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Ground broken at Bong center

Gordon Longville took a new picture for his scrapbook Thursday. "This is history, good history," said the Poplar man at the groundbreaking for the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in Superior.

Gordon Longville took a new picture for his scrapbook Thursday. "This is history, good history," said the Poplar man at the groundbreaking for the Richard I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in Superior.
The center, named after America's Ace of Aces, will honor all those who served in World War II.
Despite the rain, more than 200 people -- some from as far away as Bloomer, Cloquet and Iron River -- came to the ceremony. It was moved into the Prime Rate Inn due to the weather, but nothing could dampen the mood.
Joyce Bong Erickson, Bong's sister, couldn't stop smiling. She stood beside nephews, grandchildren and siblings.
"My whole family's here," she said. Truer words couldn't have been spoken. It seems the whole community has adopted Major Bong, the Poplar boy who became a hero.
Longville fought in the Navy during World War II and is friends with the Bong family. "I have a scrapbook from day one of Richard Ira Bong's achievements," he said proudly.
Others keep similar scrapbooks in their minds. "I sang in church choir with him and his two sisters at the Lutheran Church in Poplar," Martin Isaacson of Superior said. "He was a good kid."
A Poplar woman remembered the last time she saw Bong. "He opened up the door and there was Dick .... He said 'I heard your dad wasn't feeling well.'" She said even as his fame grew, "he never forgot about us."
The community has returned the favor.
Major Bong served in World War II from 1941-1944 as pilot of a P-38 "Lightning." While stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines, he shot down 40 enemy aircraft and became the leading American air ace of all time. He died while testing an experimental jet aircraft on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Since his death, a memorial was opened in Poplar, and a P-38 plane was donated to it by the Bong Legion Post of Superior. In 1994, it was found that the plane had sustained too much damage from the elements. It was brought to the Duluth Air National Guard base for a three-year face lift. Since then, a dedicated group of people have been working to create a home for the plane. That home, the heritage center, will soon be a reality.
"Bong's accomplishments are well known to most of you," said Andrew Schuster, brigadier general of the Wisconsin National Guard. "In a generation when service and patriotism were the norm, he stands out."
The heritage center will do much more than honor Bong. It will tell the story of those who fought in World War II and those on the home front.
"World War II , that was a time when everyone did their part," said Marge Bong Drucker, Bong's widow. "It was a time of supreme patriotism the likes of which we never thought we would see again, at least not with that intensity."
The heritage center will serve as an educational resource and a testament to veterans who served the United States.
"It is fitting and proper in today's world and in today's national climate to remember one fact," Duluth City Councilor Gary Eckenberg said, "and that is that the heroes of today fight because of the successes of the heroes of a bygone era. And the torch is handed from one to another."
"All of us who served the country in World War II ... we never thought twice about it," World War II veteran Rod Campbell said. "The heritage center will educate future generations about the sacrifices made to ensure their freedoms."
"Being patriotic is not a bad thing, nor is loving our country," he said.
It is also hoped the heritage center will bring visitors to the area.
"We can't wait to be able to promote this center," said Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Moose Speros.
"Something very special is happening here in the city of Wisconsin, and we in the city of Duluth will certainly do our best to spread that word," said Eckenberg.
Construction on the $5 million Richard I. Bong Heritage Center will begin immediately. Funding sources have been diverse. The state contributed $1 million. Douglas County and the city of Superior have contributed, as have many area businesses and residents. Fund raising is still underway. The center is slated to open in August of 2002 at 305 Harbor View Parkway. For more information on the Richard I. Bong Heritage Center, look it up on the Internet at http://www.bongheritagecenter.org .

Maria Lockwood is a reporter for the Superior Daily Telegram, a Murphy McGinnis newspaper.

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