Explorers find what they believe is World War II ace Richard Bong’s downed plane in South Pacific

MADISON, Wis. — Searchers announced Thursday that they have discovered the wreckage of Richard Bong’s World War II plane in the South Pacific.

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin, and the nonprofit World War II historic preservation organization Pacific Wrecks announced in March that they would launch a joint search for Bong’s Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter . Bong named the plane ‘Marge’, after his girlfriend Marge Vattendahl.

Another pilot, Thomas Malone, was flying the plane over what is now known as Papua New Guinea in March 1944 when an engine failure sent the plane into a spin. Malone jumped out before the plane crashed in the jungle.

The expedition’s leader, Justin Taylan, director of Pacific Wrecks, said the search team discovered the wreck on May 15 in the jungles of Papua New Guinea’s Madang province.

He released photos of himself in the jungle with pieces of metal on the ground. In one photo, he points to what the caption calls a wingtip of the plane, which reads “993,” the last three digits of the plane’s serial number. If you enlarge the photo you will see marks that could be two “9’s”, but these are obscured by dirt or rust and are difficult to make out. Another photo shows a piece of metal labeled “Model P-38 JK.”

Taylan said Thursday afternoon during a video news conference from Papua New Guinea that the serial number and model identification prove the plane is “absolutely, without a doubt” Marge.

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

Taylan has been researching the location of the crash site for years. He said historical records suggested the ship crashed on the grounds of a 150-year-old plantation. Locals initially showed the expedition the wreckage of a Japanese fighter plane before telling searchers about wreckage deeper in the jungle.

The explorers hiked through the jungle until they discovered wreckage in a canyon, Taylan said. At the top of the ravine they found two airplane engines sticking out of the ground, indicating that the plane went in nose first and buried itself in the ground. Taylan said Bong had painted the wing tips red and the paint was still on them.

Bong, who grew up in Poplar, Wisconsin, is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese planes during World War II. According to a summary of the plane’s service by Pacific Wrecks, he taped an enlarged image of Vattendahl’s portrait to the nose of his plane.

Bong shot down more planes than any other American pilot. General Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Medal of Honor, the U.S. Army’s highest decoration, in 1944. Taylan said Bong shot down three planes while flying with Marge.

Bong and Vattendahl eventually married in 1945. Bong was assigned as a test pilot in Burbank, California, after three combat tours in the South Pacific. He was killed on August 6, 1945, when a P-80 fighter jet he was testing crashed. He died the same day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Vattendahl was 21 when Bong died. She became a model and magazine publisher in Los Angeles. She died in September 2003 in Superior.

A bridge connecting Superior and Duluth, Minnesota, is named after Bong. A state recreation area in southeastern Wisconsin is also named in his honor.

“The Bong family is very excited about this discovery,” said James Bong, Richard Bong’s nephew, in the press release. “It is amazing and incredible that ‘Marge’ has been found and identified.”