WWII pilot's island survival begets exchange of gratitude

Email|Print| Text size + By Charles J. Hanley
Associated Press / March 9, 2008

BIALLA, Papua New Guinea - The Japanese fighter caught the American pilot from behind, spraying his plane with machine-gun rounds. The left engine burst into flames. It was time to bail out.

Swinging beneath his opened parachute, he plunged toward a Pacific island jungle of towering eucalyptus trees, crocodile-inhabited rivers, headhunters, and enemy territory - and into an unimagined future as a hero, "Suara Auru," chief warrior, to generations of islanders yet unborn.

Fred Hargesheimer was shot down in the southwest Pacific on June 5, 1943. Almost a lifetime later, he sat in his quiet California ranch house in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The light blue eyes, at age 91, can't see as well as they once did. But when he looks back over 65 years, the smiling Minnesotan sees it all clearly - the struggle to survive, the native rescuers, the Japanese patrols and narrow escapes, the mother's milk that saved him.

He remembers well his return to New Britain, the people's embrace, the fund-raising and building, the children taught, the adults cured, the happy years beside the Bismarck Sea with Dorothy, his wife.

"I'm so grateful for getting shot out of the sky," he said.

Garua Peni is grateful, too, as a member of those once-future generations here on New Britain. "I thank God from the depths of my heart for blessing me in such an abundant way when he brought Suara Auru Fred Hargesheimer," she said.

The improbable story of "Mastah Preddi" - Mister Freddie - a story of the heart's uncanny ways, began when the 27-year-old Army lieutenant crashed to the tangled underbrush of the jungle floor.

Picking himself up, "Hargy" Hargesheimer found no broken bones, but felt a bloody gash on his head, the graze of a bullet or shrapnel.

He had been on a photo reconnaissance mission from his base on the main island of New Guinea, tracking ship movements around Japanese-occupied New Britain, a primitive, 370-mile-long crescent of hot, mist-shrouded forests fringed by smoldering volcanoes, 700 miles from northeastern Australia.

Hargesheimer came down halfway up the slopes of the 4,000-foot-high Nakanai mountains, in a wilderness of torrential rains, giant ferns, venomous insects, and vicious wild pigs whose tusks could kill a man. Hargesheimer had a compass, machete, extra ammunition for his pistol, and two bars of concentrated chocolate, his only food.

He pushed through the choking jungle, hoping for a trail or clearing.

After 10 days, as his chocolate dwindled, he came upon a riverside clearing and an empty native lean-to, and decided to settle in, start a fire with his emergency matches, and hunt for food. Snails he found in the riverbed became his staple for weeks to come.

On the 31st day, Hargesheimer heard voices on the river. He was found by villagers in an outrigger canoe who were on a hunting trip.

Lauo, their "luluai," or chief, showed the bearded, haggard white man a note written by an Australian officer saying these villagers had saved other pilots and could be trusted.

They took him downriver to their seaside village, Ea Ea, a place of grass-roofed lean-tos. They gave him a hut and fed him boiled pig, shellfish, and taro, their starchy tuber mainstay. He went fishing with them and began to learn Pidgin, the islanders' English-based common language.

Because enemy troops patrolled the beaches, Hargesheimer spent many days in a hut hidden in a nearby swamp. But one day he was caught away from his hideout when an alarm went up that Japanese were approaching. Village friend Joseph Gabu led the American into the rain forest, sending him up a eucalyptus tree to hide.

Throughout the night, he was tormented by mosquitoes, until the next day Gabu came for him. All was clear, but within weeks Hargesheimer was stricken with the severe chills and fever of mosquito-borne malaria.

It left him prostrate, weakening, not eating for days. A missionary's wife, who had a month-old baby, supplied Hargesheimer with mother's milk that helped restore his health.

In February 1944, eight months after he was shot down, Hargesheimer was picked up by a US submarine.

He returned to civilian life after the war ended in 1945, but the people of Ea Ea never left his mind. He corresponded with a missionary to learn how they had fared. "The more I thought about my experience with the people in New Guinea, the more I realized what a debt I had to try to repay," he said.

In 1960, Hargesheimer made a solitary, 11,000-mile journey back to New Britain, the largest outer island of Papua New Guinea, then Australian-run, now independent.

The villagers lined the beach and sang "God Save the Queen" as he stepped from a boat.

The Minnesota salesman canvassed relatives, met with church groups, and spoke to service organizations. He raised $15,000.

In 1963, the fund provided the first permanent elementary school in Ewasse, a central settlement near Ea Ea. In 1969, it built a library and a clinic for Ewasse.

Two years ago, Fred Hargesheimer returned for a final visit.

As he was carried past them in a ceremonial canoe and Nakanai headdress, thousands cheered. "The people were very happy," said Ismael Saua, 69, a former teacher. "They'll always remember what Mr. Fred Hargesheimer has done for our people."

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