Associated Press article:
By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent 47 minutes ago
The Japanese fighter caught the American pilot from behind, riddling
his plane with machine-gun rounds. The left engine burst into flames.
It was time to bail out.
He yanked on the release lever but the cockpit canopy only
half-opened. He unbuckled his seat belt, rose to shake the canopy loose
and was instantly sucked out.
Swinging beneath his opened parachute, he plunged toward a Pacific
island jungle of thick, towering eucalyptus trees, of crocodile rivers
and headhunters, into enemy territory, and into an unimagined future as
a hero, "Suara Auru," Chief Warrior, to generations of islanders yet
Fred Hargesheimer was shot down in the southwest Pacific on June 5,
1943. A lifetime later, he sits in his quiet California ranch house
amid the snow and soaring sugar pines of 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
fundraising 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 says.
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 says.
The improbable story of "Mastah Preddi," a story of uncommon
gratitude and the heart’s uncanny ways, begins when the 27-year-old
Army lieutenant crashes 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
cut off bits of nylon parachute for a bandage. Then he looked around.
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, dark, mist-shrouded forests fringed by smoldering volcanos, 700
miles from northeastern Australia.
He 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 checked his survival kit, finding compass, machete, extra
ammunition for his pistol, and two bars of concentrated chocolate, his
First he set out southward, hoping to cross the mountains and reach
New Britain’s south coast, and somehow from there the island of New
Guinea, 300 miles across the Solomon Sea. Steep and muddy slopes
defeated him, however, and he turned north instead, toward the Bismarck
Sea. Remembering the small inflatable raft in his kit, he tried
floating down a stream, but a huge crocodile reared up and sent him
scrambling back ashore.
Day by day, he pushed agonizingly through the choking jungle, hoping
for a trail or clearing. At night, he recalled, he’d lie beneath a
parachute shelter, dreaming he was home in bed in Rochester, Minn.
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, roasted by the dozen.
His daily existence in the jungle was miserable. Leeches clung to
his skin. Flying insects sought out his eyes and nose. Losing weight
and strength, out of matches and desperately keeping his fire going, he
suffered through nightmares of dying alone in the jungle. From his
youthful days as an Episcopalian lay reader, the lost pilot summoned
words of hope.
"The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want," he told himself,
over and over. From memory each day, he’d recite that 23rd Psalm to its
comforting final verse, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life…"
And on the 31st day, he heard voices on the river. When they came to him, he cried.
Villagers here on the north coast had seen the distant plane go
down. Now, in an outrigger canoe on an upriver hunting trip, they had
their eyes out for a pilot.
Finding Hargesheimer by the riverside, 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.
That night by the river, Lauo’s party exploded with wild
singing and feasting, unnerving the young American, who had been warned
by intelligence officers of headhunters in these highlands. Then, as
they sang in an island tongue, he picked out the melody: "Onward,
Christian Soldiers." He felt reassured.
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 in their canoes under cover of darkness, and began to learn
Pidgin, the islanders’ simple, English-based common language.
In his tattered aviator’s uniform, he joined in services each
Sunday led by three Christian missionaries, natives who had fled New
Britain’s main town, Rabaul, when the Japanese landed 17 months
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.
Through the night, he was tormented by swarms of mosquitoes,
until finally the next day Gabu came for him. All was clear, but within
weeks Hargesheimer was stricken with the severe chills and fever of
It left him prostrate, weakening, not eating for days. He asked
for milk, but there was none. Then the missionary Apelis asked whether
he would drink "susu." He brought his wife, Ida, to the hut, carrying
their month-old baby.
She slipped behind the grass wall and returned with a cup of
milk. For 10 or more days following, she supplied Hargesheimer with her
"susu," mother’s milk that helped restore his health.
Villagers protected "Mastah Preddi" — Master Freddie —
apparently because they hated the Japanese for their cruel treatment of
natives. Time and again, the low echo of a conch shell blown by a
villager would warn of Japanese. If Mastah Preddi wore his boots as he
rushed to hide, children would follow with makeshift brooms, sweeping
away his prints from the sand.
The village took a great risk by protecting him from the Japanese, he says.
"If they’d seen my boot prints, I think they would have tortured everyone in the village until they produced me."
When he finally left, "some of them wanted me to take their
children back to the States with me," he recalls, sitting so many years
later in the afternoon light at his dining table, sharing indelible
memories of human kindness.
Fred Hargesheimer walked repeatedly through the 23rd Psalm’s
"valley of the shadow of death," always emerging safely with the help
of the people of Ea Ea.
In February 1944, eight months after he was shot down,
Hargesheimer was picked up from a New Britain beach by a U.S.
submarine, in a rendezvous arranged by Australian "coastwatcher"
commandos operating behind Japanese lines.
He returned to civilian life after the war ended in 1945. By
then he had married Dorothy Sheldon of Ashtabula, Ohio, and by 1949
they had three children — Richard, Eric and Carol. In 1951, he took a
sales job with a Minnesota forerunner of computer maker Sperry Rand,
his employer ever after.
But the people of Ea Ea never left his mind. He corresponded
with a missionary to learn how they had fared. He studied and restudied
international air schedules.
