A missionary story about Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully – five young men who gave their lives trying to reach a remote Indian tribe in Ecuador and how God used this seemingly senseless tragedy to fulfill His perfect plan.
Click here to read Parts One, Two, or Three. This week’s post is when the action starts happening!
For many years, God had been preparing each of these five men for the great task of reaching the Waodani people with the Gospel. September 1955 was the month that all of the praying and planning of the missionaries began to come together for “Operation Auca”. These missionaries who were coming together for this plan had made several moves. It had been decided to reopen Shandia, keep it as the main station of the area, and open outstations. Because the Indian people did not gather in large villages, but were scattered across the jungle in small areas, it was important for the missionaries to have several stations open.
The McCullys moved to Shandia and began their study of Quichua, and Pete Fleming moved with them to help them in their studies; Jim Elliot and Elizabeth decided it was God’s time for them to get married so they could open a station at Puyupungu. Pete Fleming returned to the United States to marry his fiancee, Olive, and Jim and Elizabeth moved to Shandia to work with the McCullys. After Pete and Olive returned to Ecuador in the fall of 1955, they took over the station at Puyupungu. It was agreed that Jim and Elizabeth could handle the responsibilities at Shandia, and Ed and Marilou moved to Arajuno, on the very edge of Waodani territory, which would become the base of Operation Auca. Roger Youderian and his family returned from their outstation at Wambimi and were helping Frank Drown and his family again at Macuma. Nate Saint with his little yellow plane and Marj at the radio stayed at Shell Mera, their permanent base at the center of these jungle stations.
During several flights made in September 1955, the men kept their eyes open for any Waodani houses in the jungle. They found one group of houses on September 19, and a couple of weeks later on September 29, they found another group of houses, only fifteen minutes from where Ed lived at Arajuno by plane. The men were excited about their finds and felt that God was leading them to do something about making contact with the Waodani, so on the evening of October 2, 1955, Nate Saint fed some thin yellow paper into his typewriter and wrote: “Last night Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, Johnny Keenan [another Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot], and I were on the living room on elbows and knees poring over a map of the eastern jungles of Ecuador. We had just decided that it was the Lord’s time to try to contact the savage Auca tribe located somewhere east of Ed’s Quichua Indian mission at Arajuno….” He went on to write how late that night, as they drank hot chocolate, the men decided that it was very important to keep their plans to reach the Waodani a secret. If other non-missionary groups heard what they were trying to do, they might try to make contact with the Waodani first, probably by a violent invasion, which could make it impossible for any missionaries to have a chance to reach these people for many, many years.
For years, the Waodani were called “Aucas”, a Quichua word for “naked ones”. No one from outside the tribe had ever been able to make peaceful contact with these people, so no one even knew the real name of the tribe. The Waodani were a rather small group of people, numbering about five hundred to 1,000 by the missionaries’ guesses, scattered here and there over the jungle in small groups, but they were greatly feared by outsiders. In the late 1800’s the demand for rubber in other parts of the world brought rubber hunters to the Amazon basin. These men acted friendly to the Indians and gave them gifts to earn their trust, but only to raid their villages, kidnap their young men and take them to neighboring haciendas (large farms) to work, and then murder whoever was left in the village so no one would be able to come back and kill them. The evil actions of these men planted seeds of deep hatred and distrust of white men in the hearts of the Waodani. Over the years, a few attempts were made to create a peaceful relationship with these people by hacienda owners and the Shell Oil Company, but the attempts always ended in violence.
The missionaries learned everything they could about the Waodani, and one of their best sources of information was Dayuma, a Waodani woman who escaped from a tribal killing when she was in her mid-teens. The Waodani life was filled with constant killing and fear of being killed – every killing was avenged with another killing. Dayuma’s parents and brothers and sisters had all been killed by a neighboring group of Waodani, and she alone escaped and went to work for a man named Don Carlos Sevilla on his hacienda. From Dayuma the missionaries learned a little about how the Waodani lived.
Anywhere from twenty to fifty members of each clan lived in their houses, which were long and oblong shaped, with mud-packed floors; they used hammocks hanging from the roofs as their beds. The women worked in the plantations of manioc and cotton, while the men worked on their lances, shaping the sharp points with stolen machetes. Machetes were a most important tool, a necessity for surviving in the jungle, but the Waodani did not know how to make them, so they had to steal them. They were even known to kill someone working in a field just so they could steal their machete.
