Expedition Finds Richard I. Bong's Downed P-38 'Marge'

May 24, 2024
The aircraft was found in the jungles of Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Bong Center Curator Briana Fiandt said they were notified of the find May 17. Pacific Wrecks confirmed it was Marge using the plane's unique serial number.

May 23—SUPERIOR — A team from Pacific Wrecks has discovered one of the most famous World War II aircraft, the P-38 Lightning fighter plane assigned to America's top Ace, Richard I. Bong.

"We found her," said John Gidley, executive director of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Museum, at a press conference to announce the find Thursday, May 23.

Bong is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese planes and named his plane "Marge" after his girlfriend, whom he later married.

The famous pilot, who was born in Poplar, affixed Marge's portrait to the nose of his P-38. In March 1944, Bong and the aircraft were photographed by news correspondents, and these images turned Bong and Marge into instant celebrities.

Jerry Bong Fechtelkotter, the famous flier's sister, introduced him to Marjorie "Marge" Vattendahl.

"I was the maid of honor at their wedding. So Marge and I knew each other in college. In fact, it was me who asked her for the first date," Fechtelkotter said.

On March 24, 1944, the Marge P-38 experienced mechanical issues while flown by another pilot, 1st Lt. Thomas Malone. Malone bailed out and returned to duty while the plane crashed inland from the north coast of New Guinea.

Bong was bestowed the Medal of Honor by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Upon returning home, he married Marge. Soon after, Bong died testing a new jet in California.

Two months ago, on the 80th anniversary of the crash of the plane, the

Bong Center partnered with the nonprofit Pacific Wrecks to search for the Marge P-38.

The aircraft was found in the jungles of Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. Bong Center Curator Briana Fiandt said they were notified of the find May 17. Pacific Wrecks confirmed it was Marge using the plane's unique serial number.

"Pacific Wrecks is honored to be entrusted with this important mission and proudly announces the identification of Marge," said Justin Taylan, director of Pacific Wrecks. "The plane's association with Richard Bong makes it one of the most significant World War II aircraft in the world."

Finding the plane was an amazing experience, he said. The group trekked to the site along old plantation trails, walking through grasslands, jungles and up and down hillsides with help from residents of a nearby village. It was hot and humid, and the dogs following along scared out a bandicoot at one point.

The aircraft was at the top of a ravine, its two engines sticking out of the ground. Although a logging operation had taken place close to the site, the area where Marge rested had not been touched. As the group moved up the ravine, they found larger and larger pieces of the plane. Near the top, they found the right wingtip, painted red, stamped with the numbers that closed the case for them: 993. They were the final three numbers of the Marge P-38's serial number: 42-103993.

"Mission accomplished," Taylan said.

Fechtelkotter, 99, was in the crowd Thursday.

"It's great to know that it's been discovered and we're happy about that," she said, but she wondered if they could bring a piece of the P-38 return to Douglas County.

The United States Army has no claim to the planes remaining in New Guinea.

"All war wreckage is owned by the independent state of Papua New Guinea, the government," Taylan said.

The country's mission is to preserve and honor that history, he said.

"Obviously I hope our visit made a big impression. I hope our words of wisdom were well received," Taylan said.

Two pieces of Marge have already been removed and repurposed.

"In the village, there are portions of the wing and those pieces were used as a bench. People sit on top of pieces of Marge every day for probably 50 years," Taylan said.

Fiandt said the next phase will be to use the project to build an exhibit around the search for the plane that gives visitors the feeling of being there on the Pacific Wrecks team.

"They were in contact with us the whole time ... it was as close as we could get to being there without being there. And so I sort of want to do the same thing for the visitor — put them in the experience as much as I can so that they're almost in the jungle with them," Fiandt said.

That the plane survives in the jungle brings new awareness of the amazing life and legacy of Richard Bong, she said.

Fechtelkotter was asked what she'd like people to know about her brother.

"That he was a pilot, he loved to fly, and that he did this job for his country. That's what he was doing. He loved to fly. 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, the Air Force," Fechtelkotter said.

He went in for a physical and found out he needed to get a tooth filled. Once that was done, they accepted him. America's Ace of Aces learned to fly in Superior, and learned to love airplanes on his family's farm in Poplar.

"From the time he ever saw an airplane, that was it," Fechtelkotter said.

As a boy, Bong would build airplanes out of tissue paper and balsam wood with rubber bands for the propeller. He and his friend would build them and see how far they would fly. When they crashed, they'd do it all over again.

"He did that as a teenager and he kept on. That was it ... flying was his thing," Fechtelkotter said.

What would he think about the huge attention surrounding Marge's discovery?

"He'd say 'Go on, get out of here, leave me alone,'" Fechtelkotter said with a smile.

Members and volunteers of the Bong Center are invited to attend a free live event Thursday, May 30, at 6 p.m. in Superior. Taylan will give a brief presentation on the Pacific Wrecks findings and share highlights from the expedition. The event will be broadcast live from Papua New Guinea and be followed by a brief question-and-answer session. To watch the free event, visit

P38Marge.org.

This story was updated at 6:03 p.m. May 23 with additional quotes and information from the press conference. It was originally posted at 4:11 p.m. May 23.

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