Fred Hargesheimer: 'Almost dying gave me a reason to live'
Columnist Steve Lange looks back at a downed WWII pilot who was saved by a New Guinean tribe. And how he spent the rest of his life giving back.
Often, I get asked about my favorite interview. There are, of course, a lot of them.
But then there’s Fred Hargesheimer.
Fred Hargesheimer was born in Rochester in 1916, grew up in Pill Hill. Lifeguarded at Soldiers Field pool. Mopped floors at Eagle Drug, owned by his dad, Oscar.
As a teen, Fred took his first airplane ride. “I felt like how a bird must feel,” he said.
In 1940, Fred enlisted as a pilot in the Army. By 1943, he was stationed on New Guinea, an island just north of Australia. He was piloting a P-38 with mapping cameras.
While flying his 50th mission, on June 5, 1943, Fred heard the machine gun of a Japanese fighter plane. Saw his P-38’s port engine smoking. Felt the starboard engine die.
He bailed out of that P-38. Parachuted onto the jungle island of New Britain, which was held by Japanese soldiers.
Fred walked at night, hid during the day. After a week, he found a lean-to, stick walls and a grass roof. He built a fire. Spent days picking and roasting snails from a nearby river. Woke in the nights to add fuel to the flames.
On his 31st day, emaciated, Fred heard voices. A group of natives canoed toward him. Their leader, a man named Luluai Lauo, greeted Fred, brought him to their village, Nantabu.
The natives held a feast, with singing and bonfires and roast pig. “I felt like a kid at Christmas,” Fred said.
The natives took Fred in. He worked their gardens, fished with them, learned their language. When he caught malaria, they sang songs at his bedside, nursed him back to health.
Periodically, Japanese troops, searching for the escaped pilot, would interrogate villagers. They said nothing.
“The villagers knew they could be tortured or killed,” said Fred. “If you want to talk about honor, just look at them.”
Fred spent seven months in Nantabu. In February of 1944, Allies got a message to Fred: a rendezvous time and location. Fred walked for four days. He was rescued by submarine.
On Feb. 21, 1944, he telegrammed home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” Two weeks later, he was back in Rochester.
The story could have ended there, and it would have been a good one.
Fred Hargesheimer married Dorothy Sheldon. They had three Baby Boomers in three years.
But something was missing. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what those people of Nantabu had done for me,” he said.
In 1960, Dorothy insisted Fred visit the village. The family saved vacation money for his trip.
Fred planned his return to Nantabu, 11,000 miles — and a lifetime ago — away. He sent word he was coming. Didn’t know if anyone would remember, or care.
After various flights, Fred took a small boat to the island. He was met by a canoe piloted by Luluai Lauo, that same village chief. The shore was lined with villagers. They welcomed Fred like a hero.
After two days of celebrations, Fred flew back to Minnesota with a mission: Build a school for the children of Nantabu. He raised $12,000 — a few dollars at a time — and returned in 1962 to build the Airmen’s Memorial School.
He would return a dozen times over 40 years. From 1970-74, he and Dorothy taught full-time at the school.
In 2000, during a ceremony attended by thousands, the natives gave Fred the title of Suara Auru. Great Warrior.
Fred died in 2010, but his legacy includes a library, a medical clinic, and what is now a 500-student school in Nantabu.
In 2009, I flew to California to interview Fred, then 93. He met me at the door with a Heineken. Insisted I stay at his house for my three-day visit. I’m glad I did.
On my last day there, we watched DVDs from his trips.
One was a video of Garua Peni, who attended the Airmen’s Memorial School. Today, she has a master’s degree from the University of Sydney.
“I cannot say enough about Mister Fred,” Garua said on the DVD. “He is the one who made all this happen for me, for all of us.”
Fred, who never got emotional telling his own story, cried. “Look at how far that girl has come,” he said. “Look at what education did for her.”
He was leaning on his walker in the middle of the living room. Tears ran down his cheeks.
“I wouldn’t have thought it at the time,” he said, “but I’m glad I got shot down. Almost dying gave me a reason to live.”
Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.