History Afield: Home for the Hunt

Nov 21, 2014

Saturday is opening day of Wisconsin’s annual gun deer season.  For many families the hunt is about much more than taking a deer - it’s a time of family bonding, camaraderie and tradition.  In today’s History Afield, Writer Bob Willging has the story of a famous World War II combat pilot, who made deer hunting with his family a priority while home on leave in 1943.

Credit Joyce Bong Erickson

Joyce Erickson remembers the great excitement that was filling the small Wisconsin farmhouse on that cold November evening in 1943. She remembers the people who were filling the farmhouse as well. Friends and neighbors were crowding into it, and so were the reporters.

The reporters were there to wait for the arrival of Captain Richard Ira Bong, the U.S. Army flying ace who had already shot down 21 Japanese warplanes.

Joyce, in ninth grade at the time, along with the rest of the Bong family, was simply waiting for her big brother Dick.

Twenty–three-year-old Dick Bong had just completed his first combat tour as a pilot of a P-38 fighter, and was coming home to the family farm near Poplar, a small town in northern Douglas County, for some well-earned R & R.

Captain Bong’s feats in the South Pacific were already legendary. The humble, unassuming Wisconsin farm boy was famous, a national war hero.

“It was an exciting time,” Joyce told me in 2002 as we sat in the dining room of the farmhouse where the Bong children grew up. “Everyone wanted to see Dick. He hadn’t been home in over two years.”

Dick Bong had enlisted in the Army Air Corps aviation cadet program in January 1941 at the age of twenty. The end of that year brought the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, which thrust the United States into World War II. Bong eventually found himself at the controls of a P-38 Lightning in the southwest Pacific. With a combination of skill, a cool head, and just the right amount of moxie, Bong blossomed into a top fighter pilot.

Just after 1 am that morning Dick finally arrived and was enthusiastically greeted by everyone there, especially his younger siblings.  Bong’s visit home had been scheduled so that he could participate in the gun deer season, set to open the next day and local benefactors presented Dick with new rubber – soled boots and cartridges for his 300 Savage.  Like most northern Wisconsin boys of the time, Bong was an ardent deer hunter.  The 1943 deer season was the infamous split season where four days of antlered bucks-only was followed by a four-day antlerless season.

When opening day arrived, an old-fashioned Wisconsin deer hunt began in the early morning darkness.

After a big farm breakfast of bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, toast, and plenty of coffee, Dick, his father, and brother waited for the hunting party to assemble at the Bong house. Uncles and cousins and neighbors arrived in the darkness. The early morning talk wasn’t about Dick’s flying or the war effort, but about where the deer were and which direction the wind was coming from.

On opening morning, Dick’s father shot a respectable ten-point buck and Uncle Roy had hit and wounded an eight-pointer. The hunting party gathered and went after the wounded deer.  Brother Bud dropped the buck after it jumped into a thick spruce swamp.

But the reporters and photographers who had greeted his arrival continued to follow Dick’s every move, insisting on posed photo shoots, making it difficult for him to enjoy the hunt. The story was just too incredible for the reporters to resist—a local farm boy turned war hero pursuing his passion for the Wisconsin deer hunt.

“It isn’t too well known that Dick and our father decided to tell the reporters that Dick had shot the ten-point buck killed by our father,” his sister Joyce recalled nearly six decades later. “They did it so the reporters could get their story and leave Dick to hunt in peace.”

With photos of Captain Bong, his rifle, and the two opening-day whitetails flashing across the country, the satisfied reporters backed off for the remainder of the season.

The Bong hunting party mounted drives through deep snow, managing to take seven bucks during the buck-only season and two does during the antlerless season.

Although Dick had seen some deer during the season, he wasn’t able to put his trusty Savage to productive use. He was, however, able to eat all the fresh venison he could hold.

Shortly after deer season, Dick was sent to Washington, D.C., for a public relations tour that included a visit to New York City to take part in a nationwide radio broadcast. The farm boy from Poplar was wined and dined by senators and congressmen, got a tour of the city, saw a Broadway play, and rode the subway.

Even amid the bright lights and glamour of the Big Apple, Wisconsin and the deer hunt weren’t far from his mind.

“How is the venison holding out?” he wrote to his mother from the Ambassador Hotel in New York. “Still got plenty of steaks left, I hope. I’ll sure be ready for some when I get home again.”

Richard Bong went on to shoot down a total of 40 enemy planes, and damaged or possibly shot down another 18—the greatest fighter record in the history of American warfare.

In 1945, Bong was removed from combat and assigned to test the newly developed P-80 jet-powered aircraft at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California. On August 6, 1945, Captain Bong’s P-80 “Shooting Star” crashed 40 seconds after take-off, killing the young pilot.

All those photos taken by the eager photographers during the deer hunt of 1943 now serve as part of the legacy of Dick Bong.

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center is dedicated to Bong and all the other veterans who sacrificed so much during wartime. Joyce Bong Erickson is President Emeritus of the center. Bong is also  memorialized by a bridge named in his honor: the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge between Superior and Duluth.