When 27-year-old Army lieutenant Fred Hargesheimer's P-38 Lightning was shot down on June 5, 1943 over New Britain he had no idea whether he would live or die. Below him was a forbidding jungle, reputedly filled with headhunters. Instead he found a people who would risk their very lives to save his. And save him they did. Fred Hargesheimer and his late wife Dorothy spent decades paying back the people who risked so much for him back duriing the war.
BIALLA, Papua New Guinea — 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 unborn.
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.
Fred Hargesheimer has raised funds for and built schools, libraries and a clinic for the people who saved his life. He and Dorothy even went there to teach in the schools they built. Hargesheimer was not a rich man, he held a sales position for Sperry Rand. But he did all this, nonetheless.
Go read the whole thing. Mastah Preddi's story is worth reading.