Richard Bong was, above all, a consummate pilot. He wanted to fly from his childhood, growing up in Wisconsin, and before he ever enlisted was enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a WWII era government funded program to increase the available stock of trained pilots. As a personal aside, my father was also trained in the CPTP, and in 1940 his entire graduating class elected to go to England and join the RAF to fight in the Battle of Britain. My father eventually decided to stay in the US and marry my mom, while every other member of his class was dead before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After enlistment, in the summer of 1942, Bong was assigned to the 49th Fighter Squadron, training in the P-38 Lightning at Hamilton AFB in North Marin County, California, about a mile from where I grew up. The quintessential hotshot fighter pilot, he almost didn't get the chance to fight, after being severely disciplined for buzzing a friends house in San Anselmo, flying down Market Street in San Francisco below the roofs of the buildings, and most famously, flying UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge. He was eventually officially reprimanded by General Kenney, who told him "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 any more and I mean what I say."
The unusual thing about Bong was that, unlike so many other Americans who had grown up hunting and shooting, he was famously terrible at gunnery. But he was such a remarkably superior pilot that he made up for that deficiency by maneuvering so close to the Japanese aircraft that even he couldn't miss. A number of times his Lightening was actually damaged by the pieces coming off the disintegrating Japanese fighter.
In most other militaries, the best and most skilled pilots were in it for the duration, being considered irreplacable at the front. Hence the German and Japanese pilots flew combat constantly for years, and the ones that survived long enough ran up impressive scores. But American doctrine was to rotate their most successful combat veterans home, both for public relations purposes and, more importantly, to make certain that the lessons they learned in fire and blood were passed along to the next generation of fighter pilots.
In May, 1944, with 28 confirmed kills, Bong had surpassed the former American ace-of-aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, who had 26 kills in World War One. As America's combat rockstar, he was rotated back to the US for a War Bonds tour. In September, he was sent back to New Guinea, as a staff officer with V Fighter Command, an executive, not a combat role. Nonetheless he still flew missions regularly, and racked up another 12 kills over the Philippines. In December, General MacArthur awarded Major Richard Bong the Congressional Medal of Honor and sent him home for good. America's top ace had 40 confirmed kills. McGuire was still in action in the Philippines with 38 victories, but before he could surpass Bong's score, on January 7th, he would die in aerial combat over Los Negros Island.
Meanwhile, Richard Bong settled into life on the home front. He married his college sweetheart and went to work as a test pilot at Lockheed Burbank, flying the P-80 jet fighter. On August 6th, the same day that the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Major Richard Ira Bong was killed when his P-80 crashed in North Hollywood shortly after takeoff.
Humans are inveterate score keepers. Whether it is our competitive streak or a compulsion for record keeping, we have always indulged in this kind of quantitative measurement. Ultimately, it doesn't mean a great deal - wars are not won by individuals, and a few hundred air-to-air victories one way or the other would have no bearing on the outcome. But in some cases where success and survival depends on a few measurable skills, it becomes a much more important exercise to identify those individuals who, for whatever reason, are the masters of a violent and unforgiving environment. And thus, at the end of an era the likes of which we'll never see again, we can arrive at an informed conclusion about who was the greatest of them all.