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.
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 only food.
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 earlier.
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 mosquito-borne malaria.
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 says.
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, now independent.
The villagers, hearing Mastah Preddi was coming, lined the beach and sang "God Save the Queen" as he stepped from a boat in the moonlight.
"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 finished.
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 Ulawan volcano.
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 chairperson.
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 fliers.
"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."