As a child growing up in the School District of Maple, I was made aware of a young man from Poplar named Richard I Bong who was a famous war hero. In the 4th grade, his sister Gerry (Bong) Fetchelkotter was my teacher. Many a time she sat before the class sharing memories of his growing up in Poplar on the family farm and his service as a military fighter pilot in WW2. She shared the ordinary life on a farm, sibling antics, and more. The class would be hushed as she shared her memories and the tears we saw sometimes falling from eyes.
The Poplar School became a Richard I Bong Memorial site a P38 plane on pylons outside. An entry door to the school next to the plane accessed a room with a glass display case on one wall and items belonging to Bong and other memorabilia of the many honors and medals he received. Poplar School where the P38 plane was mounted on pylons. Early 2000 plane was removed for restoration and moved to the present Richard I Bong Veterans Memorial at 305 Harbor View Parkway, Superior, WI
There was a sense as we played on the playgrounds we could also access this hero readily. We often sat beneath the plane to look up at it with the azure blue sky and white clouds passing above it. I often imagined, sitting beneath the wings, of flying amongst the clouds in the sky. I thought of the history shared by his sister and other teachers who knew him. His bravery, his sense of adventure, and often what he believed it took to become the best at whatever one would do. It almost seemed sometimes, Richard I Bong was the presence in the classroom who made me want to achieve.
On one of my trips to Washington DC, I took my eldest 16 year old grandson with me. Among the sights we visited was the Smithsonian Aeronautics Museum. We enjoyed seeing the space displays, Wright Brothers, simulators, and more. Then we entered the war displays, and there on the wall was a huge photo of Richard I Bong. I shared with my grandson the stories I’d heard growing up, and how proud a small town in northern WI was to have a renowned war hero.
My Dad had been in uniform and his brother Jerry. Due to my Dad’s flat footedness, he was discharged and it was with great regret he couldn’t serve. His youngest and closest brother served his tour of duty in the northern African desert theater in Operation Torch with allied soldiers to rout Nazi Commander’s Rommel forces. While he survived the war, he was killed not long after he returned home from duty in a car accident.
I remember seeing a large packet of letters, photos, and newspaper clipping in my Dad’s file cabinet all about Uncle Jerry. I never remembered him but my elder sister had memories of him. Sometimes if we asked for stories about Uncle Jerry, I could see my Dad’s eyes water.
It’s funny, but in my mind WW2 was represented to me by two heroes. Richard I Bong War Ace and my Uncle Jerry who I never got to really know. Then came the Korean War and my mom’s cousins were veterans who shared their stories in photos they’d taken overseas. In my baby boomer generation came Vietnam, and I watched classmates enter the service and some lost their lives. And I remember how Vietnam soldiers came home to a country who were less than accepting of the valor. My son and friends from high school were present for the Arab war and now subsequent Mid-East Conflicts.
Each generation the United States has asked for men and women to enter the military service for active duty, knowing they may have to face an unknown enemy on foreign soil. Parents, spouses, and children are left behind to pray for their safe return, and for some the return is in a flag draped coffin escorted by their military comrades.
What I know for sure, as I write this piece, every man and woman who put on a military uniform to serve our country are all heroes. It takes a toll on them often leaving with PTSD, disability, Traumatic Brain Injury, and more. What we owe these brave men and woman is our deepest gratitude, services that help restore them physically, emotionally, vocationally, and more. Their loved ones need support as well.
Beginning this month of Thanksgiving, let us commit this coming year to show our gratitude and support to veterans through programs serving them, helping them get employment, honoring them in our communities, and more. These men and women deserve our fullest appreciation.