whose victories were extraordinary and whose deaths were heroic. Written in the fifteenth century, Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur is the classic and often imitated example, but there are vast libraries of others that tell the stories of real people whose heroism was backed by the shedding of real blood.
The warriors whose names are preserved in such epics were often members of an elite warrior class, the knights. In the Middle Ages, admission to knighthood was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a young man, and to be such a warrior carried both immense prestige and immense danger.
“The noblest youths,” wrote Tacitus in first-century Rome, “were not ashamed to be numbered among the faithful companies of celebrated leaders, to whom they devoted their arms and service. A noble emulation prevailed among the leaders to acquire the greatest number of bold companions.”
The various European words for this special warrior give us a rounded picture of the identity of the man. The word “knight” derives from the Old English cniht, meaning a young man who is of service. The German word ritter means rider—there being that lone rider on horseback who recurs so often in heroic folklore. Indeed, the French word for knight is chevalier, meaning horseman, which is also the root word of chivalry, the code by which the knight lived his life of duty and honor, of courage and service. As in the famous tournaments, which were a sporting event allegory for real warfare, the knights met one another singularly, man on man, in a fight in which the better man always emerged victorious.
To achieve an honor such as knighthood was to achieve membership in a singular warrior class, but just as it carried great prestige, it also carried great responsibility. The institution of chivalry, to which the warrior subscribed, was a system of duty and honor by which the medieval European knight sought to distinguish himself from other warriors.
The times of these singular heroes, both idolized and idealized, eventually faded. The armed and armored rider on his powerful warhorse—facing down another like himself—soon faded from the battlefield, washed over and submerged by the tidal wave of military technology, mass casualties, and a new doctrine of total war in which the code of chivalry no longer played a role.
In August 1914, as Europe went to war, there were still horsemen, still colored banners, and still a sense that among the young men riding forth they would be singular heroes. Soon, however, these young men were ground together in a meat grinder, hamstrung on barbed wire, or chopped apart by machine guns, finding themselves writhing in the stinking mud of Flanders’ fields.
Where, the last romantics asked, was chivalry?
Where were the knights?
To these questions, one raised one’s eyes to gaze into the skies high above the mud. One heard the sputtering, humming sound of a nine-cylinder Oberursel air-cooled rotary engine, or a nine-cylinder Le Rhône, each carrying a lone rider into battle, man against man.
Just as World War I gave the history of war such dehumanizing doctrines and weapons of mass carnage as trench warfare and poison gas, so those years gave the twentieth century a new caste of knighthood: the fighter pilot. The knights of the war they called the Great War once again fought man against man, but now they were doing it in three glorious dimensions.
Aerial warfare was essentially born in World War I. Balloons had been used for observation in the various conflicts of the nineteenth century and before. The French used observation balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and the Union’s Army of the Potomac had a Balloon Corps during the Civil War. Airplanes had been used in Italy’s war with Turkey in 1911, but World War I was the first war in which airplanes became an integral part of battlefield action. Meanwhile, the necessities of combat led to innovations and advances in aeronautical engineering.
When World War I began, aircraft were flimsy machines that were used primarily for observation. Soon, however, observer pilots started to carry handguns to fire at other observer pilots, and steel darts to drop on troops on the ground. The airplane gave birth to the warplane.
Soon the pilot would truly come to embody all that had been embodied in the medieval notion of the knight. Soon the pilot became the idealized and idolized ace.
Fighter pilots became the knights of the air. They were quite literally a breed apart, fighting their battles high above the mud and muck of the battlefield, fighting one another man to man like the knights of the medieval tournament. Just as a special folklore had once existed around the knights of the Middle Ages, and the code of chivalry that defined knighthood contained a special vocabulary, so it was with the knights of the air. Most important in this modern lexicon is the term “ace,” which was coined to describe the knight who had achieved a level of expertise beyond that of his fellow knights of the air.
What is an ace?
Technically the term came to be assigned to a pilot of a fighter aircraft who had shot down, or destroyed in the air, a total of five enemy aircraft. In other words, an ace was a pilot who had achieved five aerial victories. Therefore, an ace also could be described as a fighter pilot who had dueled to the death with five other fighter pilots—and survived.
The term “ace” to describe a victorious knight of the air originated in the French media, where the term l’as had been used to describe singularly triumphant sports stars. The first aviator known to have achieved an aerial victory over another was the French daredevil aeronaut turned military pilot Roland Garros, who achieved his victory on April 1, 1915. The first man to be referred to as l’as for downing five airplanes was probably Adolphe Pegoud, although Garros may have been responsible for downing five airplanes earlier than Pegoud.
