Reporter Charles Hanley has written a fascinating story about a WW II incident that is worth repeating. Fred Hargesheimer, who is now 91 years old was a 27 year old pilot in the Southwest Pacific during WW II. On June 5, 1943 he was flying a photo reconnaissance mission when suddenly a Japanese plane approached from the rear with bullets firing. The left engine on his plane burst into flames & quit. He yanked on the release but the canopy only half opened so he undid his seat belt and raised up to yank at the stuck canopy when suddenly he was sucked out of the cockpit. He opened his parachute and landed on a Pacific Island about 2000 feet up a mountain in New Britain near his home base of New Guinea.
The island was a 370 mile long primitive island of forests and active volcano’s. It was occupied by the Japanese. He landed with a bloody gash on his forehead, but was otherwise OK. He began to make his way down the mountain through giant ferns, insects, wild pigs and other inhospitable challenges. In addition, these islands had head hunters living on them. Once he tried going down a stream only to have a crocodile rear up and send him running to safer ground. After ten days he found a clearing with a native lean to which he moved into. His food consisted of what he could find including snails along the river. He had leeches and insects of all kinds attack him. He lived for weeks this way.
A month after arriving at the clearing and barely alive, he heard voices. Men approached who were nearby villagers and had seen the plane go down and were looking for the pilot. Hargesheimer didn’t know if they were head hunters or friendly. The chief gave him a note that had been written by another pilot which read that he had been saved by these natives and could be trusted. They took him down river to their village and put him in a grass roofed lean to. They fed him shellfish, taro and boiled pig. He began to learn their pidgin English and every Sunday joined in services led by three native missionaries.
Still in his tattered aviator’s uniform he had to hide whenever Japanese patrols arrived. The natives had a warning system involving one of the native’s blowing on a conch shell. The people would hurry him to a hiding place Time and time again the natives hid him when the warning came with children coming behind him using branches to brush away his boot prints. If they had been spotted the village knew everyone would be tortured and killed until they gave up his hiding place.
Finally, eight months after he was shot down, a meeting with a U.S. submarine was arrived by Australian coast watchers acting as behind the lines commandos and who had been informed of his situation. He was rescued and after the war ended returned to the U.S. But, he never forgot the island people who had saved his life.
In 1960 he made the 11,000 mile trip back to the island. The villagers were informed of his coming and lined up along the beach when he arrived singing "God Save the Queen." He found the people who had cared for them who were still alive and thanked them. When he learned what they needed most was a school, he decided to do something about it. On his return he began a fund raising drive and raised some $15,000 over three years in small donations. With the money, he went back three years later and oversaw the construction of a school which opened in 1964 staffed with teacher who were volunteers.
The publicity back home resulted in more donations, and in 1969 he was able to build a library and a clinic. In 1970 he and his wife moved to the island to help teach the children and to build a second school in a next door village. In 1974 they returned to the U.S. After his wife died he continued to return to the island every two or three years with fresh funds to support the project.
In 2006, Hargesheimer, at age 90, made the trip to the island for what he said was the last time. As he was carried past in a ceremonial canoe the people cheered a truly extraordinary man.