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Atomic weapons, aces and English poets

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- This Saturday will be the 66th anniversary of the employment of the first atomic weapon in combat.

The atomic devastation of Hiroshima was certainly tragic. Perhaps it is exceeded in tragedy only by the widely disputed number of casualties anticipated in Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, an invasion rendered unnecessary by Japan's unconditional surrender following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Regardless of the politics and revisionist history surrounding these two bombings, it would appear that global Armageddon during the Cold War may have been avoided, at least in part, because of the glimpse of the horrific consequences of nuclear war the world saw in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On a more individually tragic note, sharing the headlines with Hiroshima 66 years ago was the death of America's greatest air-to-air ace, Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Richard Bong, who died on August 6, 1945 in the crash of a P-80 jet fighter test flight. He was 24 years old. Major Bong was the first pilot to surpass Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 26 aerial victories. Hometown pride requires that I mention the first pilot to tie Rickenbacker was Marine F4F pilot and fellow Medal of Honor recipient, Joe Foss, one of South Dakota's most famous sons.

An interesting note about Major Bong was he considered himself a poor marksman. He was not confident in his air-to-air gunnery skills so he would hold his fire until he was dangerously close to his target to ensure he would hit it. This often caused him to fly through the debris of the disintegrating enemy in front of him. Major Bong was fully committed to accomplishing his assigned mission. He understood he had a weakness and rather than hiding from that weakness he found a way around it and he strived to get the mission done.

And speaking of striving... also sharing in the history of August 6 is English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson who was born on this day in 1809. He is known for many of his writings, but perhaps his most well-known is The Charge of the Light Brigade and its famous ode to the brutality of war, "Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die." However, my personal favorite snippet of Tennyson is the final line in his poem Ulysses. This line has often been used by adventurers, athletes, and those committed to a difficult pursuit as an inspirational mantra: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

I hope you can find some inspiration in his words. If not in his words, then perhaps in the deeds of those, like Major Bong, who lived their lives in a manner befitting the words of that Englishman.