In 1915, being an ace was truly a feat of skill. Aiming a gun at a moving airplane from a moving airplane was not—and is not—easy. Shooting straight ahead was the best for aiming, but it was hard to do this because it meant shooting through the propeller arc and probably shooting off the propeller. Garros solved this difficulty by having metal deflection plates attached to his propeller. Within weeks, Anthony Fokker and Heinrich Luebbe in Germany developed a system of synchronization in which the machine gun could be made to fire through the arc of the turning propeller only when the blades were not in the way. The system was installed on a Fokker Eindecker (monoplane) and suddenly the Imperial German Air Force was virtually—but only momentarily—invincible. Soon the synchronized guns were being used on both sides.
Over time, aviation technology on both sides gave the knights of the air some very potent warhorses, and their victories provided the most—and arguably the only—truly heroic headlines of World War I. The aces became the heroes of the Great War, and their names were the true analogs of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad. Frenchmen such as Georges Guynemer and René Fonck, Englishmen such as Mick Mannock, and Canadians such as Billy Bishop were anointed by their media as the greatest names of their era.
While these names are no longer the household words they once were, we can say with little fear of contradiction that the most recognized name of a warrior from World War I is also that of the war’s top-scoring ace. Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, possibly better known as the “Red Baron,” was the archetypical knight of the air. He was a young and handsome nobleman who also was extraordinarily skilled in the deadly art of aerial warfare.
The eldest son of a Silesian nobleman, von Richthofen was raised in a world where war was glorified and fencing was a way of life. The young aristocrat enlisted in the cavalry of the Imperial German Army and served in both Poland and France in 1914. As the ground war was reduced to static trench warfare, there was little use for cavalry, and many of that service’s young officers sought transfer to units where there would be more action. For many, this meant the newly organized air service. Remembered as not having an immediate aptitude for flying, Richthofen served briefly as an observer before applying for pilot training; he shot down his first Nieuport over Verdun in 1915.
Von Richthofen was transferred to the Eastern Front, where he came to the attention of Oswald Boelke, the man credited with molding the German aerial fighter force into an elite and effective weapon. Boelke handpicked von Richthofen for his Jagdstaffel [Fighter Squadron] 2 on the Western Front in September 1916, and within a month Boelke’s young protégé was an ace.
Soon von Richthofen had earned a reputation as a skilled fighter pilot and a dangerous adversary, a reputation that also was known in the West after he shot down Lance Hawker, the first ace in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. In January 1917, with nearly two dozen victories, von Richthofen was awarded the Pour le Mérite—the “Blue Max”—and command of Jagdstaffel 11, a unit that scored eighty-nine victories in the Battle of Arras. By June 1917 he was the highest-scoring German ace with fifty-two victories, a dozen more than Boelke himself.
Given command of Jagdgeschwader [Fighter Wing] 1 in June 1917, Richthofen transformed that composite group comprising four squadrons into the most feared unit in the Imperial German Air Force. So that French and British units would have no doubt about who they were facing, the pilots in Jagdgeschwader 1 painted their airplanes in loud and garish colors, earning them the nickname the “Flying Circus.” Von Richthofen painted his own Fokker Dr.I triplane solid red, and thereafter he was known as the “Red Baron.” These bright colors were often compared in the media to the brilliant livery that adorned the warhorses of medieval knights.
Despite a head wound that put him out of action for a time, von Richthofen had shot down more than sixty Allied aircraft by the end of 1917, and scored his eightieth victory on April 20, 1918. The following day, during an engagement with No. 209 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, a Sopwith Camel flown by Canadian captain Roy Brown got on the Red Baron’s tail at treetop altitude over Allied lines in a sector controlled by Australian troops.
The Dr.I crashed and the Red Baron was found dead, a single bullet in his heart. A controversy persists to this day over whether the bullet was Canadian or Australian. As befitting the code of chivalry that had been adopted by World War I airmen, the Allies gave their fallen foe a hero’s funeral. No other pilot on either side would top his score of eighty victories during World War I.
The Red Baron never lived to pen his memoirs, but his lasting legacy was written for him in the tributes penned by those with whom he flew—and against whom he flew. An editorial in the British aviation review Aeroplane, published in April 1918, as the war still raged, summarized that legacy as well as most when it stated:
Richthofen is Dead.
