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 Aucas 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 hunched close to the radio. The atmosphere was not giving any interference. Perhaps Nate’s watch had run a little slow.
In Arajuno, Marilou and Barbara had their radio on, too. 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.
Clinging To Little Hope
Were the men so preoccupied with entertaining their visitors that they had forgotten the planned contact? Five minutes … ten minutes … No, it was inconceivable that all five would forget. It was the first time since Nate had started jungle flying in 1948 that he and Marj had been out of contact even for an hour.
But—perhaps their radio was not functioning. It happened occasionally. The women clung to each little hope, refusing to entertain the thought of anything’s really having gone wrong. Their suspense was the sharper because most of their missionary friends on the network were unaware that Operation Auca was in progress. In Arajuno, Barbara and little Beth Youderian had primped up a bit, since it had been planned that Roj would come to Arajuno that night, while Pete took a turn sleeping in the tree house. Surely the little plane would come winging over the treetops before sundown. They walked up and down the airstrip, waiting …
Just after sundown Art Johnston, one of the doctors with Hospital Vozandes, affiliated with the missionary radio station HCJB in Quito, came into the radio room in Shell Mera. The radio was still on, but Marj sat with her head down on the desk.
“Is something the matter, Marj?”
She told him the situation briefly, but asked that he not divulge it yet. If nothing serious had actually happened, it would be disastrous to publicize what was taking place. There was little sleep that night for any of the wives.
By seven o’clock on the morning of Monday, January 9, 1956, Johnny Keenan, Nate’s colleague in the MAF, was in the air flying toward the sand strip which Nate had eariler pointed out to him. As he flew, Marj called me in Shandia: “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 I knew that anything was amiss. A verse God had impressed on my mind when I first arrived in Ecuador came back suddenly and sharply; “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.…” I went upstairs to continue teaching the Indian girls’ literacy class, praying silently, “Lord, let not the waters overflow.”
At about nine-thirty Johnny’s report came through. Marj relayed it to me in Shandia:
“Johnny has found the plane on the beach. All the fabric is stripped off. There is no sign of the fellows.”
In Shell Mera, a pilot of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Larry Montgomery (who is also a reserve officer in the USAF), lost no time in contacting Lieutenant General William K. Harrison, Commander in Chief of the Caribbean Command, which included the United States Air Rescue Service in Panama. Radio station HCJB, was also informed and news flashed around the world: “FIVE MEN MISSING IN AUCA TERRITORY.” By noon, all possible forces which might contribute to their rescue, including the prayers of thousands of people in all parts of the world, were set in motion.
Ground Search Party
On Monday evening it was decided that a ground search party should be organized, on the assumption that one or more of the men still lived, and Frank Drown, Roger Youderian’s colleague, a man with twelve years of jungle experience among the Jivaros, was unanimously elected to lead the party. Dr. Art Johnston offered to go along in his capacity as physician. Thirteen Ecuadorian soldiers promptly volunteered.
On Tuesday morning I was flown out of Shandia with Nate’s sister Rachel, who had been with me while the men went on the Auca trip. Frank was brought out from Macuma, and many of the missionary men arrived in Shell Mera from Quito, some as volunteers to go on the ground party. Word was received via short wave that a helicopter was on its way from Panama, which lifted the spirits in Shell Mera. That night the pilot of an Ecuadorian airline came to the house to tell the wives that he had flown over the scene at about six o’clock in the evening, and saw, a short distance upstream, a large fire, “without any smoke,” which would indicate perhaps a gasoline fire or a signal flare. Nate always carried signal flares in his emergency kit. This was a ray of hope for the five wives to sleep on that night.
Sighting The First Body
On Wednesday Johnny Keenan took off again in MAF’s second Piper Cruiser, 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. Barbara, Olive, and I were upstairs. Suddenly, Marj called: “Betty! Barbara! Olive!”
