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Museum, historical group launch search for wreckage of ace pilot Richard Bong's crashed plane

SUPERIOR, Wis. (AP) — 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.

The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior and the nonprofit World War II historical preservation group Pacific Wrecks announced the search on Friday, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Bong, who grew up in Poplar, is credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft during World War II. He flew a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane nicknamed “Marge" in honor of his girlfriend, Marjorie Vattendahl. Bong plastered a blow-up of Vattendahl's portrait on the nose of the plane, according to a Pacific Wrecks' summary of the plane's service.

Bong said at the time that Vattendahl “looks swell, and a hell of a lot better than these naked women painted on most of the airplanes,” the Los Angeles Times reported in Vattendahl's 2003 obituary.

Another pilot, Thomas Malone, was flying the plane in March 1944 over what is now known as Papua New Guinea when engine failure sent it into a spin. Malone bailed out before the plane crashed in the jungle.

Pacific Wrecks founder Justin Taylan will lead the search for the plane. He plans to leave for Papua New Guinea in May. He believes the search could take almost a month and cost about $63,000 generated through donations.

Taylan told Minnesota Public Radio that he's confident he'll find the wreckage since historical records provide an approximate location of the crash site. But he's not sure there will be enough left to conclusively identify it as Marge.

“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,” Taylan said.

Bong shot down more planes than any other American pilot, earning celebrity status. Gen. Douglas MacArthur awarded him the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest decoration, in 1944.

Bong married Vattendahl in 1945. He was assigned to duty as a test pilot in Burbank, California, after three combat tours in the South Pacific. He was killed on Aug. 6, 1945, when a P-80 jet fighter he was testing crashed.

He died on the same day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Vattendhal was 21 when Bong died. She went on to become a model and a magazine publisher in Los Angeles. She died in September 2003 in Superior.

A bridge connecting Superior and Duluth, Minnesota, is named for Bong.