Michael Bongiovanni was born in 1921 in Hoboken, New Jersey. His father was an Italian immigrant who worked for the railroads, and his mother worked long hours in a garment shop.
Bongiovanni did not learn English until he started attending school. When he was 12 years old, he worked at a local pharmacy earning $4 a week. The pharmacist encouraged him to apply for a scholarship to Rutgers College of Pharmacy. Bongiovanni entered Rutgers at age 15. He continued to work at the drugstore while serving as captain of the basketball team and editor of the yearbook. He graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers in 1941.
After college, Bongiovanni signed up with the U.S. Army Air Corps and eventually rose to the rank of captain. He was awarded a presidential citation for service and bravery and was chosen as the most outstanding navigator in the 12th Air Force, which had been activated in 1942 after the United States entered World War II. He received many honorary titles.
After the war, Bongiovanni joined Squibb Corp. in Orange, New Jersey, as a sales representative. By 1981, he was president and CEO of Squibb Specialty Health Products Group, a vice president of Squibb, and a member of the board of directors.