The Waodani way of life was not entirely different from those on the outside; they kept pets, snaring monkeys, parrots, and wild boars when the animals were still young and keeping them in small huts near the larger houses, and they also had their own legends and stories, just like any other people group. But always their fierce killings kept them separated from any other people but their own. It would later be discovered that sixty percent of the Waodani people died by being killed by another person, instead of dying of sickness or old age – a higher percentage of killing than any other people group known to man has ever had. When asked why the Waodani killed, Dayuma could only reply that they were killers. It was the only way of life they knew. “Never, never trust them,” she would say earnestly, “they may appear friendly and then they will turn around and kill.”
But the missionaries could not let the Waodani go on killing each other. They knew that God could change the hearts of these fierce, yet fearful people, and they could not be content while the Waodani lived in spiritual darkness. Pete Fleming wrote in his diary, “It is a grave and solemn problem; an unreachable people who murder and kill with extreme hatred. It comes to me strongly that God is leading me to do something about it…I know that this may be the most important decision of my life, but I have a quiet peace about it.” Each of these missionaries had surrendered their lives to God and were committed to obeying Him, and they felt strongly that He wanted them to take the Gospel to the Waodani, the fierce killers. They knew the possible danger involved in trying to reach these people, but they were willing to obey God, no matter what it might cost them. And so, with this knowledge and conviction, “Operation Auca” was set in motion.
One of the problems that the missionaries faced in contacting the Waodani was the obvious language barrier. The best way to convince the Waodani that they were friendly white men would be to speak to them in their own language. As the men talked over the problem, Jim Elliot came up with the answer. He remembered seeing Dayuma on Senor Carlos Sevilla’s hacienda, which was only four hours’ walk from Shandia. He offered to go collect some phrases from her that could be useful in case they made contact. Jim visited Dayuma a few days later and carefully wrote phrases like “Biti miti punimupa,” which means “I like you; I want to be your friend,” and others, being careful not to let Dayuma know why he was asking about the language. The next step for the missionaries to take was to begin a series of regular gift-drops from the airplane over a period of time, in the hopes that this would convince the Indians that they wanted to be friends.
The night before the men were to begin dropping gifts to the Waodani, Nate couldn’t sleep much. The responsibility of this next phase of “Operation Auca” laid heavily on his shoulders, as he was the pilot who would be flying the plane so they could make the drops. They would be using the spiraling-line technique that he had invented in Atshuara country – the same technique he had used to lower the telephone to Roger. They would leave something different each week to keep the Waodani people’s interest aroused.
It was the morning of October 6, 1955, and everyone at Arajuno was excited about the first gift drop. Nate was very nervous that he would make a mistake on this first try at reaching the Waodani.
Soon Nate and Ed were in the plane, flying towards Waodani territory. They reached the first clearing, with a large house surrounded by some smaller houses, in fifteen minutes, and after looking around to find a good place to drop their gift, they decided on a sandbar in front of the biggest house in the clearing. There was no sign of anyone around. The gift that they would be dropping this first time was a small aluminum kettle with a lid, with about twenty brightly colored buttons, and a little sack with a few pounds of rock salt inside. To the kettle they had tied some brightly colored ribbon streamers.
They slowly began lowering the bundle of gifts, and then Nate began circling the plane. They had to guess how close the gift was to the ground and keep it from getting caught in the trees below. They gradually got the gift close above the sandbar, and it drifted closer, closer….closer…then finally plunk! It hit the sandbar a couple of feet away from the water. But as they began to climb higher, they saw it move a little bit – had the release mechanism worked, or was the gift still attached to the line? Finally they were sure – the line was free, and the gift rested on the sandbar, waiting to be found by the Waodani who lived there!
Just over a week later, on October 14, they made the second gift drop. They checked the sandbar where they had left the gift the week before. It was gone – either the Waodani had found it, or it had been swept away by the water. They flew upstream to another house, where they planned to leave the gift they had brought this week, which was a machete. Ed was looking down at the houses through a pair of binoculars, and suddenly he let out a yell. They were seeing their first Waodani! Soon three other people had joined the first one, and Ed and Nate let down the gift. It landed in the river with a splash and one of the people below dove in and retrieved it. The Waodani seemed happy and excited to receive the machete; Ed and Nate were grateful and excited. They hadn’t expected to see this kind of good reaction to their gifts for months.