All [Allied] airmen will be pleased to hear that he has been put out of action, but there will be no one amongst them who will not regret the death of such a courageous nobleman.
Several days ago, a banquet was held in honour of one of our aces. In answering the speech made in his honour, he toasted Richthofen, and there was no one who refused to join. This Englishman honoured a brave enemy.
Both airmen are now dead; our celebrated pilot had expressed the hope that he and Richthofen would survive the war so as to exchange experiences in times of peace.
The United States was late in entering World War I. It had been raging for thirty-two months when the United States declared war on Germany and its allies, and for thirty-seven months by the time that the U.S. Army Air Service 1st Aero Squadron, an observation unit, reached Europe. It was February 1918 before a U.S. Army squadron entered combat, but American pilots had been flying with Allied units, such as France’s all-American Lafayette Escadrille, for a number of years. Indeed, Raoul Lufberry became a top-scoring American ace while flying with the Lafayette Escadrille before the Air Service went into combat.
In World War I, America’s “Ace of Aces” was Edward Vernon “Eddie” Rickenbacker, a race-car driver turned pilot. The man who had raced in the Indy 500 four times took his fearless daring into the skies over Europe to become the highest-scoring American ace of World War I and a national hero.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Rickenbacker came from a background entirely unlike that of the Red Baron. A typical American boy, he grew up with an avid interest in things mechanical and a boy’s interest in fast machines. He went on the racing circuit when he was barely twenty and earned a reputation for speed and coolness. When the United States entered World War I, he tried to organize an “aero” squadron composed of his racing pals, but when he enlisted, General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing requested Rickenbacker as his personal driver.
In August 1917, he was finally transferred to the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation Section and signed up for flight training. Arriving in France, he flew briefly with a French squadron before joining the 94th Aero Squadron—the legendary “Hat in the Ring” squadron—in March 1918. Rickenbacker scored his first aerial victory on April 29, and his fifth on May 30, making him the first American ace to achieve that status flying with an American unit.
Grounded briefly with an ear infection, he returned to combat in August as his squadron upgraded to the SPAD XIII fighter plane. During the last three months of the war, he distinguished himself by bringing his score to twenty-six, and demonstrating the heroism that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and promotion to commander of the 94th Aero Squadron.
As with the knights of old, many of the greatest aces of World War I died young. They died that hero’s death before the war ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Like the Red Baron, Oswald Boelke, Roland Garros, Georges Guynemer, Raoul Lufberry, and Mick Mannock, all died their hero’s death.
On the other hand, Billy Bishop became the top-scoring of British Empire aces, with seventy-two confirmed victories, and he survived the war. René Fonck, the top-scoring of all Allied aces with seventy-five, also lived to see the armistice.
So, too, did Eddie Rickenbacker, who would go on to an extensive career in American aviation, including service as an executive with American Airways (later American Airlines), North American Aviation, and Eastern Airlines. Unlike the Red Baron, he would also live to write his memoirs, paying tribute to Richthofen in the title Fighting The Flying Circus. His book would serve to inspire a generation of aces yet unborn.
On the last page, Rickenbacker, like a true warrior, penned lines entirely reminiscent of those by Walter Clifford Meller with which we began this prologue. The Ace of Aces waxed nostalgically for the thrill of the chase, asking rhetorically:
How can one enjoy life without this highly spiced sauce of danger? What else is there left to living now that the zest and excitement of fighting aeroplanes is gone? Thoughts such as these held me entranced for the moment and were afterwards recalled to illustrate how tightly strung were the nerves of these boys of twenty who had for continuous months been living on the very peaks of mental excitement.
Everything that he ever did ... he did by himself. A lone trip across the
Atlantic was not impossible for a boy who had grown up in the solitude of the woods and waters.... Must we not admit, that this pioneering urge remained to this audacious youth because he had never submitted completely to the repercussions of the world and its jealous institutions?
—JOSEPH K. HART, from “O Pioneer,” a July 1927 article in Survey Magazine. The title was borrowed from Walt Whitman; the subject was the recent transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh that inspired and infused a generation of young Americans with a passion for aviation.
The Roaring Twenties and the Lone Eagle
WHEN 1920 began, both Pauline Watson McGuire in New Jersey and Dora Bryce Bong in Wisconsin knew that their first child would be born during the year. However, little did Polly and Dora realize that within a decade, their little babies would grow into boys who would read and consume Eddie Rickenbacker’s Fighting the Flying Circus. His book would serve to inspire a generation of aces yet unborn.
