A year later, and I’m finally publishing the last installment of this story. I don’t know why I never got around to it – I think I just assumed no one was reading it since the posts are quite long. But alas, it will now cease to nag at my mind that I never published the end of the story. Better a year late than never. 🙂 You can find parts 1 through five here: Part 1 l Part 2 l Part 3 l Part 4 l Part 5
If you would like to read the complete story of these missionaries’ lives, I highly recommend the books Through Gates of Splendor and End of the Spear by Steve Saint.
About eleven o-clock Friday morning, January 6, Nate and Pete sat in the small cooking shelter they had built on the sand. Ed was at the upper end of the beach, Roger in the center, Jim at the lower end, continuing to call Waodani phrases into the jungle in case any of them were within hearing distance. At 11:15, their hearts jumped when a man’s clear voice boomed out from across the river answering Ed’s call. Immediately three Waodani – a young man and two women, one about thirty years old and a girl of about sixteen – stepped out into the open. They wore no clothes, except for strings tied about the waist, wrists, and thighs, and large wooden plugs inserted into their stretched ear lobes. The missionaries stared in shocked silence for a moment, then all at once shouted “Puinani!”- Welcome! The Waodani man began speaking quickly, pointing often to the girl. The missionaries couldn’t understand his words, but they could understand his gestures.
“He’s offering her as a trade,” exclaimed Pete, “or maybe as a gift.” It seemed as though the Waodani wanted someone to come across the river to them, so Jim began wading out into the water towards them. The others cautioned him to go slowly, and Jim hesitated. The Waodani hesitated too, but as Jim came closer, the girl came forward. The man and the other woman came shortly after, and Jim took their hands and led them across.
Smiling broadly and using their phrase books, the missionaries communicated the idea that their visitors “had come well” and did not need to be afraid. The Waodani were put at ease and began talking to each other and to the men, seeming to have little idea that they couldn’t understand them.
Roger and Nate gave the Waodani a few gifts, while the other men remembered the guns that they had in the cook shack and the tree house and went to hide them in their bags. They brought their cameras out and took dozens of pictures of the Waodani, and when the man showed signs of wanting to take a ride in the airplane, Nate took him for a ride. The man shouted and waved at his fellow villagers when the plane flew over his village. When they landed again, “George,” as the missionaries had decided to call him, leaped out of the plane and clapped his hands. The five missionaries immediately gave thanks to God, with heads up to try to show their visitors that they were addressing their Heavenly Father. If only they could speak these people’s language and tell them the Gospel!
During the rest of the afternoon, the missionaries showed their visitors things like rubberbands, balloons, and yo-yos, and served them lemonade and hamburgers with mustard, which they enjoyed. When Nate and Pete decided to fly again at 4:15, “George” went along, even though the men had told him he couldn’t at first. They made contact with Marj on the radio and shared their joyful news with her.
When they landed on Palm Beach again, the men talked things over and decided that if they received an invitation to visit the Waodani they would accept if they were escorted by a party of about six Waodani people, and then they would focus on trying to get an airstrip built in the village. They worked to show “George” how an airstrip should be cleared in his village by taking a model of Nate’s plane and standing some sticks in the sand to represent trees, showing him what happens when the plane tries to land when the trees aren’t removed, and then showing the plane landing smoothly when the trees are removed and the ground is cleared.
Later on, Nate and Pete left to return to Arajuno, taking the exposed film and everything that had been written with them for safekeeping. If anything bad happened, they did not want the record of everything that had happened to be lost.
It seemed as though the Waodani would be spending the night on the beach, so the three men who were left behind offered them the small cook shack to sleep in. “George” and the girl ended up leaving, but the older woman stayed by the fire, talking to Roger. She stayed on the beach most of the night, but the next morning the men found that she had left, the embers from her fire still red.
