Watch CBS News

Explorers find what they believe is Richard Bong's downed plane in jungle ravine

Family celebrates as plane of World War II pilot Richard Bong discovered
Family celebrates as plane of World War II pilot Richard Bong discovered 02:20

SUPERIOR, Wis. — A family in Superior, Wisconsin is celebrating a major World War II discovery.

A few months ago, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center hired a crew to find a plane that crashed in a Pacific jungle during the war.

"This has been a long, long saga shall we say for many of us growing up," said Terry Lundberg, president of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center. 

Bong, known as the top ace pilot in U.S. history, loved planes and he loved his girlfriend Marge. So much so that he painted her face on his P-38. But 80 years ago, the plane crashed into the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

"From that point forward its existence very much remained a mystery," said Lundberg. 

Bong Plane Expedition
FILE - Captain Richard J. Bong, of Poplar, Wis., points to a large picture of his girl friend, Marge Vattendahl, on his Lighting P-38 fighter plane pilot stationed at a New Guinea Air Base, March 31, 1944. Searchers announced Thursday, May 23, 2024, that they've discovered what they believe is the wreckage of World War II ace Bong's plane in the South Pacific. (AP Photo, File) / AP

Lt. Thomas Malone was the pilot that day. He bailed out and survived and from then on there was a mission to find Marge. A few months ago, the Bong Center reached out to Pacific Wrecks, a group that works to solve World War II mysteries.

"This has been an incredible journey. An incredible expedition," said Justin Taylan, Pacific Wrecks. 

Zooming from Madang Province, Taylan and his crew talked about working with locals and hiking through jungles before they finally caught a break.

"When we located the crash site it was an amazing experience," said Taylan. 

The plane was found in a jungle ravine. It hit the ground so hard that most of its engines were buried in dirt. But they saw red paint which was a color on the P38 Marge plane. And as they dug further, they finally found the serial number, leaving no doubt it was Bong's plane.

"At the base of that was a stencil. A U.S. Army Air Force stencil, with the last 3 digits of the serial numbers," said Taylan. "The emotion I felt was not just my own joy, but imagining what this means for the Bong family."

In the audience for the Zoom press conference was Richard Bong's 99-year-old sister Gerry Fechtelkotter. While it's mission accomplished for the expedition, she'd love to bring a part of Marge home.

"We know it's been found. We saw pictures of it so we know it's the right one," said Fechtelkotter. "It's great to know that it's been discovered."

Bong is regarded by World War II historians as America's top ace. He is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese planes during the war.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.