I raced down the stairs. Marj was standing with her head against the radio, her eyes closed. After a while she spoke: “They found one body.”
A quarter mile downriver from the little denuded plane Johnny had sighted a body, floating face-down in the water, dressed in khaki pants and white tee-shirt, the usual uniform of the men. Barbara felt it was not Roger; he had been wearing blue-jeans.
Some of the land party went over to Arajuno to prepare the airstrip for the big planes which would be arriving soon from Panama. Late on Wednesday afternoon the roar of the planes was heard, and far on the western horizon where the volcano Sangay stands, a smoking pyramid, the great planes were silhouetted. As they drew near and circled the strip, the red, white, and blue of the United States Air Force became visible.
Expectation Runs Low
Dee Short, a missionary from western Ecuador, who happened to be in Quito when news of the disaster arrived, had come to Arajuno. As the party left, Marilou turned to him and said with finality: “There is no hope. All the men are dead.” Probably most of the ground party would have agreed with her but, nevertheless, every time they rounded a bend of the river they looked expectantly for one or more of the missing men.
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.”
At about four o’clock in the afternoon the ground party reached Oglan, an Indian settlement situated at the place where the Oglan River meets the Curaray. Here camp was set up for the night. Frank Drown organized the group, appointing one man to hire canoes, one in charge of cargo, one to plan seating in the canoes, one as mess chief, two for safety precautions. That night they slept on beds of banana leaves. Watches were kept all night.
Before the party set off on Thursday morning, the missionaries offered up prayer, committing themselves into the hands of God; and the Ecuadorian soldiers, of a different faith, prayed with them. The party moved cautiously down the Curaray; the river was at its lowest, making navigation difficult, and special care was exercised in rounding the many bends, for it was feared Aucas might be lying in wait.
At about ten o’clock Johnny Keenan again flew over the ground party in the Piper, and Frank Drown was able to make contact with him by means of a two-way radio which the Air Rescue Service had supplied. Johnny told them of two canoes of Quichuas, proceding upriver in the direction of the ground party; he feared that in their excitement some one of the men in the party might shoot at the first sight of an Indian on the river. Soon the two canoes of Quichuas appeared. They were a small group of Indians from McCully’s station at Arajuno. On their own initiative they had boldly pressed into Auca territory ahead of anyone else, and had gone all the way to Palm Beach. The ground party was saddened when one of the Indians, a believer who had come to know Christ since Ed had gone to Arajuno, told them of having found Ed’s body on the beach at the edge of the water. He had Ed’s watch with him.
Now the missionaries knew who one of their fallen colleagues was, but a chance remained that at least three others had survived. They pressed on.
Wives Pray And Trust
As the wives hoped and prayed and waited the procession of flying machines moved slowly down toward Palm Beach, the airplanes circling to keep pace with the slower helicopter skimming along at treetop level and following the bends of the river. The airplanes chose different altitudes to avoid danger of collision as pilots circled with eyes on the jungle below. Johnny Keenan in the little yellow Piper was lowest. A few hundred feet above were the U.S. Navy R-4D (the Navy version of the familiar DC-3), and, higher, the big amphibian of the Air Rescue Service. Close by, Colonel Izurieta in a plane of the Ecuadorian Air Force flew in wider circles ready to help should decisions be needed. 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.
Air Force Major Numberg, riding in the Army helicopter, landed briefly to talk with the ground party, still some distance up the river from Palm Beach. Ed McCully’s name was mentioned guardedly on the radio. Those hearing guessed that somehow Ed’s body had been identified. Was his one of the two bodies that had been seen from the air? Had three perhaps escaped into the jungle? Or been taken captive?
After a few moments the helicopter moved on. Finally, rounding a bend, it came at last to Palm Beach and landed. Nurnberg, carbine at the ready, jumped out and looked around. Anxious minutes went by. Back in the “chopper” he radioed: “No one here.” Hope flickered brighter in those who heard.
