Fred Hargesheimer, a World War II Army pilot whose rescue by Pacific islanders led to a life of giving back as a builder of schools and teacher of children, died Thursday in Lincoln, Neb., after a period of declining health, his family said. He was 94.
On June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer, a P-38 pilot with the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, was shot down by a Japanese fighter while on a mission over the Japanese-held island of New Britain in the southwest Pacific. He parachuted into the jungle, where he barely survived for 31 days until he was found by local hunters.
They took him to their coastal village and for seven months hid him from Japanese patrols, fed him and nursed him back to health from two illnesses. In February 1944, with the help of Australian commandos working behind Japanese lines, he was picked up by a U.S. submarine off a New Britain beach.
Returning to the U.S. after the war, Hargesheimer, a native of Rochester, Minn., got married and began a sales career with a Minnesota forerunner of computer maker Sperry Rand, his lifelong employer. But he said he couldn't forget the Nakanai people, whom he considered his saviors.
The more he thought about it, he later said, "the more I realized what a debt I had to try to repay."
After revisiting the village of Ea Ea in 1960, he came home, raised $15,000 over three years, "most of it $5 and $10 gifts," and then returned with his 17-year-old son Richard in 1963 to contract for the building of the villagers' first school.
In the decades to come, Hargesheimer's U.S. fundraising and determination built a clinic, another school and libraries in Ea Ea, renamed Nantabu, and surrounding villages.
In 1970, their three children grown, Hargesheimer and his late wife, Dorothy, moved to New Britain, today an out-island of the nation of Papua New Guinea, and taught the village children for four years. The Nantabu school's experimental plot of oil palm even helped create a local economy, a large plantation with jobs for impoverished villagers.
On his last visit, in 2006, Hargesheimer was helicoptered into the jungle and carried in a chair by Nakanai men to view the newly found wreckage of his World War II plane. Six years earlier, on another visit, he was proclaimed "Suara Auru," "Chief Warrior" of the Nakanai.
"The people were very happy. They'll always remember what Mr. Fred Hargesheimer has done for our people," said Ismael Saua, 69, a former teacher at the Nantabu school.
"These people were responsible for saving my life," Hargesheimer told the Associated Press in a 2008 interview. "How could I ever repay it?"
Hargesheimer is survived by his sons Richard, of Lincoln, and Eric, of White Bear Lake, Minn.; a daughter, Carol, of Woodbury, Minn.; as well as a sister, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.