The year 1920 would be a year of big changes for both Polly and Dora, and indeed for the United States, which was turning over a new leaf. The war was already receding into history, and the United States was looking forward. The most prosperous of the world’s economies was ready to move on. It was President Woodrow Wilson who called World War I the “war to end all wars,” and many Americans believed him. It seemed to him and to many others that the war had been so terrible that nobody would want to go through that again. It had been the bloodiest war in history, with ten million battle deaths and a like number of civilians killed.
To make sure that World War I really was the war to end all wars, Wilson proposed the League of Nations, a world forum in which war could be replaced by debate. Most of the great nations of the world bought into his concept, but not his own. If World War I was the war to end all wars, most Americans reasoned, then why bother with entangling the United States any further in squabbles within the Old World? The United States had saved the day for Britain and France and was ready to let them pick up the postwar pieces on their own.
The U.S. Congress ratified neither the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, nor membership for the United States in Wilson’s League of Nations.
What they did do was turn inward and ratify changes that would deeply and directly change the lives of American citizens. After having amended the Constitution only four times in the entire nineteenth century, Americans had already amended it four times since 1913, and two of those took effect in 1920. One of these, the Eighteenth (passed in 1919 but implemented in 1920), banned the sale of alcohol; the other, the Nineteenth, gave women the right to vote.
The Nineteenth Amendment was a long-awaited step forward. The Eighteenth was a step backward, which sought to legislate morality through Prohibition even as the nation was headed into what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Jazz Age.
The Prohibitionists who envisioned an era of straitlaced morality were dismayed and horrified when the 1920s turned out to be an era of wild music, wild parties, wild motion pictures, speakeasies, and women showing their legs and smoking cigarettes in public.
These were the Roaring Twenties. Things were changing, but not as the Prohibitionists had long imagined. It was the era described so perfectly by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. It was a time of unrestrained materialism and loose morality that was born of unprecedented prosperity. Heavily enforced but almost universally defied, the Eighteenth Amendment would be the only amendment to the Constitution ever to be repealed, although not for fourteen years.
WHEN Americans went to the polls in November 1920 to choose between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox for president of the United States, both Pauline Watson McGuire and Dora Bryce Bong were among the first generation of women legally able to cast ballots. By that time, both women also were caring for a newborn son.
Pauline—everyone called her Polly—had married Thomas Buchanan McGuire in New York City on November 24, 1918, less than two weeks after World War I ended. Dora Bryce had married Carl T. Bong in Duluth, Minnesota, half a year later, on July 29, 1919. Thomas McGuire had not served in the war, but Carl Bong had gone overseas to France with the Army Corps of Engineers. Neither couple lived in the state where they were married. The McGuires would live in Ridgewood, New Jersey; the Bongs would live on a farm near Poplar, Wisconsin.
Thomas B. McGuire was American-born of Irish descent, and Carl T. Bong had been born in Islingby, Sweden. He was brought to America when he was seven. Both men married girls whose families had been in America for several generations. Dora Bryce’s family was predominantly of Scots-English lineage, and Polly Watson’s family had ancestors who included England’s Lord Beresford, as well as the Hoffmans, early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. Thomas McGuire was a Catholic who married a Presbyterian. The Bongs, like most of their Scandinavian neighbors, were Lutheran.
Dora Bryce’s father was a farmer. Polly Watson’s father was an industrialist. His Watson Machine Company in Paterson, New Jersey, built steel railroad bridges and the steel skeletons of many New York City skyscrapers—and the American Museum of Natural History in New York as well.
Dora Bryce married a man who ran both a farm near her father’s farm and a road construction business that his father had started. Polly Watson married a fast-talking, fast-living car salesman who always was at odds with her parents. They believed that Polly had married beneath herself. Thomas B. McGuire believed himself to be a character from The Great Gatsby.
In Ridgewood, on August 1, 1920, Polly Watson McGuire gave birth to her only child, who was named Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr., after his father. Seven weeks later, on September 24, and half a continent away in Superior, Wisconsin, Dora Bryce Bong gave birth to the first of her nine children. He was named Richard, after his father’s younger brother, who had died at age two, and Ira, after Ira Wiley, Dora’s uncle, who operated a farm near Carl Bong’s place.
Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr. and Richard Ira Bong, known as Tommy and Dick, respectively, grew up in economically secure families. The Bongs’ life was not lavish, but neither did the family want for the necessities. Carl Bong had both a construction business and a farm. All the men in the Bong family were hunters, so during deer season there was always plenty of meat on the table—as well as sausage and jerky preserved for later.
