FLYING Magazine

Pacific Wrecks, a World War II aircraft recovery group, thinks it has found the wreckage of the P-38J flown by Major Richard Bong, America’s top flying ace. 

Bong, born in Superior, Wisconsin, shot down 40 Japanese aircraft during WWII.

The aircraft, christened Marge after Majorie “Marge” Ann Vattendahl, Bong’s girlfriend and later wife, is adorned with an image of her drawn from a yearbook portrait. At the time, most nose art featured scantily clad women or two-fisted aggressive cartoon characters, but Bong wanted something different.

The wreckage was found in a forest in what is now Papua New Guinea. It crashed there in March 1944 when another pilot, Second Lieutenant Thomas Malone, was flying a reconnaissance mission at night in challenging weather and experienced engine failure. Malone bailed out, evaded capture, and lived to fly another day.

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According to Pacific Wrecks Director Justin Taylan, the search team found the wreckage May 15 in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province. Eighty years is a long time, especially when an aircraft goes down in a dynamic environment like the jungle. It takes a great deal of time to do the research, sifting through battle reports and old weather reports to find the approximate location of a crash, then traveling to the remote areas, which often can only be reached on foot because of the thick vegetation. Nothing is done quickly.

According to Taylan, the narrative of the aircraft’s loss suggested it had crashed on the grounds of a plantation.

“We have been planning this mission since October 2023 and every year conduct expeditions to locate historical sites or document crash sites,” Taylan told FLYING. “Our work is supported by donations from the public. The P-38 Marge project is in partnership with the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, that funded half of the costs. Pacific Wrecks is a charity, and our team members are volunteers.”

When the team arrived on site, locals took them to a crash site, and it turned out to be a Japanese aircraft. The team was then told about another wreck located deeper in the jungle. The team set out again, and eventually found the wreckage in a ravine. Pieces of metal were found scattered on and in the ground and at the top of the ridge they found two aircraft engines embedded in the soil, indicating the aircraft went nose-first.

In a media conference, Taylan stated that when they found the wingtips with red paint on them, they were encouraged, as Bong’s aircraft was marked in this fashion, but added that they would have to find something imprinted with the aircraft’s serial number of 42-103993 to positively identify the aircraft.

Taylan supplied photos of  a wing tip that is embossed with what appears to be “993″. Another image shows a piece of metal stamped with “Model P-38 JK.”

During a video news conference from Papua New Guinea, Taylan said that the serial number and model identification prove the plane is the one they’ve been looking for. 

“I think it’s safe to say mission accomplished,” Taylan said. “Marge has been identified. It’s a great day for the center, a great day for Pacific Wrecks, a great day for history.”

During WWII, Bong was America’s top ace, shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft, three of them from the cockpit of Marge. In 1944 Gen. Douglas MacArthur awarded Bong the Medal of Honor.

A replica of “Marge” located at the Richard I Bong Veterans Historical Center. [Courtesy: Briana Fiandt/ Richard I Bong Veterans Historical Center]

Bong and Vattendahl married in 1945. Having completed three combat tours in the South Pacific, Bong was brought back to the U.S. and promoted the sale of war bonds when he was reassigned to test pilot duty in Burbank, California.

On August 6, 1945 while flying the new P-80A Shooting Star, one of America’s first jet airplanes, he ran into trouble. The aircraft took off around 2:30 p.m. and according to the accident investigation there was a problem with the aircraft’s fuel pump. Bong attempted to eject but his parachute did not deploy, and both the pilot and airplane went down in a field north of Hollywood. Bong was killed on the same day that America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The next day in some newspapers the story about his death was given higher placement than the dropping of the bomb.

According to Pacific Wrecks, the Bong family was excited to hear about the discovery of the aircraft. Bong is still celebrated in Wisconsin. There is a bridge, an airport and a state recreation area named for him.

Tribute P-38s

There are two replicas of Marge in Wisconsin. One is at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, the other in the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior.

According to Briana Fiandt, curator of collections and exhibits at the center, the P-38 they have on display was used stateside during World War II.

“In 1949 it was given to the town of Poplar, where Bong grew up, and put up on a pedestal in front of a school in 1955. In the early 1990s, it was taken down and sent to the 148th airbase in Duluth for restoration,” she said.

A replica of “Marge” located at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. [Courtesy: Meg Godlewski]

While all that was happening, funds were being raised to build a museum to honor Bong and others who served in WWII, as well as house the aircraft. The museum is located on the Bay of Lake Superior.

“The museum was built around the airplane,” says Fiandt. “We had it installed and the museum opened, then we built the other half of the museum.”

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Today the multi-story facility also honors the homefront during WWII, as well as the Korean  and Vietnam conflicts. There are more than 17,000 artifacts in the museum collection.

Fiandt said that the team in Papua New Guinea has sent photographs and videos of the Marge recovery site which are being added to the collection. Fiandt is not sure what will happen to the actual aircraft, but said she has reached out to the national museum in New Guinea which may take ownership of the wreckage.

Marge is also one of the most famous mass produced P-38 aircraft model kits. If you have ever built a model of a P-38, it is very likely you built Major Bong’s aircraft, which includes red spinners, wingtips and tail stubs and what looks like a photograph on the nose.

The post U.S. WWII Ace Richard Bong’s P-38 Believed Found appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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