They made a third flight, this time calling Waodani phrases to the people below and flying low to take pictures of them. After the fourth flight, the men gathered to talk again. They decided that at the next full moon, they would try to make ground contact with the Waodani. They made three more flights; on one of these flights they were elated to discover that when they lowered the line with the gift attached to the end of it, one of the Waodani men tied a headband of woven feathers onto it before they sent it back up!
Jim wrote this about one of the flights he went on: “I saw a thing that thrilled me – it seemed an old man who stood beside the house waved with both his arms as if to signal us to come down! Aucas, waving to me to come! God send me soon to the Aucas!”
At the end of his record of the eighth visit, Nate wrote: “One of the problems we face now is getting another man to bring our manpower up to strength. The Lord is abundantly able!”
Although five men would eventually make up “Operation Auca”, only three – Nate, Jim and Ed – were definitely committed at this time. Pete, who had been as interested and involved as the other men, was, however, not sure if it was God’s will for him to go or stay. They needed a fourth man, because Nate did not want to leave his plane on the beach overnight where it might be open to damage, but he also did not want to leave the other two men alone overnight. It was now that Nate thought of Roger Youderian. They had worked together opening up the Atshuara country, building two other outstation airstrips, and Nate was sure of Roger’s abilities. Ed and Jim hardly knew Roger; being spread out across the jungle, they had never seen him very much, but they trusted Nate’s judgment completely. Roger was at Shell Mera just then, helping to build a hospital there. So, one day Nate went to him and told him about Operation Auca and the need for a fourth man. Would Roj go?
Roger agreed immediately, but unknown to anyone but him and his wife Barbara, he was going through a time of struggle. He didn’t seem to be seeing any results of his work as a missionary, and he was seriously thinking about giving it up and going home. In the days after Nate asked him to join Operation Auca, Roger struggled desperately to find God’s will for him. He had no doubts about what he wanted to do – he would go in an instant if that were all that mattered, but without God’s approval he could not dare to go. But God brought him through his trial, and as his wife later said, “He was cleansed through the Spirit for the task that lay ahead of him, and went with a happy, expectant mind and his heart full of joy.”
Just before he left to join the other four men in Arajuno, Roger wrote a poem:
“There is a seeking of honest love
Drawn from a soul storm-tossed,
A seeking for the gain of Christ,
To bless the blinded, the beaten, the lost.
Those who sought found Heavenly Love
And were filled with joy divine,
They walk today with Christ above
He couldn’t find the right words for the last line, and as he put down his pencil, he said, “Barb, I’ll finish it when I get home.”
As time went on, the regular visits to “Terminal City,” the name the men had given the Waodani village, continued, but they continued to make plans for making contact on the ground with the Waodani. After searching along the Curaray river, they found a sandbar that looked like the plane could land on it, which they named “Palm Beach”. The plan that the men eventually came up with was for them to drop supplies and equipment on a Friday morning from very low, just above the runway, so they would be sure not to be in the landing area. Then they would land with Jim and Roger, keeping the plane very light for the first landing, and then land with Ed and aluminum for building a tree house, and finally, land with Pete and more supplies, if Pete should feel led to go. They had picked out a few trees that Jim and Roger would immediately begin to cut down to make landing the plane easier for Nate, and then they would choose a tree that they could build the tree house in and begin clearing a space around the bottom of the tree. After the other men were brought in, they would go to the opposite side of the river and tip over a couple of trees that made it a little narrow for the plane to fly through. During this part of the operation, they decided it would be necessary for one person to keep their hand on a gun hidden inside a bag so that it could be fired at any second to scare off any Waodani with spears.
The men also devised a plan for rotating between the work of clearing at the base of the tree house, carrying the supplies up to the platform in the tree, and keeping watch over the others from up in the tree house, always keeping weapons strictly out of sight. On the next day, Nate would fly over “Terminal City” calling phrases to the Waodani to tell them to come to the river and coaxing them to come by circling towards Palm Beach from where they were, and then landing at Palm Beach and repeating the cycle every hour until he was sure they had caught on. They planned to commit five days or so to the effort, and if they were unsuccessful they would leave Palm Beach, either by plane or by sending a crew of Indians down river in canoes. The missionaries’ plan was complete and thorough; if God allowed, it would not be long before they would be meeting the Waodani on the ground for the first time!
Nate Saint wrote, “I had lunch with Ed and Marilou and talked of the possibilities opened to us by the finding of a beach we could land on. We praise God for this – another indication of His leading and care. We believe that in a short time we shall have the privilege of meeting these fellows with the story of the Grace of God.”