The McGuires could have lived reasonably well on what Tom Sr. made selling Pierce-Arrows, but Polly still had access to her father’s seemingly endless credit line at local stores.
Though the McGuires did not want for necessities, nor even luxuries, they did want for domestic harmony. Tom McGuire was displeased by his wife’s economic dependence on her father, and Polly’s mother never shied away from reminding her daughter that she was displeased by Polly’s choice of a husband.
AS they grew up, Tommy and Dick both enjoyed the outdoors, as boys had for generations and still do. However, both craned their necks to look into the sky when they heard a sound that had been unheard by boys of earlier generations.
The 1920s were years when aviation touched the lives of Americans everywhere. Powered flight had been born in the United States back in 1903 with the Wright Brothers, but before World War I, the number of airplanes flying in the United States was small. After the war, it was a different matter. During the war, the United States industrial machine had geared up to build enormous quantities of hardware and machinery. Among all this were airplanes in larger numbers than anyone could have imagined in 1914.
The airplane that was produced in the largest numbers of them all was the Curtiss JN series, known familiarly as the “Jenny.” Glenn Hammond Curtiss, one of American aviation’s first and foremost entrepreneurs, developed and built the most widely produced American design of the World War I era. Through the early 1920s, more examples of the JN series, especially the JN-4, were manufactured than any other American airplane. Nearly 8,500 JN-4s were built, including 2,765 of the JN-4Ds, the most widely produced variant.
The Jenny, like most American-built airplanes during World War I, had been built mainly as a training aircraft. American aces such as Eddie Rickenbacker flew mainly British and French warplanes. Rickenbacker made his mark in a French SPAD XIII. After the war, when the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy no longer needed their enormous fleets of aircraft, they sold them off. Since they had been used mainly to train pilots in the United States, most of the surplus airplanes remained in the States. Suddenly large numbers of reasonably new planes were on the market. Because it was sturdy, reliable—and now cheap—the Jenny became a familiar sight in the skies over the United States.
The glut of new airplanes on the market by 1920 coincided with a growing fascination with flight among the general public. When pilots with Curtiss Jennies showed up in communities all over the United States to perform stunts and aerobatics, people turned out in droves to see them. As these pilots with their surplus Jennies traveled from place to place, they were known as barnstormers, because they usually operated from farm fields. There were few municipal airports yet, and farm fields offered relatively level and unobstructed ground for takeoffs and landings.
Soon airlines were formed to fly passengers from place to place, and the U.S. Post Office began offering a faster form of service called air mail. The 1920s were an era of change on many levels. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have dubbed the decade the Jazz Age, but it was also the Air Age.
As boys have always been fascinated by machines, Tommy and Dick grew up as part of that first generation of boys to be fascinated by airplanes. They saw them in the sky, and they both were growing up with the heroic exploits of Eddie Rickenbacker as part of their familiar folklore.
When the two boys were just six years old, a momentous event occurred that captured media attention as did few others during the 1920s. For that generation of young boys craning their necks to hear the sound of an airplane engine, it was inspiring to the extreme. It was the seminal event of many young lifetimes. On the morning of May 21, 1927, the world awoke to the news that a young American aviator had become the first person to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean alone and nonstop.
Though other fliers had previously crossed the Atlantic, nobody had flown solo from New York to Paris, and Charles Augustus Lindbergh captured the public imagination as no pilot before. Tall and handsome, he represented the best-loved of American archetypes, the daring loner. He was a true knight-errant of the air. He became known as the “Lone Eagle.”
Lindbergh’s international prominence was sudden and far-reaching. Tens of thousands greeted him in Paris when he made his historic landing in the Spirit of St. Louis, and President Calvin Coolidge sent a flotilla of warships to escort him home to America. Once back home, New York City staged a ticker tape parade, and again, tens of thousands turned out to see him. Time magazine instituted its “Man of the Year” feature that year so Lindbergh could be “Man of the Year” for 1927.
As Elinor Smith Sullivan, 1930’s Best Woman Aviator of the Year, described it, as quoted in The Century by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, “It’s hard to describe the impact Lindbergh had on people. Even the first walk on the moon doesn’t come close. The twenties was such an innocent time, and people were still so religious—I think they felt like this man was sent by God to do this. And it changed aviation forever because all of a sudden the Wall Streeters were banging on doors looking for airplanes to invest in. We’d been standing on our heads trying to get them to notice us but after Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren’t enough planes to carry them.”