The next day, the men waited hopefully for their visitors to return, but they never came. Nate flew over the village a few times that day, and at first the people showed some signs of fear, but by his third flight over the village, their fear seemed to have left them.
On Sunday, Nate and Pete returned to Palm Beach, and then Nate took off alone for the village. As he circled over, he found only a few women and children there. His spirits soared. It looked like the men were finally coming to the Curaray River! Sure enough, on the way back he saw a group of men on their way to Palm Beach. As the wheels of the plane touched down on the beach, he shouted to the other four men, “This is it, guys! They’re on their way!”
At twelve-thirty, they made contact with Marj in Shell Mera as had been previously planned. Breathless with excitement, Nate finished his message to her with “Pray for us. This is the day! Will contact you next at four-thirty.”
At four-thirty sharp Marj Saint eagerly switched on the radio receiver in Shell Mera. This was the moment when the big news would come. Had the men been invited to follow the Waodani to their houses? What further developments would Nate be able to report? She looked at her watch again. Yes, it was at least four-thirty. No sound from Palm Beach. She and Olive Fleming waited close to the radio, wondering why they hadn’t heard from Nate yet. There was no interference over the radio that would keep his call from coming through. Maybe his watch had run a little slow.
At Arajuno, Marilou McCully and Barbara Youderian were listening at the radio, too. But there was only silence. They waited a few minutes, then called Shell Mera.
“Arajuno calling Shell Mera. Arajuno standing by for Shell Mera. Any word from Palm Beach, Marj? Over.”
“Shell Mera standing by. No, no word as yet. We’ll be standing by.” Not a crackle broke the silence. The women wondered what could have happened, trying to keep their minds from imagining the worst. Were the men so preoccupied in entertaining their visitors that they had forgotten the planned contact? Five minutes went by…then ten minutes. No, all five of the men wouldn’t forget. This was the first time since Nate had begun jungle flying that he and Marj had been out of contact for more than an hour. But, maybe their radio wasn’t working. It happened occasionally. The women waited on into the evening and into the night, getting little sleep.
By seven o’clock on the morning of Monday, January 9, 1956, Johnny Keenan, Nate’s coworker in the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, was in the air flying toward the sand strip that Nate had pointed out to him earlier as Palm Beach.
Marj radioed Elizabeth Elliot at Shandia and told her the news: “We haven’t heard from the fellows since yesterday noon. Would you stand by at ten o’clock for Johnny’s report?” It was the first that Elizabeth knew anything was wrong. A verse that God had impressed upon her mind when she had first come to Ecuador suddenly came back to her: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee…” She went back to teaching the Indian girls’ literacy class, praying silently, “Lord, let not the waters overflow.”
At about nine-thirty Johnny’s report came through, and Marj relayed it to Elizabeth in Shandia: “Johnny has found the plane on the beach. All the fabric is stripped off. There is no sign of the fellows.”
After this message was received, the news that the five men were missing spread rapidly around the world, and by noon all the possible forces which might help with their rescue, including the prayers of thousands of people around the world, were set in motion. All of the wives except Marilou McCully, who was staying at Arajuno for three days in case any of the men should arrive there wounded and need help, gathered at Shell Mera. A ground search party led by Frank Drown was formed in the hopes that some of the men had survived an attack. A helicopter was sent from Panama in an Air Force cargo plane to help in the search.
On Wednesday, Johnny Keenan took off again in the MAF’s other Piper Cub, a twin to Nate’s plane, on his fourth flight over Palm Beach to see if there were any signs of life. Marj, who had hardly left the radio since Sunday afternoon, stood by for his reports. Suddenly Barbara, Olive, and Elizabeth, who were upstairs, heard her call their names. They raced down the stairs to find Marj standing with her head against the radio, her eyes closed. After a while she spoke: “They found one body.”
One of the men had been killed. Johnny had sighted a body in the river a little way downstream from where the plane had been left, dressed in khaki pants and a white tee-shirt. Barbara didn’t think it was Roger, as he had been wearing blue jeans. But other than that, they had no way of knowing who it was.
