80 Years After It Crashed, Renewed Search to Begin for Richard Bong’s Missing ‘Marge’

Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Eight decades after it crashed in the Pacific Theater, a renewed search is scheduled to get underway for Richard bong’s Lockheed P-38 Lightning Marge. The Medal of Honor recipient and flying ace’s fighter suffered engine failure while being flown by another aviator and crashed into what’s now Papua New Guinea.

Richard Bong sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft
Richard Bong. (Photo Credit: US Federal Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The non-profit Pacific Wrecks and the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin are teaming up to look for Marge. The search will be led by Justin Taylan, the founder of the former organization, who said back in March 2024 that he plans to leave for Papua New Guinea sometime this May.

It’s estimated the search will take approximately one month and will cost $63,000 USD, the funds for which were raised through donations. Speaking with Minnesota Public Radio, Taylan said, “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.”

The month-long search for Marge will include a comprehensive survey of the area (complete with photos, drone footage and video), a subsequent investigation and then a final report, all of which will be conducted by volunteers.

Richard Bong sitting in front of a map
Richard Bong, 1945. (Photo Credit: Q.R. Porter / PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

The top American flying ace of the Second World War, Richard Bong was credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft. He flew a P-38 he named after his girlfriend, Marge Vattendahl – in fact, he even stuck a portrait of her to the fighter’s nose. As the Los Angeles Times reported back in 2003, Bong preferred the image to the typical illustrations you’d see on American aircraft, saying Vattendahl “looks swell, and a hell of a lot better than these naked women painted on most of the airplanes.”

Thomas Malone was in the cockpit of the P-38 when the fighter suffered engine failure in 1944 and entered a tailspin. The pilot was able to bail out before Marge struck the ground below. “After that, it was largely forgotten,” Taylan explained to Minnesota Public Radio. “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.”

Bong served with the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) throughout the campaign in the Pacific Theater, completing three tours and earning the title of “Ace of Aces.” He was subsequently assigned to Lockheed’s Burbank, California, plant as a test pilot after the war, and it was in this capacity that he met his end.

While testing a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, Bong crashed after suffering a malfunction of the primary fuel pump during takeoff and was killed. The date was August 6, 1945, the day the American forces dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Richard Bong standing with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning 'Marge'
Richard Bong with his Lockheed P-38 Lightning Marge. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

“One of the things 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,” Briana Fiandt, the curator at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, told Minnesota Public Radio. “I would really love to honor his memory and bring him back to the national platform.”

Speaking with Stars and Stripes, Taylan urged people not to get their hopes up, “I can’t promise anything to anyone. It’s possible that local people have removed the wreckage for scrap metal, or an earthquake or tornado has covered it under tons of earth that can’t be moved reasonably. But there’s no way to know for sure until we get there.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning modeled to look like 'Marge'
Lockheed P-38 Lightning modeled to look like Marge, at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior, Wisconsin. (Photo Credit: Kevin Rofidal / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Depending on how available internet is in the region, Taylan hopes to live stream part of the excavation work.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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