The helicopter was off again and started slowly down the river. Crossing to the other side it stopped, hovering, the force of its downwash disturbing the muddy surface of the water. Minutes later it moved on, only to stop again two hundred yards farther on. A third and a fourth time Nurnberg and McGee hung motionless ten feet above the water, rotor blades beating dangerously close to overhanging jungle trees. Hearts sank in the aircraft above as those watching guessed the meaning of those stops.
The aircraft returned to Arajuno. Once on the ground, Nurnberg, his face showing strain, confirmed suspicions. Speaking in low tones to the tight circle of military men, he explained that McCully’s body, identified by the small party of Quichuas the day before, was now gone from the beach, no doubt washed away by the rain and higher water in the night. He leafed through his notebook for a moment. A few Indians stood silent in the tall grass nearby, listening and watching. “We found four in the river,” Numberg said, finally. “I don’t think identification will be possible from what I have here—” indicating his notebook. “One of them may be McCully.”
He did not have to say what was in every mind. There might be one who got away, possibly wounded, still in the jungle.
How To Tell Bad News
How to inform the wives was the question uppermost in military minds. Should Marilou be told? She was right there at Arajuno in the house.
“We’d better wait,” Nurnberg said. “DeWitt is running this show. Let’s get back to Shell and talk it over.” Captain DeWitt in the big Air Force amphibian was overhead, not wanting to risk a landing on the small strip at Arajuno. All returned to Shell and the military men gathered in the cabin of the amphibian. The wives would have to be told. But how?
Someone else had wisely decided to tell Marilou that four bodies had been found. Later in the afternoon Johnny flew her out to Shell to be with the four other wives.
In the end it was the wives who persuaded DeWitt and Nurnberg that there was no need to soften the blow. We wanted to know everything in detail. We gathered in Marj’s bedroom away from the children. Major Nurnberg opened his notebook and in terse sentences described what he had found. It was immediately evident that identification could not be positive. One body was caught under the branches of a fallen tree; only a large foot with a gray sock appeared at the surface of the muddy water. In reading his notes of another, Nurnberg said: “This one had on a red belt of some woven material.” Four of us turned our eyes toward the fifth, Olive Fleming.
“That was Pete,” Olive said simply.
As the Major concluded, it was still not known whether Ed’s body was one of those in the river. There was still the hope that one might have got away.
The Depth Of Trust
The military men, to whom the breaking of such news to loved ones was no new thing, left the bedroom silently. Their news had been met with serenity. No tears could rise from the depth of trust which supported the wives.
Barbara Youderian wrote in her diary:
“Tonight the Captain told us of his finding four bodies in the river. One had tee-shirt and blue-jeans. Roj was the only one who wore them … God gave me this verse two days ago, Psalm 48:14, ‘For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our Guide even unto death.’ As I came face to face with the news of Roj’s death, my heart was filled with praise. He was worthy of his home-going. Help me, Lord, to be both mummy and daddy. ‘To know wisdom and instruction …’ Tonight Beth prayed for daddy in Heaven, and asked me if daddy would come down from Heaven to get a letter she wanted to write him. I said, ‘He can’t come down. He’s with Jesus.’ She said, ‘But Jesus can help him come down, and God will take his hand so he won’t slip.’
“I wrote a letter to the mission family, trying to explain the peace I have. I want to be free of self-pity. It is a tool of Satan to rot away a life. I am sure that this is the perfect will of God. Many will say, ‘Why did Roj get mixed up in this, when his work was with Jivaros?’ Because Roj came to do the will of Him that sent him. The Lord has closed our hearts to grief and hysteria, and filled in with His perfect peace.”
Death In Muddy Waters
Starting out again at six in the morning of Friday, January 13, the party was on the last lap of its mission, with a date to meet the helicopter at Palm Beach at ten. The men had to hurry to get there and everyone was jittery from the strain of the trip and the thought of the job that lay ahead.
