Of the thousands of P-38 Lightning fighter planes manufactured, less than 30 are still in existence. With a wingspan of 52 feet and powered by two 1,425-hp liquid-cooled engines, the plane had a top speed of 414 mph. It had twin tails and a center nacelle housing the pilot and main armament. When it was introduced in 1939, the unique Lockheed design immediately made every other fighter aircraft obsolete. Its price in 1941 was $134,284. The value of the Bong Center's restored, non-flyable P-38 is close to $1 million.
The P-38 was the first fighter to feature a tricycle landing gear, first with an all-metal flush riveted skin, first to have power-boosted controls, and the first turbo-supercharged fighter aircraft to enter squadron service. At the time it was the fastest and longest-ranged fighter in the world.
The P-38 saw action in many theaters during WWII-Europe, the Mediterranean, China-Burma, the Aleutians and the Southwest Pacific where it enjoyed its greatest success in the hands of pilots like Dick Bong (40 victories), Tommy McGuire (38) and Charles MacDonald (27). In addition to serving as both an escort fighter and interceptor, the P-38 was also used for reconnaissance, ground attack and dive-bombing, in the night-fighter role and as a pathfinder for bombing missions.
The P-38 was the only US fighter aircraft in continuous production throughout the war, a total of 10,037 of various models being built-all manufactured by Lockheed except for 113 P-38Ls built under license by Consolidated Vultee. Production of the P-38 was discontinued in 1945 and the aircraft was retired from US Air Force service in 1949.
The Center’s Lightning is a P-38L model, serial number 44-53236, manufactured at Lockheed’s Burbank, California plant and delivered to the US Army Air Force on July 19, 1945. Our Lightning did not see combat but was stationed at Air Force bases in Delaware, Ohio and Florida before being dropped from inventory in December of 1948.
A request from the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post #435 of Superior for a surplus P-38 with which to create a memorial to Dick was granted our P-38 aircraft was flown to Duluth, Minnesota the same month it was dropped from inventory. The pilot who delivered the plane was Don Lopez, a veteran of the 23rd Fighter Group (successor to the famed American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers) who would go on to serve as a deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. After some months casting about for a location in Superior, Wisconsin at which the plane could be displayed, Post #435 decided to send the plane to Dick’s hometown of Poplar, Wisconsin to which it was towed in July 1949.
Upon arrival in Poplar the P-38 was parked along the Main Street but soon souvenir hunters began to take their toll, practically gutting the cockpit. When a new school gymnasium named in Dick’s honor was constructed in Poplar in 1955 provisions were made for the creation of a small Dick Bong Memorial Room and the aircraft was moved to the school site and mounted on pylons as if in flight (and, incidentally, out of the reach of vandals). To prepare the Lightning for the ceremonies a team from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma came to Poplar to refurbish the aircraft and cover over the canopy.
On May 22, 1955 Dick’s commanding officer from the 5th Air Force, retired General George C. Kenney, gave the dedication address at a ceremony which also featured the governor of Wisconsin as well as Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley and Congressman Alvin O’Konski. The pylon mounting protected the aircraft from souvenir hunters while volunteers from the Duluth Air Force Base, and later, from the 148th Fighter Wing of the Minnesota Air National Guard periodically visited the site for safety examinations. However, 45 years of outside display in Northern Wisconsin took their toll on the aircraft and by the late 1980s it was showing serious signs of deterioration and plans were made to have the aircraft undergo a comprehensive restoration for static display.
The aircraft was taken down from the pylons in Poplar in November 1994 by members of the 148th Fighter Wing MANG who then transported it to their base in Duluth to begin restoration. The restoration project, under the direction of Lt. Colonel Bill Bordson eventually consumed over 16,000 volunteer hours. The civilian and Air National Guard volunteers were coordinated by project NCO Master Sgt. Bill Ion who also coordinated the extensive and not always successful search for parts. When replacement parts could not be found volunteers fabricated them using deteriorated originals for patterns, or, as in the case of the pilot’s seat, borrowing a genuine seat to use as a pattern.
Restoration was also facilitated by a P-38 maintenance manual and set of plans provided by Bob Cardin of Middlesboro, Kentucky, who had secured them from the Smithsonian. Cardin is part of the team that restored "Glacier Girl" - a P-38 found under the Greenland Ice Cap on August 1, 1992 - part of the "Lost Squadron."
"There is a whole network of P-38 buffs and people who collect them out there," Sgt. Ion said during the restoration project. "The more you get into this the more contacts you make. Some parts are simply not available and we have to make them. Many people are helping us find them. Bob Cardin is giving us a nose landing gear he had sent from England. An instrument panel is being sent from California, and we're sending the cockpit frame to another place in California that will put the glass in. When we do have to buy parts, people are giving us a decent price because the plane is going into the Bong Center."
Volunteers Bob Hinz of Hibbing and Al Samsa of Chisholm drove the three-hour round trip from Minnesota's Iron Range each week to work on the restoration project. They said they would love to have been able to do more. Samsa, a former Air Force pilot in World War II and Korea, and an anchor pilot in Vietnam, put in a total of 23 years in the service. "I wasn't fortunate enough to fly the P-38, but I wanted to," he said. "So did everyone else. This was the baby. It could carry long-range tanks, so you could get home if you got one engine shot out. It could outdive the Zeros."
Bob Hinz was a mechanic in the service, attached to the 345th Bomber Group. He served in Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines and an island off Okinawa. "For me to get my hands on a P-38 is really something," he said. “I didn't work on them much during World War II."
To Colonel Bordson, restoring the P-38 and building the planned Bong Center was extremely important. "The younger generation may have read about the war in history books, but they probably don't know anything about Major Dick Bong and others who served. It's important to build the Center before the veterans are gone. I think kids from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin will take field trips to the Center to learn about World War II."
Restoration officially was completed with a roll-out ceremony at the Air National Guard base in September 1997 revealing the aircraft in Dick’s famous ‘Marge’ markings from his second combat tour. Following the roll-out the P-38 was transported to the Polar Aviation Museum at Anoka County Airport in Blaine, Minnesota where it was on display until the Bong Center was nearing completion. The P-38 arrived at the Center on June 25, 2002, a few short months before the grand opening. One of the speakers at the Grand Opening celebration was Don Lopez, the pilot who delivered our P-38 to the Northland in 1948.
P-38 Page/Restoration Acknowledgements
The Bong Center would like to acknowledge the contributions of the following individuals for their devotion to the restoration of our P-38.
The authenticity and beauty of the restored aircraft is a testament and tribute to their skill and tireless efforts.
Bob Hinz, Jr.
The Center owes special thanks to the following individuals, whose personal
dedication to the P-38 restoration project went far beyond the call of duty:
Thanks are also due Jeff Foster Trucking for their invaluable help in transporting the aircraft,
and also to Kirschner Trucking for their assistance with the trip to Blaine, MN.
Special thanks to General Wayne Gatlin, ANG, Ret., Dan Schlies, and Dean Kuhlman for their work photo-documenting the restoration project.