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Posted: May 16, 2013 7:24 p.m.

Part II: ‘Heavyweight pilots’ valiant to the end

Analogous to Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Richard Ira “Dick” Bong and Thomas Buchanan McGuire were the heavyweight fighter jocks of World War II. But Bong and McGuire did not fight each other; they fought the Japanese. This is Part II of their story.

In February 1943, McGuire reported to Orange County Airport, Calif., to train in an aircraft Bong was already lethally familiar with, the P-38 Lightning. He mastered the big twin boom fighter and joined the 49th Fighter Group in March, the same month Bong returned to the unit.

By the time they met for the first time at Schwimmer Field in New Guinea, Bong had recorded at least six kills.

Both flew P-38 Lightnings. Bong named his Lightning “Marge” to honor his stylish and beautiful wife. McGuire, married to a sleek eye-catcher named Marilyn, used his wife’s odd nickname on his Lightning, “Pudgy.”

Bong started racking up kills in rapid succession. By the end of July 1943, he had a confirmed score of 16, including four in one day.

McGuire damaged five enemy aircraft on March 18, 1943. One was a “probable,” and he lost a coin toss with another pilot for another, but McGuire received credit for three kills on his first engagement with the enemy. Three days later he claimed two more, making him an official “Ace” after only two missions.

Heavyweight “Dick” Bong was more like Muhammad Ali, “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.’’ He would duck for cover if out-gunned or conditions were not favorable for engagement. He calculated a battle before engaging, sought advantageous odds, and if promising, moved in quickly.

Heavyweight McGuire was more like Joe Frazier — solid, highly skilled through study and applying the rules, and with a willingness to slug it out when given the chance. His leadership abilities caught the attention of General Kenney, commander of the 5th Air Force.

Kenney created a fighter group made up entirely of P-38 Lightnings, the 475th, and assigned McGuire to the 431st Squadron because of his experience and natural leadership ability.

Bong, like Ali, started tearing down barriers and racking up victories. Bong broke Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record of 26 on April 12, 1944.

McGuire, like Frazier, stuck to what he did best, fighting. His piloting skills behind the controls of the heavy twin-engine P-38 were legendary. But the pressure of leadership, plus intermittent illness, may have kept him from being America’s top Ace.

He narrowly escaped death on Oct. 17, 1943, over Oro Bay, New Guinea. Diving on seven Japanese Zeroes ganging up on a lone P-38, McGuire shot down three before the other four ganged up on him. His controls shot out and his P-38 severely damaged, McGuire “hit the silk.”

Problem was, his parachute harness became entangled. Plummeting from 12,000 feet, McGuire eventually freed himself and jumped from about 1,000 feet. He’d been wounded in the wrist, broke a few ribs, and suffered additional injuries that kept him in a hospital for six weeks.

Bong’s incredible success as a fighter pilot made him a national hero. Sent home for War Bond and publicity tours, he begged to be sent back to his unit.

Returning in May 1944, Bong became an “instructor” in name only. Steadily building his confirmed kills, he flew from Tacloban, Leyte, during the Philippines campaign and claimed his 40th victory by December.

His outstanding record earned him the Medal of Honor, personally awarded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Bong’s war was over. Kenney wanted American’s hero home safe. He sent the ace of aces back to the states in January 1945.

McGuire, however, was well on his way to breaking Bong’s record and taking honors for America’s “Top Gun.” In two days, Dec. 25 and 26, 1944, he shot down seven Japanese fighters and tied Bong’s record of 38 confirmed kills. The same month Bong returned home, McGuire took to the skies on Jan. 7, 1945, leading four P-38s on a mission over the Negros Island in the central Philippines.

Near a Japanese airfield called Manapla, the P-38s spotted a lone Japanese Ki-43 “Oscar” fighter. To their surprise, the solo fighter engaged the P-38s immediately. The enemy pilot was Warrant Officer Akiar Sugimoto, an experienced aviator and instructor. In the fog of aerial combat, Sugimoto ended up on the tail of McGuire’s wingman, Capt. Edwin Weaver.

McGuire eased up to draw Sugimoto off Weaver and as McGuire increased speed and pulled a dangerous turn rate a mere 300 feet off the ground, “Pudgy” stalled, flip-flopped, and nosed into the earth, killing McGuire on impact.
Filipinos who witnessed the crash ran to the site and removed McGuire’s body from the P-38.

In 1947, his remains were returned to the United States to be reinterred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Like “Dick” Bong, McGuire was awarded the Medal of Honor — albeit, posthumously. Destined to remain America’s top scoring Ace of all time, Bong resumed PR tours, selling war bonds, and became a test pilot for Lockheed’s new jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star.

Shortly after takeoff on a routine flight, Bong’s P-80 malfunctioned and he was forced to bail. Too close to the ground, his chute never opened. America lost her ace-of-aces on Aug. 6, 1945, the same day a B-29 named Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Bong was buried in a cemetery in his hometown of Poplar, Wisc.
Records indicate that Bong and McGuire most likely — if not an absolute certainty — had more kills than officially confirmed. No matter. The crème d la crème was gone — America had lost two of her best.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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