"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
In 1960, with the family vacation money and the family’s
blessing, Hargesheimer made a solitary, 11,000-mile journey back to New
Britain, biggest outer island of Papua New Guinea, then Australian-run,
The villagers, hearing Mastah Preddi was coming, lined the
beach and sang "God Save the Queen" as he stepped from a boat in the
"It was wonderful, overwhelming," he says. He was met by Luluai
Lauo, Joseph Gabu and others, and later found Ida and her 16-year-old
son, to thank her, too.
But "a simple thank you didn’t seem enough," he recalls. Back
home, he consulted with a missionary, who told him what the people
needed: a school.
The Minnesota salesman went to work, canvassing relatives,
meeting with church groups, speaking to service organizations. He
raised $15,000 over three years, "most of it $5 and $10 gifts."
With the money and 17-year-old son Dick in tow, he returned to
New Britain in 1963. He was given church land in Ewasse, a central
settlement near Ea Ea, now renamed Nantabu. There a contractor raised
the area’s first permanent elementary school — cement floor, metal
roof, sturdy walls.
He brought in New Guinean teachers, American volunteers and an
Australian headmaster, and the Airmen’s Memorial School opened in 1964
with 40 pupils and four classrooms. But Fred Hargesheimer wasn’t
Back in the U.S., a brief spurt of publicity drew more
contributions, he got more ideas, and this story of a debt repaid grew,
decade by decade. But it was a story little known or celebrated beyond
New Britain’s welcoming villages.
In 1969, his fund built a library at the school and a clinic
for Ewasse. By then, too, the school’s successful plot of oil palm
helped pave the way for a large plantation of the lucrative crop, with
scores of jobs, easing the deep poverty here in Bialla district. Rows
of the stout palms today blanket the hills, property of Belgian-owned
Hargy Oil Palm Ltd., west of a large lake named Hargy.
Once his own children were grown, Hargesheimer saw an
opportunity to "say thank you in a meaningful way." In 1970, he and
Dorothy packed up and moved to New Britain, to teach the children
themselves and to build a second school — this time closer to Nantabu,
next door in the village of Noau, at the foot of the smoking Mount
Garua Peni, then 10, was one of their first students.
"I thought, ‘Wow! They left their place to come here for us, just to share themselves with us,’" she recalls.
Dorothy said their four years here were the best of their lives,
despite New Britain’s difficulties — of supplies, transportation, the
surprises of local culture.
"Dorothy sometimes had a problem registering children, because
they would change their names often, just on a whim," Hargesheimer
recalls with a laugh.
But the couple, leaving New Britain in 1974, had less than a
dozen more years left together. In 1985, at age 63, Dorothy
Hargesheimer died of a heart attack.
The old pilot flew on alone, visiting New Britain every two or
three years, funneling fresh funds into his causes, finding ever-warm
embraces. On a visit in 2000, they proclaimed him, in a great tribute,
"Suara Auru," "Chief Warrior" in the local Nakanai language.
Then, in 2006, Fred Hargesheimer, at 90, returned for what he said would be his last visit.
Life had changed here since he first walked in the shadow of
Mount Ulawan. Grass huts have given way to concrete-block houses, conch
shells to cell phones. The men favor slacks over sarongs and all the
women wear tops. Blue-eyed cockatoos may still squawk in the forest,
but their eucalyptus trees are falling to loggers by the millions.
As he was carried past them in a ceremonial canoe and Nakanai
headdress, thousands cheered. "The people were very happy. They’ll
always remember what Mr. Fred Hargesheimer has done for our people,"
says Ismael Saua, 69, a former teacher at the Airmen’s school.
Mastah Preddi had come back for a special reason: His old P-38
fighter had been found deep in the jungle. He was flown by helicopter
up the winding Pandi River, the river he once descended by canoe, and
then carried in a chair by Nakanai men to the site, to view what’s left
of the plane he bailed out of so long ago.
As usual, he also had business to attend to, dedicating a new library at the Noau school.
The schools had an enrollment of some 500, and a list of
well-educated alumni numbering many hundreds more, including Garua
Peni. She had gone on to an advanced degree in linguistics in Australia
and now was taking over Hargesheimer’s New Guinea foundation as
He may have taken a step back, but his heart was still in New
Britain. And the love they returned at times seemed almost mystical. At
one point, in the 1960s, he was told villagers planned to send the late
Luluai Lauo’s bones to him in Minnesota, a trust he solemnly declined.
As he looks back from his Grass Valley, Calif., retirement home,
Hargesheimer says he often mused over the word "if." Why, for example,
didn’t the Japanese pilot finish him off as he floated helplessly down
beneath his parachute?
In 1999 he got an answer. With the help of World War II history
buffs, he located Mitsugu Hyakutomi of Yamaguchi, Japan, the pilot who
records show downed his P-38. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease
but his wife recounted by mail that her husband had said he could never
shoot such defenseless enemy flyers.
"The Japanese pilot gave me the opportunity to get involved in something worthwhile, and for that I’m ever grateful," he says.
This modest man says he has many people to thank as he draws
nearer the end of a long, perilous, challenging road from 1943. "These
people were responsible for saving my life. How could I ever repay it?"
It came down to that, and perhaps to the psalmist’s words of gratitude, "My cup runneth over."
"I wasn’t a millionaire," says Mastah Preddi. "But I was very rich."
On the Net:
Fred Hargesheimer’s foundation: http://www.hargycaldera.name
New Britain expedition slideshow with Hargesheimer material: