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. However, their competition for "Top Gun" honors in World War II became front-page news, just like Frazier and Ali’s "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975.
Bong and McGuire did not wage war in the likeness of Madison Square Garden; their ring was the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. They did, however, share a favorite knockout punch: the legendary twin boom fighter, the P-38 Lightning. Designed by another legend, Lockheed’s aeronautical innovator Kelly Johnson, the Lightning could deliver a sucker punch or hit below the belt with its four nose-mounted .50 caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon. Adversaries dubbed the P-38 Lightning "The Fork-Tailed Devil."
She was fast as a devil, too, and quick as lightning, reaching air speeds more than 400 mph. Temperamental but tough, the P-38s proved their grit over Dobodura, New Guinea, on Dec. 27, 1942. Lightnings of the 39th Fighter Squadron mixed it up with more than 60 Japanese fighters. Eleven enemy fighters went down. Only one P-38 was damaged badly enough to be scrapped after crash-landing. A few months later on March 1, 1943, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, P-38s bushwhacked eight troop ships with their escort of eight destroyers and 30 Zeros for air cover. All eight troop ships and four destroyers were sent to the bottom, along with 15 to 20 Zeros "splashed" by the P-38s. Only two Lightnings were lost.
With an aggressive "devil-may-care" flyboy behind the controls, the Lightning could outfight and outfly anything the Japanese could put in the air. Two flyboys with personalities and qualities as different as Frazier and Ali clambered into the cockpits of their P-38s (one Lightning named "Marge," the other named "Pudgy"), and flew into aviation history as America’s top scoring and second highest scoring Aces of Word War II.
Richard Ira "Dick" Bong was born on Sept. 24, 1920, to farming parents near Poplar, Wis. Like most boys of the Greatest Generation, Bong was fascinated with airplanes and became an enthusiastic model builder. In 1938, he attended Superior State Teachers College and enrolled in its Civilian Pilot training agenda. He even took private flying lessons before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1941.
Bong’s flight training began at California’s Rakin Aeronautical Academy, followed by Basic at Gardner Field, Calif. At Luke Field near Phoenix, he learned fighter tactics on the celebrated A-6 trainer with future senator and presidential candidate Capt. Barry Goldwater as one of his instructors. Another pilot instructor claimed Bong was "the finest natural pilot he’d ever met."
He earned his pilot’s wings in January 1942, instructed gunnery for a few months, then reported to Hamilton Field near San Francisco to master the newest and hottest airplane in the Army, the big twin-engine P-38 Lightning. His skill caught the attention of Gen. George Kenney, future commander of the 5th Air Force.
Fighter pilots seem to have a reputation as happy-go-lucky, hot-shot daredevils. Bong was no exception. On June 12, 1942, he ‘‘buzzed" the residence of a recently married pilot, flew down Market Street at an extremely low altitude, blew freshly laundered clothes off a woman’s clothesline, and along with three other adventurous pilots "looped" the Golden Gate Bridge.
Gen. Kenney ordered Bong to the woman’s house, where he assisted with her laundry and performed menial chores for the day. The general told his rebellious pilot, "If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it again and I mean what I say."
Bong was grounded while the rest of his group was sent to England. He was later transferred to Hamilton Field, soon to be dispatched to the PTO (Pacific Theater of Operations). Assigned to the "Flying Knights" of the 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group at Darwin, Australia, Bong would begin a reign of terror against the best pilots the Japanese could field. He did so by volunteering to fly with the 39th Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter Group, since the 49th had not yet received the new P-38 Lightnings. On Dec. 27, 1942, Bong scored his first confirmed kills when he downed two Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Buna-Gona.
Bong’s counterpart, Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr. was born 54 days before Bong in Ridgewood, N.J. After high school, he enrolled at Georgia Tech but quit during his junior year to join the Army Air Corps, like Bong, in 1941.
McGuire trained in Corsicana, Texas, and later earned his wings at Randolph Field in Texas. Not the flashiest of pilots, McGuire displayed leadership ability as well as maturity, but found himself in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska flying his first combat patrols in the moderately successful P-39 Airacobra. McGuire scored no kills in the frigid wilds of Alaska and requested a transfer to an area of combat.
In February 1943, McGuire reported to Orange County Airport in California to train in an aircraft Bong was already lethally familiar with, the P-38 Lightning. An outstanding pilot, McGuire mastered the big twin boom fighter and joined the 49th Fighter Group in March, the same month Bong returned to the unit. Bong had recorded at least six kills when the two pilots met for the first time at Schwimmer Field near Port Moresby, New Guinea.
These two heavyweight fighter pilots of World War II took to the air for probably the most intense "Top Gun" competition in aerial combat.
Next week: Ace pilots fly into history
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.