Lockheed P-38J Lightning

Perhaps the single most famous P-38 of all time. Let’s take a look at a Lightning flown by the top US ace of all time.

Richard Ira Bong was born in Superior, Wisconsin to a Swedish immigrant family. He developed a love of aviation as a child and had just started attending nearby Superior State Teacher’s College when he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. In May, 1941 he enlisted into the Army Air Corp Aviation Cadet Program to continue pilot training and won his wings in January 1942.

2nd Lieutenant Bong’s first duty assignment was as an instructor at Luke Field in Arizona. By May 1942 he was considered fully operational and assigned to the 14th Fighter Group, training on P-38s in California. In June he got himself in some trouble, for buzzing the house of a recently married pilot in the group, flying low level down Market Street in San Francisco, and doing a loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. For the record, Bong always insisted he was not one of the pilots who looped the bridge!
This earned him a personal dressing down from 4th Air Force Commander, General George Kenny. The punishment further involved grounding for a period, and being removed from the 14th Fighter Group before they deployed to England. General Kenny later commented that he resolved right then, whenever he got a combat command, Lt Bong was a pilot he wanted.

The Lightning’s firepower of 4 heavy machine guns and a 20 mm cannon, all concentrated in the nose was among its greatest virtues. Most single-engine types had the guns either in the wings, which causes aiming/convergence problems; or in the nose, which necessitates interrupter gear that drastically reduces rate of fire.

Within a short period Kenny was in command of the 5th Air Force in the South Pacific, and he immediately arranged for Bong to be assigned to the 49th Fighter Group’s 9th Fighter Squadron as an instructor during their transition to the P-38.
Bong’s assignment(s) in the 5th Air Force proved to be fluid. He spent time with the 39th Fighter Squadron to get combat experience, then back to the 9th Fighter Squadron to share what he’d learned. On December 27th he scored his first kills, claiming a Zero and an Oscar over Buna, New Guinea.

This most famous of Dick Bong’s aircraft only carried the unique nose art for a few missions before the poster was torn off the airplane in flight.
Through much of his first tour of duty Lt Bong’s official duty was to help pilots transition from early War types like Airacobra and Warhawk to the more complex and powerful Lightning.

As his kill tally rose, he became a floater, or a hired gun. He might show up at any base before a mission, and lead only a section (4 planes) or element (2 planes) as a hunting team. He was quiet and good natured which served him well with the press that was soon following his exploits, but he was often not so popular with the pilots who felt he was out for himself and not really a team player. Bong did however become good friends with 39th Fighter Squadron’s commander Tom Lynch, and was always considered a “friendly” rival with aces Jerry Johnson and Tommy McGuire. Over the next couple years, he would rise the the rank of Major. But he was never given any command assignment and was most often listed as an instructor or technical expert. He was obviously a gifted pilot, but by his own accounting was not a great shot, which meant he fought by getting in very close before shooting.
On his first rotation home, he met Marjorie Vattendahl and began dating her. On return to action, his new aircraft was named in her honor with a large, semi-colorized photo poster lacquered to the nose. Apparently the poster didn’t last long, it parted ways with the aircraft somewhere over New Guinea, but it had been well photographed up to that point and remains his best known mount.
In April 1944 Bong tied, then exceeded Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record (26 kills). He was the first USAAF pilot to do so.

Dick Bong mostly faced Japanese Army Oscars or Japanese Navy Zeros.

After another rotation home, he was back in action over the Philippines. In December 1944 he had taken his total to 40 kills. This is where it stood when he was rotated home for the last time. General Kenny grounded fellow ace Thomas McGuire until Bong had a big welcome home, Kenny didn’t want Bong to return home as “Number 2”!
Bong married “Marge” in February 1945 and participated in a War Bonds tour. He then was assigned as a test pilot for Lockheed’s new P-80 Shooting Star. On August 6, 1945, the same day Paul Tibbets was dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima Japan, Richard Bong was killed on an acceptance flight of a new P-80 fighter.

Major Richard Bong with his wife Marjorie.

This is the Tamiya kit. Once again it was beautiful to build, but I had some problems related to the bare metal finish and had to do a strip down/repaint. Overall, a very messy and time consuming process that was no fault of the kit! The kit includes markings for four different combinations of markings for “Marge” (mainly differing in ID numbers), the plane went through a lot of changes in only a few months of service life! But I used the first option provided, mainly because of the short life of the poster on the nose and I wasn’t sure if any of the later possibilities would be appropriate.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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13 Responses to Lockheed P-38J Lightning

  1. jfwknifton says:

    Another beautifully made model and a thoroughly researched account of Bong’s tragically short life. “Bong” seems to me an extremely unusual name. Do we know the background to this? I have never heard of anybody else called “Bong”.

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    I am glad I bought this one so I won’t have to regret not buying it.
    Great post Dave.

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