A hero’s welcome back
A WWII recon pilot, shot down by enemy fire in Papua New Guinea, returns to the village that saved his life so many years ago
This is a story about gratitude. It spans more than 60 years and half the globe. It has a big cast, but the main character is a man named Fred Hargesheimer, Nevada City resident, former WWII reconnaissance pilot and benefactor to a village in Papua New Guinea now known as Nantabu.
After being shot out of the sky while on a recon mission in June 1943, Hargesheimer’s P-38 crashed in the remote hinterlands of New Britain, one of the larger islands that make up Papua New Guinea, north of Australia in the Pacific. He spent some 31 days alone in the jungle foraging for food and tending to injuries he suffered in the crash. On the 32nd day, a group of local people found him, took him in and tended to his health. They also hid him from the Japanese for a full five months before taking him to the coast, where he hooked up with a group of Australian “coast watchers,” men who scanned the skies for the movements of enemy aircraft.It’s unlikely Hargesheimer would have survived without the aid of those New Guineans who risked their own lives and safety to hide him from the Japanese. Hargesheimer’s gratitude to those people, and his deep personal affection for the men and women he met in that village—then known as Ea Ea—prompted him to return more than 15 years later, along with his 18-year-old son and his wife, to build a school as a token of appreciation for all that had been done for him. With his now-deceased wife, Dorothy, he would not only build that school—officially known as The Airmen’s Memorial School in Ewasse—but together they would teach there for several years during the 1960s, and they would return some 15 times to see to the school’s needs and to visit their many friends there.
Now flash forward to the present to meet Garua Peni, the woman who is currently heading up the school that Fred Hargesheimer built. Peni got her sixth-grade diploma from Hargesheimer’s school back in 1971. Before taking over as head of the first school she ever attended, Peni was a member of the faculty at the University of Papua New Guinea, with a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Sydney in Australia. The number of people from Peni’s village who gain advanced academic degrees is surely not large, but that number would almost certainly be zero if Hargesheimer had not been shot down by a Japanese fighter pilot some two decades before Peni was born.The character who brings this story home to Butte County is one John Lane, environmentalist, naturalist and adventurer. Readers of the CN&R may remember earlier stories about Lane and his exploits in Sumatra and Borneo exploring caves, helping establish national parks and being profiled by National Geographic for television documentaries on the Outdoor Channel.
Lane is precisely the sort of person to be drawn to a place like New Britain, where parts of the interior are rarely, if ever, visited by outsiders. Not only that, but there are caves there that have never been explored, and caves are to John Lane what honey is to bears.
When he learned that there was also this great story about a guy named Fred Hargesheimer, much-loved benefactor to a village in that neck of the jungle, Lane’s interest increased. The idea of finding the plane Hargesheimer had gone down in all those years ago seemed just the kind of story that would draw the attention necessary to keep funding coming in to finance Lane’s work. And so, back in February, Lane led a little expedition to New Britain, underwritten by Chicoans Ken Grossman and Kelly Meagher, hoping to find that plane. Though he didn’t find it on that trip, the feelers he put out to the local tribes led to the plane’s discovery shortly after he left the country. In July he returned to New Britain, this time for a rendezvous with Hargesheimer himself, now 90, who returned once more to the land to which he had devoted so much time and love over the past 46 years.
In the village of Nantabu, Hargesheimer is known as Suara Auru Fred Hargesheimer. “Suara Auru” means Brave Warrior. Of the villagers who tended to Hargesheimer during the war, only one remains alive. When the two of them reunited this past July, it was an emotional moment for everyone who witnessed it—and that was a big group of people because this story is not only about Hargesheimer’s gratitude to those villagers; it’s also about their gratitude to him.Thousands of people turned up to welcome him back. A banner was strung over the dirt road that leads to the school, and throngs of people lined that road to cheer him “home.” There were two days of dancing, feasting and celebration, all in honor of Suara Auru Fred Hargesheimer, with everyone present bearing the understanding that, in all likelihood, this would be his last visit. And, because of that likelihood, Hargesheimer was relieved to learn that the school he had built and helped sustain for so long had been turned over to the capable hands of a former student, Garua Peni.
John Lane was in attendance at those festivities, taking photos and gearing up for the expedition that would follow the next day—a trek into the rough country where Hargesheimer’s plane had been found. From the nearest road, it was a rugged 4 1/2-hour hike to the crash site. Though he is in good health at age 90, Hargesheimer could not make such a journey, and he was flown in by helicopter, a thrill ride down the gorge of the Pandi River. Lane’s party helped clear a place for the helicopter to land, and Lane himself helped carry Hargesheimer on a plastic chair, with the aid of two long poles, around the place that had been his lonely home for 31 long days in the summer of 1943. Though his eyesight is failing, he was able to identify various pieces of the wreckage as they were brought to him.
As it happens, there is another lost plane in those jungles. The highest-ranking MIA in American history—Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker—went down somewhere in the same vicinity during that same war. Lane hopes to mount another expedition in search of that plane and Walker’s remains.
Lane will tell this tale in greater detail Fri., Aug. 25, during a free lecture/presentation at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. If, for example, you want to know what “Long time lik lik” means in New Guinea pidgin-English, you’ll likely glean that information at the lecture. If you want to see some stunning photography of critters few, if any, California eyes have ever seen, you’ll want to be in attendance. You’ll also meet Fred Hargesheimer, an American hero of World War II.And you’ll get a reminder during these troubled times of the good that can come out of dark days, of the power gratitude has to change lives for the better, and of our bonds to one another that can cross time, space and culture to make the world better and make all of our days less dark.