Eight decades after it crashed, expedition launched to find ‘America’s Ace of Aces’ plane

A person poses
A P-38J Lightning airplane nicknamed “Marge” with Captain Richard Bong in the cockpit.
Courtesy photo of U.S. Army Air Force

Eighty years ago this week, one of the most famous airplanes in U.S. military history crashed into the jungle on the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific.

And now, on the anniversary of its disappearance, an expedition is being launched to try to find it.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the longtime plane of ace pilot Richard Bong, a farm boy from far northwestern Wisconsin who gained international fame during World War II. He shot down more enemy planes than any other American pilot — a record that still holds to this day.

The plane became almost as famous as Bong himself. The aircraft was dubbed “Marge,” after a photograph of Bong’s girlfriend Marjorie Vattendahl he lacquered to the nose of the twin-engine fighter.

a person points to the portrait
Captain Richard Bong points to the portrait of his girlfriend “Marge” affixed to the nose of his P-38 in New Guinea.
Courtesy photo of U.S. Army Air Force

Japanese pilots even learned to recognize it as Bong’s plane. In one of his letters home he called Marge “the most shot after girl in the Pacific.”

The plane was shot down in 1944 — when another pilot was flying it. In May, a nonprofit group called Pacific Wrecks plans to lead an expedition to Papua New Guinea to try to find what’s left of the aircraft.

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior is partially funding the effort.

“One of the things that I that I feel so sad about is that this national personality during World War II, this hero that everybody knew and had heard of, has been so forgotten,” said Briana Fiandt, curator of collections at the center.

“I would really love to honor his memory and bring him back to the national platform.”

‘The real Top Gun’

Fiandt likes to call Richard Bong “the real Top Gun.”

“Tom Cruise shot down five planes in that movie and it was a big deal,” Fiandt scoffed. “He became an ace, but Richard Bong shot down 40.”

Bong grew up on a farm in nearby Poplar, Wis., Fiandt says he caught the bug to fly during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency in the 1920s. Coolidge moved the White House to Superior in the summer of 1928 so he could fish the nearby Brule River. His correspondence was delivered by airplanes that flew directly over the Bong farm.

“And Richard Bong, from the moment he saw that plane, was just infatuated with flying,” said Fiandt.

A aircraft displays
A P-38 Lightning with the markings of “Marge” on display at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Bong enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 after a couple of years of college in Superior, and only a year and a half later, he claimed his first two aerial victories over New Guinea in the South Pacific.

In 1944 he shot down his 26th enemy aircraft. That surpassed the total of World War I ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, and launched Bong to stardom.

He traveled the country raising money for the war effort, and appeared with celebrities including Bing Crosby. In 1944 General Douglas MacArthur awarded Bong the Medal of Honor.

While Bong became famous for his war exploits, his airplane also gained notoriety.

The Bong Center in Superior has one of only 28 remaining P-38 Lightnings. It's been restored to look just like Bong's plane, complete with the picture of Marge.

During World War II many American pilots plastered pictures of naked women on the noses of their planes.

“But he went a different route and put this very sweet picture of his girlfriend up there,” said Fiandt. “And so that really appealed to the press back home. They loved this nose art, and she became famous as his girlfriend.”

Two person  in the cockpit
Richard Bong with Marjorie “Marge” Vattendahl in the cockpit.
Courtesy photo

When they got married in 1945, the two were like movie stars. More than 1,000 people attended, making it one of the largest weddings in the country that year.

“They ended up having to do their vows four times. They did it once privately, and then they did it three other times for radio and newsreels,” said Fiandt.

Bong got so famous the military brought him home after his 40th air combat victory. They couldn’t risk the negative press if he was killed in action.

But six months after his wedding, Bong died in California while testing the Army’s first jet. He was killed the same day U.S. forces dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

A copy of the front page of the Los Angeles Times from that day is displayed in the Bong Center.

“So this headline says Major Bong Killed, in huge print,” Fiandt said. “And then underneath it, and I’m paraphrasing a little bit, it says, by the way, we dropped a bomb. So he was like top billing over even dropping the bomb.”

A copy of the Los Angeles Times
A copy of the Los Angeles Times the day Richard Bong was killed, displayed at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wis.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

‘Indiana Jones’ adventure

Meanwhile, Bong’s original plane Marge continued flying after Bong returned to the U.S. In 1944. A pilot named Thomas Malone was at the controls when it experienced mechanical difficulties. Malone parachuted from the plane and survived. Marge crashed into the jungle.

“And after that, it was largely forgotten,” said Justin Taylan, founder and director of Pacific Wrecks. “Although a U.S. Army patrol visited the crash site several days later, it just became another piece of war wreckage left in New Guinea.”

Taylan has traveled to the South Pacific for the past 30 years documenting the remains of war, since he first accompanied his grandfather, a World War II veteran, to the region as a teenager.

He realized there was a hunger for information when he posted photographs from that first visit to the internet, and was subsequently inundated with requests from people who wanted to learn more about their relatives.

Since then he estimates he’s visited a thousand aircraft wrecks across the Asia Pacific. He called it “a race against time” to document as many sites as possible before they disappear to nature, or to human actions.

The mission to find Marge will be “an Indiana Jones type adventure,” Taylan said.

Justin Taylan with World War II aircraft
Pacific Wrecks founder Justin Taylan with World War II aircraft wreckage in Papua New Guinea.
Courtesy photo of Pacific Wrecks

Historical reports provide an approximate location of the crash site. Locals on the ground may be able to provide more detailed information.

Taylan plans to leave sometime in May. He estimates it will take 30 days to complete, and will cost roughly $63,000 to find the site and perform a comprehensive survey, investigation and final report. It’s paid for by donations, and the work is conducted by volunteers.

Taylan is confident he’ll find where the plane went down. He’s less certain there will be enough of the plane remaining to identify it definitely.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to find the ultimate proof, which will be a serial number from the airplane that says this airplane is Marge.”

That would hold special meaning for Bong’s large remaining family, said Jim Bong, a pilot himself whose father was one of Richard Bong’s younger brothers. Marge passed away in 2003 at the age of 79.

Bong said he grew up hearing stories about his uncle. But he never knew him. His father was only six when he died. He said finding remnants of the actual plane would “kind of bring back time, if you will, to us.”