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Hidden in the jungle, team finds fighter plane flown by ace pilot Richard Bong

After years of preparation and two days of searching, a team has uncovered the wreckage of Wisconsin's ‘Ace of Aces’

Justin Taylan, director of Pacific Wrecks points to the serial number stencil “993” and red wing tip at the crash site of P-38J Marge in the jungle of New Guinea on May 15, 2024. Photo by Joel Carillet

After 80 years, in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, a team has found wreckage of the fighter plane flown by Wisconsin ace pilot Richard I. Bong.

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior partnered with the nonprofit group Pacific Wrecks to find the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane. Bong shot down 40 Japanese aircraft during World War II — the most of any American pilot and a record that still holds today.

Bong dubbed the plane “Marge” after his girlfriend, Marge Vattendahl, who he later married. In 1944, another pilot, Tom Malone, was behind the controls doing weather reconnaissance when the twin-engine fighter malfunctioned and crashed into a ravine in the jungle.

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Malone survived the crash. But the plane was not recovered.

With the help of a local village, the team searched for two days trekking through grasslands and jungle, climbing up and down hillsides. After a false start that led to a Japanese fighter plane, the team discovered Bong’s P-38 on May 15 in the country’s Madang Province. Justin Taylan, director of Pacific Wrecks, said it was an amazing experience.

“Over 80 years, parts of the wreckage have eroded down a hillside through natural impacts, and we entered this ravine at the base and began walking uphill, seeing small parts and larger parts and larger parts,” Taylan said. “Immediately, I recognized those parts as associated with a P 38 Lightning.”

Pacific Wrecks team at the P-38 Marge crash site on May 15, 2024. Photo by Justin Taylan

When they reached the top of the hill, Taylan and his team saw two engines sticking out of the ground, which were partially buried in soil. He said only the tips of the propeller and engine mounts were visible.

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

On the wingtip, Taylan saw a U.S. Army stencil with the last three digits of the plane’s serial number, 993, confirming without a doubt that it was Bong’s plane.

Briana Fiandt, curator of collections at the Bong Center, said the discovery is a significant historical find. She said “Marge” is not just an aircraft, but a symbol of the heroism, skill and unshakable spirit of those who fought during the war.

“This discovery not only honors Richard Bong’s memory, but also serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by all those who served during World War II,” Fiandt said. “It is a tribute to their courage, their service and their enduring impact on our nation’s history.”

Captain Richard J. Bong, of Poplar, Wisc., points to a large picture of his girl friend, Marge Battendahl on his Lighting P-38 fighter plane pilot stationed at a New Guinea Air Base, on March 31, 1944. 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. AP Photo

While the team discovered the remains of the fighter, the remains of the wreck will not be coming to Wisconsin. Taylan said the plane is the property of Papua New Guinea and the country’s national museum and art gallery now own the aircraft.

“In the end, the decision of what happens next lays in the hands of the landowners, the communities and the government of Papua New Guinea,” Taylan said.

Bong’s 99-year-old sister Jerry Fechtelkotter, who lives in Poplar, said it’s an amazing find.

“It’s great to know that it’s been discovered,” she said.

While she’s happy with the discovery, Fechtelkotter still wishes that a piece of the plane could be brought back to the family.

Known as the “Ace of Aces” during World War II, Bong grew up on the family farm in Poplar. Fechtelkotter said Bong had an early interest in flying and built planes made out of balsam wood, paper and cotton balls.

“He loved to fly,” Fechtelkotter said. “When he found out that our country was going to go to war, he said ‘Mom, I don’t want to be on the ground.’ He went and signed up to join the service.”

Bong enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, and he flew in the Pacific Theater as the Air Force pushed the Japanese back to the Philippines. While on leave, Bong met Marge and the two started dating.

Bong’s sister Jerry Fechtelkotter, 99, said she’s happy the team found the plane. But she wishes they could bring a piece of it back to the family. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

When Bong returned for his second tour, she said he brought back a graduation photo of Marge that was blown up and placed on the nose of his twin-engine fighter plane.

“Not having the nude figures like some of them have,” she said. “He had a beautiful girl instead.”

As the country tracked his exploits, the military eventually pulled Bong out of the war over fears of how it would affect morale if he were killed in combat.

In December 1944, General Douglas MacArthur awarded Bong the Medal of Honor. He returned home in January 1945 and married Marge in a private ceremony one month later. Fechtelkotter said she was the maid of honor at their wedding.

Just months later, Bong died in a crash while he was testing the P-80 fighter jet in California on the same day the military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

For Fechtelkotter, the nation’s ace pilot was her favorite brother. She said she hoped younger generations will remember him, his love of flying and service to his country.

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