The Richard I. Bong State Recreational Area is a 4,500-acre wildlife reserve and campsite located about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. Lovingly referred to by locals simply as “The Bong,” it’s not hard to guess why the park has become a magnet for vandals and a regional mecca for cannabis smokers.
Richard Ira Bong is a legendary war hero who lived in Poplar, Wisconsin, before signing up for the Air Force. During his time in the Pacific, Bong racked up an astounding 40 confirmed kills in his P-38 Lightning plane, earning him the nickname Ace of Aces, and a Congressional Medal of Honor.
In 1955 the Federal Government started planning to build an Air Force base in the area and wanted to name the proposed installation Bong as a memorial to the flying ace. The military envisioned Bong AFB as the site for fighter interceptors that could shield Chicago from Soviet bombers overflying the Arctic. They bought up seven square miles of farmland and by 1958 had leveled much of it for runways, drained the wetlands, and installed sewer extensions.
Three days before the runways were set to be paved, the Department of Defense took another look at Bong and decided that the installation was a half-baked affair. The base was already obsolete, and the location was so close to Chicago airspace that it promised horrible congestion between commercial and military aircraft.
Bong lay idle for two decades until 1979 when the Wisconsin National Resources Board approved a $3 million plan to convert the former-farmland and almost-airbase into a wildlife reserve. The Bong State Recreation Area opened in the early 1980s and quickly became an attractive target for marijuana jokes and sign-theft.
Silly name aside, Bong seems to be a fine nugget of land. The unpaved runway is a popular spot for RC aircraft pilots and rocket enthusiasts. Although if you visit during summer months be prepared for mosquitos that one camper describes as, “vicious and immune to bug spray.”
Know Before You Go
GPS tags the airstrip.
- Bong Recreational Area Is Approved, Associated Press, June 29, 1979