Wednesday morning at ten-thirty a volunteer ground search party made up of Indians, soldiers, and missionaries set off on foot, and late on Wednesday afternoon planes from the United States Air Force arrived from Panama at Arajuno to help in the search.
Back in Shell Mera the radio crackled again. Marj answered: “Shell Mera standing by.”
Johnny Keenan reported: “Another body sighted, about 200 feet below Palm Beach.” Now two of the men had been sighted. Where the other three still in the jungle somewhere?
The hours went on, and the five wives prayed and relied on God for strength as they waited for the news to trickle down from the air and ground search parties to them. Thursday morning, word came from Johnny Keenan to the ground search party that a group of Quichuas had found and identified Ed McCully’s body. Now the missionaries in the search party knew who one of their fallen coworkers was, but a chance remained that at least three others had survived. They pressed on in their search.
At the big house in Shell Mera, children played, babies were fed and bathed, the members of the Rescue Service came and went, Marj maintained contact on the short wave, meals were somehow cooked and served, visitors greeted and informed of the latest word, and prayer went up to God continually. The mechanics completed reassembling the helicopter that had been dismantled and sent from Panama, and the helicopter was sent to Palm Beach.
The sounds of many different types of aircraft wove together as they filled the air, moving towards Palm Beach. The planes circled above to keep pace with the the slower helicopter, their pilots flying at different heights to avoid colliding with each other. Johnny Keenan in the little yellow Piper was lowest. A few hundred feet above were the U.S. Navy R-4D plane, and higher, the big amphibian (able to land on water or land) plane of the Air Rescue Service. Close by, Colonel Izurieta of the Ecuadorian Air Force flew in wider circles, ready to help. The teamwork of the United States Army, Air Force, and Navy and of the government and military services of Ecuador was heartwarming to the wives.
The Air Force helicopter made its way over the Curaray River to Palm Beach and landed. Air Force Major Nurnberg, who was riding in the helicopter, jumped out and looked around. He didn’t see anyone there, so he got back in the helicopter and it moved on, flying slowly down the river. It crossed to the other side of the river and stopped, the air beating downward from the blades stirring the muddy water below. It hovered there for a few minutes, then moved on, only to stop again two hundred yards farther on. A third and a fourth time the helicopter stopped and hovered just a few feet over the water. The hearts of those in the aircraft above the helicopter sank as they watched, guessing the meaning of those four stops. They had spotted four bodies.
The aircraft flew back to Arajuno, where the military men leading the search discussed how to break the news to the wives. Johnny Keenan flew Marilou back to Shell Mera, and there the five women convinced Major Nurnberg to tell them everything in detail. Now they knew that four of the men had been found, but they still didn’t know which four they were. Was Ed McCully among them, or was one of them still alive, out in the jungle somewhere? The wives were calm as they listened to the news. Their trust in God was deep, and they were relying on the peace that He was giving them.
The next day, Friday, January 13th, 1956, the ground party moved up the Curarary River to meet the helicopter at Palm Beach. Everyone in the party was jittery from the strain of the past few days and the thought of the job that lay ahead of them. At that point the course of the Curaray River was a series of short, sharp bends and twists and was an ideal ambush area for a Waodani attack. They reached Palm Beach at ten o’clock in the morning, and the party separated into different groups, looking for the men and their possessions, dismantling the plane, and searching for clues up in the tree house as to what happened. It was not until the helicopter arrived at twelve fifteen that the search party could find the bodies of the four men. They discovered that the missing fifth man was Ed McCully – the man that the Quichuas had identified the day before. It was final. Nate, Ed, Roger, Jim and Pete – all five men – had been killed.
