Searchers Say They Found Ace's Plane

In World War II, Richard Bong shot down more enemy aircraft than any other US pilot
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 27, 2024 9:56 AM CDT
Updated May 23, 2024 4:15 PM CDT
Search to Begin for 'Marge,' WWII Ace Pilot's Plane
Capt. Richard Bong points to a large picture of his girlfriend on his Lighting P-38 fighter plane at a New Guinea Air Base on March 31, 1944   (AP Photo, File)
UPDATE May 23, 2024 4:15 PM CDT

"Marge has been identified," a searcher for the remains of World War II ace Richard Bong's plane—named for the pilot's girlfriend—in the South Pacific announced Thursday. Justin Taylan said that his team discovered the wreckage in the jungles of Papua New Guinea's Madang Province on May 15. He told reporters the serial number and model identification confirm that the plane is Marge, the AP reports. Taylan said searchers hiked through a jungle until they spotted the wreckage in a ravine; he said the plane evidently had crashed nose first. Bong had painted the wing tips red, Taylan said, and the paint was still on them. Bong's family called the discovery incredible.

Mar 27, 2024 9:56 AM CDT

A Wisconsin museum is partnering with a historical preservation group in a search for the wreckage of World War II ace Richard Bong's plane in the South Pacific. The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior and the nonprofit World War II historical preservation group Pacific Wrecks announced the search on Friday, Minnesota Public Radio reported. Bong is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft during the war, per the AP. He flew a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane nicknamed "Marge" in honor of his girlfriend, Marjorie Vattendahl. He plastered a blowup of Vattendahl's portrait on the nose of the plane.

Bong, who grew up in Poplar, said at the time that Vattendahl "looks swell, and a hell of a lot better than these naked women painted on most of the airplanes," the Los Angeles Times reported in Vattendahl's 2003 obituary. Another pilot, Thomas Malone, was flying the plane in March 1944 over what's now known as Papua New Guinea when engine failure sent it into a spin. Malone bailed out before the plane crashed in the jungle. Pacific Wrecks founder Justin Taylan will lead the search and plans to leave for Papua New Guinea in May. He expects the hunt could take almost a month and cost about $63,000 generated through donations.

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Taylan said he's confident he'll find the wreckage, as historical records provide an approximate location of the crash site. But there might not be enough left to identify it. "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," Taylan said. Bong shot down more planes than any other American pilot, earning celebrity status and the Medal of Honor. He and Vattendahl married in 1945. After three tours in the South Pacific, Bong was assigned as a test pilot in Burbank, California. He was killed on Aug. 6, 1945, when a P-80 jet fighter he was testing crashed. Vattendahl was 21. She went on to become a model and a magazine publisher in Los Angeles. The Bong Center's site is here.

(More World War II stories.)

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