Wrote the Washington Post of Lindbergh’s appearance in the nation’s capital, “He was given that frenzied acclaim which comes from the depths of the people.”
“There was something lyric as well as heroic about the apparition of this young Lochinvar who suddenly came out of the West and who flew all unarmed and all alone,” said The Nation. “It is the kind of stuff which the ancient Greeks would have worked into a myth and the medieval Scots into a border ballad.... But what we have in the case of Lindbergh is an actual, an heroic and an exhaustively exposed experience which exists by suggestion in the form of poetry.”
John William Ward, a professor of history and American studies at Amherst College, and a key individual in the Myth and Symbol School of American studies scholarship, eloquently summarized the importance of Lindbergh’s accomplishment. “He had fired the imagination of mankind,” Ward wrote in his essay on the 1920s From Prosperity to Collapse. “From the moment of Lindbergh’s flight people recognized that something more was involved than the mere fact of the physical leap from New York to Paris.... Lindbergh gave the American people a glimpse of what they liked to think themselves to be at a time when they feared they had deserted their own vision of themselves.... The newspapers agreed that Lindbergh’s chief worth was his spiritual and moral value.”
It was not just the poets and the scholars who were dazzled by what Lindbergh had done. It was also—and I would say especially—the little boys throughout the United States who had their imaginations stirred by the Lone Eagle. When Lindbergh’s book about his record flight, titled We, was published by Grosset & Dunlap later in 1927, it found its way into many a boy’s Christmas stocking, and its story found its way into many a boy’s imagination.
For Tommy McGuire, the first man to personally open the door to the world of aviation was his Uncle Charles. His mother’s brother had been one of the many members of the U.S. Army Air Service who had learned to pilot a Curtiss Jenny during World War I. He also had a large collection of model airplanes that captivated his nephew. Charles Watson never gave Tommy an airplane ride, as he might have and probably should have. After he left the army, Charles Watson had given up flying because of the successful nagging of his mother, Dora Watson—whose nagging had been unsuccessful in preventing Polly’s marriage to Tom McGuire. Nevertheless, there was nothing to stop Uncle Charles from regaling his eager nephew with stories of flying during World War I.
Soon Tommy McGuire would be making model airplanes of his own. So, too, would that other boy growing up on that farm near Poplar. Young Dick Bong had grown up in the solitude of the woods and waters of Wisconsin, just as Lindbergh had grown up in the solitude of the woods and waters of neighboring Minnesota.
For Dick, his dreams were stoked by the accounts of the Lone Eagle and also by the sight of the planes that carried air mail across the upper Midwest. In the summer of 1928, when Dick was seven, going on eight, President Coolidge was vacationing at Cedar Island, near Superior, Wisconsin. His temporary office, the 1920s version of a “western White House,” was at Superior High School. The mail was flown in to him every day, and the mailplane made its approach to Superior directly over the Bong family farmhouse. Every day young Dick would wait for and watch the president’s mailplane, mesmerized with the thought of being up there himself.
Tommy McGuire, meanwhile, could imagine that he occasionally had the pleasure of looking up into the sky and actually seeing Lindbergh himself. The Lone Eagle and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, lived for a time with her parents in Englewood, New Jersey, which was less than twenty air miles northwest of Ridgewood. In the summer of 1927, Uncle Charles took Tommy over to Paterson to watch a preannounced flyover of the Wright Aeronautical Corporation aircraft engine factory by Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis. Tommy never forgot that day.
By the time the boys were dreaming of joining Lindbergh, the lack of domestic harmony at Tommy McGuire’s house had boiled over. His parents were drifting apart. Tom and Polly had changed. It was the Roaring Twenties, and luxury car salesman Tom McGuire had become the quintessential stereotype of the Jazz Age playboy. He would have easily been at home in the pages of The Great Gatsby. One can imagine that he even may have crossed paths with Fitzgerald himself in a Manhattan speakeasy or a country club affair. If one believes in the doctrine of “six degrees of separation,” it is easy to surmise that they had acquaintances in common.
Polly, on the other hand, led a more insular life. It was not that she eschewed the pleasures of the Jazz Age. She did take a drink now and then—and eventually it was much more often—but it was usually at a country club rather than at a speakeasy.
Meet the Author
Bill Yenne is a book packager and author who has published dozens of military fiction, nonfiction, and coffee table art books.
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