At last the beach was reached. There was no sign as yet of the helicopter. The ground party set to work, everyone having been assigned different duties: the Ecuadorian soldiers spread out in a semicircle in the jungle behind the beach to act as cover, two Indians set to digging a common grave under the tree house, others waded into the river looking for the men’s possessions. Dee Short and Frank Drown crawled up into the tree house to try to find a clue to what had happened. Some of the men began to dismantle the plane, others looked for bodies. It was not until the helicopter arrived at twelve-fifteen and hovered over the bodies where they lay in the muddy waters of the Curaray, that the ground crew was able to find them. Frank Drown told of the scene:
“First Nurnberg pointed out one body downstream and Fuller jumped into the water and pulled the body across. Then Nurnberg showed us Nate Saint’s body, and we got in a canoe and went downstream, and saw an arm coming out of the water, so I tried to attach a string to the arm and I just could not bring myself to do it. I’d reach out and try and then pull back, and have to try again until finally the man who was in the canoe with me did it. Now we were three canoes with three bodies attached to them, going upstream. We laid all four face down in a row on the beach. We never did get the fifth, which was Ed McCully’s body. Then I got over my feeling of hating to touch the bodies, because a body is only a house and these fellows had left their house and, after the soul leaves, the body isn’t much after all. The thing that is beautiful to us is the soul, not the body.”
Identification of the four bodies was finally positive from wedding rings and watches, change purse, notebooks. Ed was not one of the four, so it was finally definite: all five were dead. In the providence of God the missing body was the one identified by the Quichuas the day before. Not only had they brought back his watch, but also they had taken off one of his shoes (a tremendous shoe—size thirteen and one-half) and thrown it up on the beach. The day before, Nurnberg had picked it up and brought it back to Shell Mera.
While the bodies were being drawn ashore a violent tropical storm was gathering. At that moment the helicopter came in low and fast. Cornell Capa, a photographer-correspondent on assignment for Life magazine, jumped out, camera in hand, and ran across the beach. Then the full fury of the storm struck and the missionaries felt as if the powers of darkness had been let loose.
Earth’s Most Beautiful Cemetery
On Saturday morning Captain DeWitt of the Rescue Service asked us five widows if we would “care to fly over Palm Beach to see your husbands’ grave?”
We replied that if this were not asking too much, we would be grateful. The Navy R-4D took us out over the jungle, where the Curaray lay like a brown snake in the undulating green. Pressing our faces close to the windows as we knelt on the floor of the plane, we could see the slice of white sand where the Piper stood. Olive Fleming recalled the 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.”
Peace And Power
How good it is to turn aside
Each night and day
From fearsome clamoring of men
To praise and pray!
What a relief it is to be
With Him our Lord;
When nations o’er the earth have drawn
The steel of sword!
O what a privilege is prayer
In such an hour!
From bended knee alone
Come peace and power.
The swift-moving epic of the five missionaries martyred in the attempt to evangelize the Auca Indians of Ecuador has just been published by Harper & Brothers under the title Through Gates of Splendor. The author, Elisabeth Howard Elliot, is already familiar to readers of Christianity Today through her inspirational article “The Prayer of the Five Widows” (Jan. 7). The above portion of the new book, reprinted by permission of the publishers, is an abridgment of the chapter tided “Silence.” The chapter is more than a graphic account of the tense hours in which the missionary wives—Marjorie Saint, Barbara Youderian, Olive Fleming, Marilou McCully and Elisabeth Elliot—first learned of the loss of their men; it is a story of heroic faith in a time of trouble. This book is a missionary drama moving with godly devotion. More than holy heartbreak, it is gethsemanic glory reflected anew. Reminiscent of the missionary stamina and sacrifice of the apostolic age, this twentieth century saga proclaims the high courage of Christian dedication and the high confidence that the risen Christ walks amid life’s shadows keeping watch over his own. The families of the five men are still at work in the jungle.—Ed.
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