History Wars World War II

World War II ace Dick Bong’s P-38 found after crashing decades ago

Bong was the top American ace in the war. But his beloved fighter plane went down while someone else was piloting it.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
Maj. Richard Ira Bong with one of the P-38 fighter planes nicknamed "Marge" that he flew during World War II. (hoto by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Richard Bong was the United States’ top ace pilot during the Second World War, scoring 40 aerial victories during his time in the war. Many of those kills happened behind the stick of a P-38 fighter plane nicknamed “Marge” after his then-girlfriend and later wife Marjorie Vattendahl. And now “Marge” the plane has been found after 80 years.

On Thursday, searchers announced that they had located what they believed to be the wreckage of Bong’s P-38. It was found in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province.

The plane went down on March 24, 1944, not in combat but from a mechanical issue. The plane suffered an engine failure and with nothing to do, the pilot bailed out and the plane crashed in the jungles of what is now Papua New Guinea. But Major Dick Bong wasn’t actually piloting Marge that day. Instead, it was Lt. Thomas Malone was in the cockpit, using the plane for a reconnaissance flight. 

In March, historical research group Pacific Wrecks and the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center located in Superior, Wisconsin announced they were teaming up in a search for the wreckage of Marge. 

Explorers with Pacific Wrecks said that they found the wreck of the plane on May 15. The plane had apparently crashed nose-first in the bottom of the ravine. Despite years exposed to the elements, much of the plane was still identifiable. They shared several pieces of information identifying the wreck as Bong’s. Several pieces of metal identify it both as a P-38 and contain serial numbers matching that of Bong’s Marge. Pacific Wrecks Director Justin Taylan, during a press conference on Thursday, May 23 said that proves it is Marge “beyond a doubt.” 

“I think it’s safe to say mission accomplished,” Taylan added.

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Bong, born Sept. 24, 1920 in Superior, Wisconsin, joined the military in May 1941. After the U.S. entered World War II, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, serving multiple tours in the Pacific Theater. In early 1944 he put a painting of Marge on the nose of his P-38, officially naming it after his partner. 

After Malone bailed out of the P-38 and Marge crashed in the jungle, Bong was emotionally hurt by the loss of his beloved plane, but not deterred from the war. He was back in the sky less than two weeks later, piloting another P-38 he also named “Marge” and scoring his 25th aerial victory. He would keep flying P-38s throughout the rest of the war. Later in 1944 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “voluntarily and at his own urgent request engag[ing] in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines” despite not being assigned as a combat pilot at the time. 

Dick Bong was sent home in January 1945, his time in combat over. He then became a test pilot, flying P-80s in Burbank, California. On Aug. 6 while in the air, his plane suffered a fuel pump malfunction. Bong ejected but was so low in altitude that his parachute did not deploy and he died. By the time of his death Bong had downed 40 enemy planes, the most of any American pilot during the war. 

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