For over 50 years, a memorial to Richard I. Bong was in place in Poplar, Wisconsin, about 15 miles east of the Twin Ports cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. It honored Dick Bong of Poplar, America’s leading Ace of all time, who piloted a P-38 Lightning through more than 200 missions over the Southwest Pacific in World War II and destroyed 40 enemy planes – the most by any United States pilot before or since.
He was ordered home for his safety and married his sweetheart, Marge, in Superior. Six months later, August 1945, Dick was killed test piloting one of the US’s first jet fighters, the Lockheed P-80. America’s Ace of Aces was brought home for burial in Poplar Cemetery.
After his funeral, a group of businessmen and residents of Poplar formed the Richard Ira Bong Memorial Foundation, Inc., with the goal of raising funds for a memorial which would include a Lockheed P-38 Lightning like those flown by Dick.
Memorial funds were raised with the help of the Veterans of Wisconsin and other interested groups and individuals; the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post #435 acquired a P-38 from the Air Force and donated it for the memorial.
Funds raised, however, were not sufficient to construct a separate building, and the Bong Foundation merged resources with the expanding school district and the Village of Poplar to build a new gymnasium, a cafeteria, and an adjoining small Bong Memorial Room honoring Dick. The aircraft portion of the memorial was completed and dedicated in 1955 by General George C. Kenney, Dick’s commanding officer in the 5th Air Force.
People from all over the nation and many foreign countries visited the site to pay respects to the modest Wisconsin farm boy who became a legend in the skies of the South Pacific Theater. In 1957 the State Historical Society of Wisconsin erected an historic marker along highway 2:
It was here that Major Richard I. Bong was born, received his education, and grew to manhood. After attending Superior State College where he received his first pilot training, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps on May 29, 1941. Assigned to the New Guinea combat theater of operations on September 5, 1942, he quickly proved his mastery in the air by shooting down two enemy aircraft in his first air battle. By destroying a total of forty enemy aircraft in air combat he became American’s leading air ace of all time. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by a grateful government and winner of many other military decorations, he lost his life testing a jet plane in August, 1945, and lies buried nearby.
As Northern Wisconsin’s weather began to take a toll on the memorial’s P-38 the Bong P-38 Fund, Incorporated, replaced the Foundation in 1988, with a goal to restore and preserve the Lightning. The aircraft was removed from the pylons and taken to the Minnesota Air National Guard Base at Duluth for restoration and the Bong Memorial Room was eventually closed when the school building was sold to private interests. The State Historical Marker commemorating Dick Bong is still in place on Poplar’s Main Street but now only the mounting pylons for the aircraft remain at the site of the old school. (Also, many items from the original Memorial Room collection are now in the collections of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center.)
While the Board of the Bong P-38 Fund was planning a permanent shelter for the plane, the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII was celebrated and the inherent interest in honoring our nation’s WWII veterans led to the concept of a World War II Heritage Center, named to honor Dick Bong but which would commemorate and educate the service of all who served-and those who remained on the home front and worked and waited-in the cause of defeating tyranny and preserving democracy. From this intention was born the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center which opened to the public on September 24, 2002, on what would have been Dick Bong’s 82nd birthday.
The Center quickly established itself as one of the popular attractions of the Twin Ports (Superior and Duluth) as well as an annual stop for many schools within the region. World War II Veterans and their families quickly took to the Center and Veterans from other eras soon began asking if the Center would ever be able to tell their story too. Eventually, the requests for the Center to encompass the story of veterans beyond WWII led the board of directors to adopt a new name for the facility, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, and a broader Mission:
The Mission of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is to honor the memory of Major Bong and all the veterans of WWII and later conflicts whose sacrifices maintain our Freedoms. The Center is an educational resource that collects and preserves the tangible legacy of these veterans and their home front supporters. In addition the Center perpetuates their ideals, principles, and leadership skills for today as well as future generations.