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Shaker Heights native helps crew find wreckage of famous World War II aircraft

The Pacific Wrecks team at the P-38 Marge crash site on May 15, 2024. From left to right: Steve Kleiman, Joel Carillet, Justin Taylan.
Justin Taylan
Pacific Wrecks
The Pacific Wrecks team at the P-38 Marge crash site on May 15, 2024. From left to right: Steve Kleiman, Joel Carillet, Justin Taylan.

Shaker Heights native Steve Kleiman is currently 8,600 miles from his hometown, having helped discover the wreckage of a famous World War II aircraft last month. The wreck is the remains of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane that Major Richard I. Bong flew to become America’s top ace, with 40 confirmed aerial kills.

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

Bong went on to receive the Medal of Honor by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Upon returning home, he married Marge but died soon after while testing a new jet in California.

Kleiman discovered the "Marge" wreckage with nonprofit Pacific Wrecks and its founder Justin Taylan. The team discovered the aircraft on a jungle-covered hillside in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province in May.

Ideastream Public Media’s Stephen Langel spoke with Kleiman about his experience.

LANGEL: Steve, how did your time spent as a youth in Shaker Heights lead you to the jungles of Papua New Guinea?

KLEIMAN: Instead of going to Florida like other people, my parents took us around to Civil War battlefields on our vacations, and they instilled in myself and my two sisters a sense of history. Something stuck from Antietam and Gettysburg.

LANGEL: How did you get involved with Pacific Wrecks and director Justin Taylan?

KLEIMAN: In 2004, I snuck into some private D-Day commemoration ceremony and lo and behold, at that gathering, somehow I crossed paths with another guy who also snuck into the same event. We've been working together ever since that day.

LANGEL: What is your role on the team, working with Taylan, your photographer, Joel Carillet, and your local guide, Norman Nayak?

KLEIMAN: My job as project manager is to create space for pros like Joel to go do his job, Norman to coordinate with villagers, Justin to go do his thing, and whatever experts we bring on that we work with and forensics and DNA and unexploded ordnance. My job is to create space for them to do their jobs.

LANGEL: What does it feel like to be on the ground, doing this work?

KLEIMAN: It's always exciting climbing up a mountain and discovering a B-24, and it takes a village to hack out so that you can even see it. I mean, it's a thrill.

LANGEL: You’ve been doing this now for 20 years. Why is this work so meaningful to you?

KLEIMAN: The part that touches my heart is the notion of closure for these families where their grandfathers went off. Just no one knows what happened to them. There's 72,000 missing in action from World War II — 72,000 of them didn't come home. For me to be part of bringing closure to those families is just always such an honor.

LANGEL: You say the discovery of this plane is about the future. How is that so?

KLEIMAN: What are the bridges that connect these future generations that have this shared heritage and history? The Papua New Guineans, it's so amazing that all these villages, they have their own perspective on World War II. And we have in Cleveland, Ohio, our perspective. They're both right. They're both part of the story.

LANGEL: What has changed because of this discovery?

KLEIMAN: What's so cool on this particular trip is that we're privileged to be involved in establishing the first sister city relationship for Papua New Guinea, and the basis of that is the Richard I. Bong hometown of Poplar, Wisconsin, to Madang Province.

LANGEL: What does this agreement represent in terms of a new relationship?

KLEIMAN: What it really means is two cities on opposite sides of the world are buying into the notion that there's something worth pursuing and sharing in common moving forward. It's a shared legacy of World War II.

LANGEL: And what do you see as the potential long-term impact of this agreement?

KLEIMAN: We hope this will be a model moving forward, and that World War II is the basis of connecting and generating more sister cities for Papua New Guinea. It's scaffolding to establish relationships with people on the other side of the world over something that's real, and just use that as a foundation for all sorts of good stuff that could come from it.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.