Famed plane ‘Marge’ of ace pilot Richard Bong found in South Pacific

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

A team exploring the jungles of Papua New Guinea recently discovered the wreckage of one of the most famous airplanes in U.S. military history, 80 years after it crashed.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the longtime plane of ace pilot Richard Bong, who grew up outside of Superior, Wis. Bong became a celebrity after shooting down 40 enemy aircraft, more than any other American pilot — a record that still stands.

The plane, dubbed “Marge” after a photograph of his girlfriend and future wife that Bong plastered on the nose of the twin-engine fighter, became nearly as famous as the pilot himself.

In March, 1944, another pilot, Thomas Malone, experienced mechanical issues while flying “Marge,” and parachuted out of the plane. He survived, but the plane disappeared into the jungle of New Guinea.

On May 1 this year, a team from the nonprofit Pacific Wrecks, which searches for war remains across the South Pacific, embarked on a mission to try to find the plane, in partnership with the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior.

Less than three weeks later, they discovered the aircraft wreckage half-buried in a jungle ravine in Madang Province in Papua New Guinea.

A group of people walk
A team with the nonprofit Pacific Wrecks treks with landowners and guides into the jungle in search of the "Marge" crash site in the jungle of Papua New Guinea on May 15.
Courtesy of Joel Carillet

Officials at the Bong Center, along with some Bong family members, announced the finding at an event at the center Thursday afternoon. They were joined by four expedition team members who joined online from Papau New Guinea, where it was 4 a.m.

“This significant find marks a monumental moment in our quest to honor and preserve the legacy of the heroes who fought for our freedom,” said Briana Fiandt, Bong Center curator. “This achievement underscores the importance of preserving our history, and the dedication of those who strive to uncover it.”

A jungle trek

Justin Taylan, expedition leader and founder of Pacific Wrecks, had spent years reviewing documents and records searching for indications of where “Marge” might be found. He knew it was near an old German plantation.

That’s where they began their search, aided by a team of community members who led the way barefoot, clearing a path through the jungle with machetes. The group totaled about 14 people.

“These guys were our guardian angels,” said Steve Kleiman, the expedition’s project manager. “They’re carving the way through the jungle. They’re carrying our stuff.”

People at a crash site
Steve Kleiman and Justin Taylan, director of pacific wrecks, document a radiator data plate at the crash site.
Courtesy of Joel Carillet

Locals first led them to a wreck that was a World War II aircraft, but it wasn’t “Marge.” Taylan identified it as a Japanese fighter.

But their guides said they knew of another wreck, farther in the jungle. Taylan was hopeful, but also realistic. “We’ve got to remember 80 years have passed.”

“Marge” could have been covered by a landslide, or it could have landed in a swamp and submerged.

After another day trekking through jungle, climbing up and down steep hills, they discovered the plane. The searchers found the plane buried, nose down, in several meters of soil, with only the tips of the propeller and the engine mounts visible above the surface.

“But amazingly, on that wreckage, we saw red paint,” said Taylan. “And Richard Bong’s ‘Marge’ had red painted wingtips, red painted tail tips and red painted propeller spinners.”

However he couldn’t definitively identify the plane until he found a wingtip nearby.

“And amazingly, what caught my eye at the base of that was a stencil, a U.S. Army Air Force stencil, with the last three digits of the serial number 9-9-3.“

They conducted an aerial survey of the location, took photos and shot video. Then they left the plane where they found it.

A person points on a crash site at wreckage
Justin Taylan, director of pacific wrecks, points to the serial number stencil “993” and red wing tip at the crash site of "Marge" in Papua New Guinea.
Courtesy of Joel Carillet

There is a little more to the story however: two pieces of the wreckage were moved from the crash site, likely decades ago, Taylan said. There are portions of the wings in the nearest village that community members use as benches.

“People sit on top of a piece of ‘Marge’ every day,” said Taylan.

Before departing on the expedition, Taylan estimated it would cost more than $60,000 to perform a comprehensive survey, investigation and final report. It’s paid for by donations and with support from the Bong Center.

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

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