Suara AuruFred Hargesheimer

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An electrical engineer, Hargesheimer had started a career in radio when World War II broke out, and he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as a reconnaissance pilot. While flying his P-38 on a photographic mission over the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea, he was shot down by a Japanese fighter. He parachuted in to the Japanese-held island, and managed to survive in the jungle for a month without being captured. He was finally found by hunters from the island’s Nakanai tribe, who brought Hargesheimer back to their village, called Ea Ea, nursed him back to health, and hid him from the Japanese — for five months — at extreme risk to their own lives. He was finally found by Australian intelligence operatives, and picked up by a U.S. submarine. After the war he married and worked for an electronics company, but the more he thought about his wartime experience, “the more I realized what a debt I had to try to repay,” he said later. “These people were responsible for saving my life.”

In 1960 he returned to Ea Ea to thank the Nakanai, and to see what they needed. Their answer: a school. By 1963 he had raised $15,000, and returned to build the school. Over the next 40 years, he kept returning, building a library, a medical clinic, another school, and other infrastructure in the village, which is now called Nantabu. Starting in 1970 he stayed for four years, teaching school himself, and helping to start a local industry to bring jobs to the community. The U.S. military awarded Hargesheimer a Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Perhaps more meaningful: the Nakanai proclaimed him “Suara Auru” — their “Chief Warrior.” In 2006, Nakanai tribesmen carried Hargesheimer to something newly found in the jungle: the wreckage of his airplane. It was his last visit to the island. Hargesheimer died on December 23, at 94.

From This is True for 26 December 2010