The Wooden Bee and the Story of the Auca Five
Here is my modest contribution to the Year of the Cat, and it is simultaneously a legacy build. The former is tenuously justified by the fact that the model in question bears the nickname “Cub” (the PA-14 Piper Cub, to be precise). I have searched high and low and though some have, post-production, associated the plane with a bear cub, I could find nothing official from Piper Aircraft to that effect. Since big cats have cubs, I’m calling it good to go for the group build, and let all detractors hold their peace.
As far as the legacy aspect goes, the model was built as a gift for my son, Joseph, in memory of a visit we made together in the spring of 1994 to a location and community pertinent to this particular plane. There’s a story to be told which I will get to shortly. But first, the model itself.
The kit was Minicraft’s 1/48 PA-18 Super Cub. I have to say, the kit itself doesn’t have much to commend it other than it fit the bill for what I was trying to accomplish. Parts fit poorly, canopy was much too thick, instructions were ambiguous and poorly printed. It came with plenty of decal options, but as I printed my own for the serial numbers anyway (I only used the striping on the side from the kit) that was moot. The kit was also pretty expensive, all things considered (I’ve gotten my hands on a Tamiya P-47 on Ebay for half the price, for some perspective). Since there were so few parts it was a quick build, other than the fact that I had to slightly modify the cockpit interior and the aft section of the canopy to resemble the PA-14; the PA-18 and the PA-14 were/are essentially the same in respect to exterior dimensions. I painted the exterior with white primer then using rattle can enamel.
Why did I go out of my way to build this kit? The answer lies in the backstory, and my own very modest connection to it. On the date of this posting 62 years ago, January 8, 1956, five young men met their deaths in the Ecuadorian rainforest. They were missionaries, and they were attempting to reach a stone age Indian tribe which itself was on the verge of extinction due to internal blood-feuding. It was a PA-14 that had taken them to the remote spot near the headwaters of the Amazon.
The five men were Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, Ed MCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian. All were in their late 20s or early 30s, all were recently married; most had young children. They had varied backgrounds. Nate Saint, the pilot, had been an Army man late in WW2, but never left stateside duty; Youderian was a paratrooper who fought at the Battle of the Bulge; Elliott was a conscientious objector from a pacifist church group, but was too young to have served in the military anyway. These men had made friendly contact with a group of Indians known as “Aucas” to other Indians (meaning, “Savage Killers”), but called themselves Huaoranis (also spelled Waorani for easier pronunciation). Their settlement was located on the Curaray River (a tributary of the Napo, which eventually flows into the Amazon) deep in the remote jungle basin east of the Andes Mountains. Saint, a highly skilled pilot, fully utilized the PA-14’s capacity as a bush plane, landing on a sandbar that revealed itself when the Curaray was low (this spot was dubbed “Palm Beach” for the large palms that grow adjacent to it). While the men knew the Indians were dangerous, initial contact seemed promising and they continued to make brief visits and built an outstation treehouse.
Saint and his PA-14
The above photo of three of the five men and the PA-14, taken from the sandbar on “Palm Beach,” was snapped hours before things took their fateful turn.
In early January, 1956, all five flew into Auca territory together, set up a radio from their tree house, and began a concerted dialogue with some of the Indians. They took a wooden model of the PA-14 to illustrate the need for an airstrip. Photos and film footage were taken. Yet the missionaries did not know that an internal struggle was brewing within the tribe itself, and the result was that in an effort to save his life from the spears of his own people, the Indian they had spoken with accused the men of misleading him. The Indians overcame their argument by joining forces and deciding it would be better (this time) to kill the outsiders than each other. On January 8, the Aucas attacked. Though the missionaries had a gun, they refused to defend themselves. All five were speared and hacked to death.
Above, Nate Saint and a Huaorani Indian they nicknamed “George,” posing with Saint’s scratch built wooden model of the PA-14, used to demonstrate the need for a landing strip. Note the careful detail on the tail, down to serial numbers. Short hours after this photo was taken George participated the missionaries’ murder; he himself was later speared by his own people.
The Indians stripped the plane of anything they deemed valuable and threw the men’s bodies in the river. Lack of radio contact from the men resulted in a search, and the story was featured in Life magazine; the U.S. Army sent in Panama-based personnel. The search party discovered four of the corpses and the camera (which documented the contact the men had had the day before their deaths, hence these pictures), buried the men, and left the area without further contact with the Indians.
The death of the missionaries was judged variously as a tragedy, a martyrdom, and a folly. How could they have so misjudged the situation, leading to their own deaths and such grief for their families? Didn’t their actions simply further isolate the tribe? To this day the value of their actions is still debated.
What no one debates, however, is the story of redemption that followed. In a remarkable turn of events, Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister), and Betty Elliott (Jim’s widow) reached out to the tribe through its womenfolk and subsequently began a mission among them. The Indians ultimately expressed remorse for the killings, realizing they had done wrong in killing men who meant them no harm. Eventually nearly the entire tribe converted (the women baptized the men who had murdered their loved ones), with the result that the culture of blood-feuding ceased and the Indians began to experience full lifespans (at the time of the murders there was no one in the tribe older than 30). Medicine, education, and infrastructure followed. To this day the only real access to the area is by air.
My connection is that while serving in Ecuador in 1994, we took a vacation in the Amazon Basin. When we arrived at the Missionary Aviation Fellowship base in Mera Shell, Ecuador (the very place Saint used as his base), we heard that Rachel, now in her 80s, was at Palm Beach. We decided to fly out to see her, taking the very route those men had taken years before. We flew low over Palm Beach (the sandbar was obscured by high waters), landed on the airstrip they had envisioned, were greeted by the Indians (one of them, now an old man, had participated in the attack that day), heard some stories, and said our goodbyes. Rachel died about six months later, but before she did, the PA-14 was discovered under the sands at Palm Beach. Its remains were sent to the MAF headquarters in Idaho.
I’m at the right with the beard, my son wears the red T-shirt; Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister, is the white-haired lady at the left, and a Huaorani child stands at the rear.
The remains of Saint’s plane, now in a museum near Boise, Idaho.
For more on this story, see the popular movie The End of the Spear or the (much better) documentary movie Beyond the Gates of Splendor, or read up on it through various sites on the internet.