After WWII Rescue, Soldier Fred Hargesheimer Devotes Life to Helping his Saviors

When American fighter pilot Fred Hargesheimer was shot out of the sky over Papua New Guinea during World War II, a group of friendly natives saved his life. Ever since, he's devoted his life to repaying the favor.

During World War II, American fighter pilot Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer was attacked by a Japanese pilot while flying on a mission over Papua New Guinea. As the sound of enemy fire echoed through the sky, he felt bullets pound against his small plane. When the plane’s left engine erupted into flames, he strapped on his flimsy parachute and jumped.

If he’d stayed on board, he was sure to die in the plane crash. Though he might survive the parachute jump, he would be stranded in the jungle alone. Either way, it was almost certain that he’d never make it home alive.

Against all odds, he survived – but that near-fatal accident transformed Hargesheimer’s life in a way that he never could have imagined.

“I’m so grateful for getting shot out of the sky,” he told The Associated Press, 64 years later.

When the pilot jumped from his falling plane, he landed in the depths of a Pacific island rainforest. He had no possessions except a small survival kit that included a compass, a machete, extra ammo, and 2 chocolate bars. He had no idea where he was, and was sure that if he was discovered, he would be killed.

For 31 days, he pushed his way through the thick jungle trees, drinking rainwater and subsisting on snails after his chocolate supply ran out. He had just about given up on ever making his way out of the rainforest when suddenly, he heard the voices of native islanders coming from the nearby river.

Hargesheimer stayed hidden, assuming that they’d attack him if they found him. But when they discovered him, they handed him a note written in English by an Australian officer, saying that they had aided other soldiers and could be trusted.

The villagers took the starving soldier to their village, Ea Ea, and gave him his own hut. They fed him boiled pig, took him fishing, taught him their language, and nursed him back to health when he became sick with malaria. Most importantly, they kept him hidden when Japanese soldiers passed through the area –a decision that could have cost them their own lives.

“If they’d seen my boot prints, I think they would have tortured everyone in the village until they produced me,” he told The AP.

Eight months after the plane crash, Hargesheimer finally returned to the United States, courtesy of a submarine pick-up arranged by Australian soldiers. He married, became a father, and got a sales job in Minnesota. But he never stopped thinking about the people of Ea Ea, and the kindness they had showed him. He vowed to return to Papua New Guinea one day to repay them for saving his life.

In 1963, he finally made it back, taking a ship to the island where he’d spent so much time. The villagers lined up on the beach to greet him, singing a rendition of “God Save the Queen” in his honor.

It didn’t seem like enough to simply thank them for helping him during his time of need. So when he learned that the village needed a school, he decided to do everything he could to build it: Over the next three years, he reached out to everyone he knew for donations, and returned with $15,000 to build the village’s first elementary school. When it opened its doors, it had 74 students. Today, there are more than 400.

That wasn’t Hargesheimer’s last connection with the people of Ea Ea –in 1970, after their own children had left the home, he and his wife decided to move to the island and join the community there. They spent four years in the village, where they taught students and helped to build a second school. Though they had to cope without the comforts they’d been used to in America, those four years were the best of their lives, according to Hargesheimer’s wife, who died in 1985.

Hargesheimer, now 91, recently returned to Ea Ea for what will be his last visit. His fighter plane had just been discovered in the depths of the jungle, and he had been invited to view the wreckage of that fateful crash –in his mind, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Hargesheimer has a hero’s reputation in Ea Ea, where he is known by the formal title, “Masta Preddi.” But he believes that no matter how hard he has worked to repay the hospitality the villagers showed him all those years ago, it will never be enough.

“These people were responsible for saving my life,” he told the AP. “How could I ever repay it?”

For more details on this remarkable story, read Hargesheimer’s book, The School that Fell from the Sky.