A tropical storm was beginning to form, casting an erie light as the search party buried the five men there on Palm Beach. They completed the burial and started the long trek back to Shell Mera. The next day, the five widows were flown over Palm Beach so they could see their husbands’ grave. Olive Fleming quoted some verses that God had impressed on her mind that morning: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ He who has prepared us for this very thing is God….’Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.'”
As the plane veered away, Marj Saint said: “That is the most beautiful little cemetery in the world.”
Two days later, the search party returned to Shell Mera and the women were given more information about what had been found at Palm Beach. Questions filled the minds of the young widows and all who knew of the attack. What had really happened on Palm Beach? How had ten men with lances been able to overcome five men with guns? Why had the Waodani appeared friendly on Friday, only to attack and kill on Sunday? These were questions that no one could answer yet, and the women had to leave it in God’s hands. They knew the most important thing: their husbands were in Heaven with Christ, and they would see them again someday. Their quiet trust in God helped their children, and even though they missed their fathers, they too knew that they would see their daddies again.
“Operation Auca” was immediately continued in spite of the loss of the five men. The station at Arajuno was kept occupied to be ready in case the Waodani should come out for friendly contact. Johnny Keenan resumed the gift flights so that the Indians would know that the white men had nothing but friendly motives. The great evil committed by the Waodani against the five men was never held against them by the other missionaries. They knew that they had killed because they did not know Jesus, and they still wanted to take them the Gospel.
Rachel Saint, Nate Saint’s sister, worked with Dayuma to gather more information about the language. Eventually, Rachel Saint and Elizabeth Elliot were invited to come and live among the Waodani – something that no one outside the tribe had ever been invited to do. Like the men who had given their lives trying to reach these people, the women knew the risk they were taking. But also like the men, they were willing to risk their lives so that the Waodani would have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. They did go to live with the Waodani, and they were able to finally tell them about Jesus’ dying on the cross for their sins. Some of the tribe came to know Jesus as their Savior, and their kill -or-be-killed way of life eventually came to an end.
Years later, Steve Saint, Nate Saint’s son who grew up among the Waodani after his father was killed at their hands, was able to piece together more of what had really happened on that January day in 1956. There had been conflict between the man “George”, or Nenkiwi, as his name really was, and some other members of the tribe, and when Nenkiwi and the girl who had visited the beach happened upon a hunting party of some of the men he was arguing with, he lied and said that the missionaries had tried to kill and eat them. Nenkiwi was known as a troublemaker, and the men didn’t really believe him, but one of the older men, Gikita, told them more lies and kept reminding them about the terrible things that the white men had done to their tribe in the past, fueling their fear and hatred of the white men. When the other woman who had been visiting the beach returned to find the men making spears in preparation for the attack, she told them they were silly for believing Nenkiwi’s lies and that the white men had not harmed them, but Gikita, the leader of the group, would not let the younger men back down. The group went back to Palm Beach, where they speared the missionaries.
Years later, as the men who had been involved in the raid told Steve Saint the rest of the story, they were still filled with regret that they had killed those men that day. As Mincaye, the man who killed Nate Saint, said, “We acted badly, badly, until they brought us God’s carvings. Now, seeing His markings and following His trail, we live happily and in peace.” This was exactly what the five men had dreamed of and prayed for. This was why they had been willing to give their lives so that the Waodani could hear the Gospel, that God had sent His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross to pay the price for the sins of everyone in the world and then rise again so that anyone who believes in Him for salvation can be saved and go to Heaven when they die someday.
It is natural to hear this story and think of the loss of the lives of five young men as a tragedy, but in reality, it was not a tragedy. It was God’s plan, carried out for His glory. The impact of their sacrifice was worldwide – people around the world who heard the story were moved to give their lives to God and live for Him the way that the five men did, and others, like the Waodani, heard the Gospel and were saved. You can have the same kind of impact for God – maybe people around the world won’t hear about your story, but if you surrender your life to God and obey His leading, just like Nate, Jim, Ed, Roger, and Pete, God will use you to bring great glory to Himself.
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