September 24, 1920: Birth of WWII ace Richard Ira Bong

On this day in 1920, World War II flying ace (and namesake of the Bong Bridge) Richard Ira Bong was born in Poplar, Wisconsin. Many people think Bong, who shot down forty Japanese planes while flying his beloved P-38 (nicknamed “Marge” for his wife), flew his plane between the top span and road span of Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge. In 2006 John Hoff told a Duluth News Tribune reporter he witnessed Bong take his P-38 through the bridge in 1944. Hoff was eleven years old at the time, visiting his father’s office in the Alworth Building. He swears he saw a P-38 fly in low from the east between the canal’s piers and emerge west of the bridge. Unfortunately, no one else saw it. Roy Mahlberg of Duluth told the newspaper he remembers the Duluth News-Tribune’s headlines the next day and a photo of Bong’s P-38 flying under the bridge. But no newspaper account of Bong flying his plane through the bridge exists, nor any photos. Bong certainly was capable: he once flew a loop-the-loop under and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe Hoff did see a P-38 pass under the bridge, but Bong likely wasn’t at the stick. It would more likely have been Jack Daniel Brown, a Duluthian and Army Air Corps pilot. Brown’s descendants recalled that in either 1943 or 1944 (which would fit Hoff’s story), he and another pilot were ordered to transport two P-38s from Texas to Nova Scotia. Along the way, Brown decided to say hello to some relatives in an unconventional manner. First he buzzed the Park Point home of his brother, lift bridge operator Bob Brown, close enough so his family could see his face; then he and the other pilot approached the bridge from the bay side, barnstormed beneath it, and headed to the east coast of Canada. Of course, no one took a picture…. Read more about Bong here, and more about other accounts of people flying airplanes and helicopters under the bridge here.

World War II ace Richard Ira Bong photographed next to his plane, dubbed “Marge” after his wife. (Image: Bong Museum)

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