Island adventure takes a turn

PAGO PAGO, AMERICAN SAMOA — "You have deep and critical wounds to your leg, Mr. Henley. The dogs mauled through to the muscles and bone in several places. Your leg looks like mincemeat. I must operate at once."

These were the words of Dr. Alexander Baranek, who along with a physician's assistant and two nurses, prepared me for surgery as I lay in intense pain in the emergency room of the Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center here in steamy and seedy Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa.

I had flown in mid-April to this isolated U.S. Pacific territory south of the Equator, and 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, for a 10-day adventure to photograph island native life and 20th century shipwrecks scattered throughout the Samoan archipelago.

I also planned to travel to several outer islands I had not visited on previous trips in this frightfully hot and humid island group that native chiefs ceded to the United States in 1900 to serve as a deep-water port and coaling station for U.S. Navy warships and merchant vessels.

During the first six days of my trip, I traveled throughout the main island of Tutuila, as originally planned, taking photos of colorful native villages and their inhabitants and a half-dozen wrecked ships that lie rusting and half-submerged in coastal waters and on deserted rural beaches far from the population center of Pago Pago.

But four days before my scheduled return to Newport Beach, my adventure turned into a decided misadventure.

I had traveled 25 miles northwest of Pago Pago to the farthest tip of Tutuila Island, where I hired a small boat in the fishing village of Auasi that carried me to the tiny island of Aunu'u, about two miles offshore.

Aunu'u, population 450, is about 2 square miles in size, and the site of yet another shipwreck, beautiful beaches and a scary-looking swamp that contains quicksand that can suck a human to his death in a matter of minutes.

I prudently avoided the quicksand, took photos of the beaches and shipwreck and was hiking back to Aunu'u harbor for the return boat ride to the main island when I suddenly found myself in a situation straight out of hell.

Pausing to photograph a group of children gathered in a clearing near the Aunu'u pier, I was surrounded by a stray pack of four snarling dogs. They circled me, barking loudly and showing their fangs.

One of the dogs lunged at me and a little girl standing at my side. I instinctively threw out my arm to shield her from the dog, she stumbled and managed to run off. So did the dog.

A second dog then tried to attack me, but I threw a rock at him and he also ran away.

But two other dogs rushed me from the side and rear and found their marks. One bit into my left leg, tearing out massive chunks of skin, tissue and muscle. I hit it with my camera and it ran away.

A fourth dog attacked the same leg, clamping down deeply and refusing to let go. Blood spurted from the wounds like fountains. Several villagers ran up and beat the animal off with wooden sticks.

I fell to the ground and was carried to a small concrete house where I was laid upon a bed, went into shock and fell unconscious. In a few minutes, I was shaken awake by the house's inhabitants, who wrapped my wounds with paper towels and stopped the bleeding with what appeared to be a belt or strap.

There were no medical facilities on the island, so villagers took me to the harbor and summoned a police officer on the main island by radiotelephone. He dispatched a fishing boat to pick me up, and when it arrived I was laid upon a filthy mat at the bottom of the boat and transported back to Tutuila Island and rushed to the hospital in Pago Pago.

When Dr. Baranek, a visiting German surgeon, removed the bloody paper towels from my leg and showed me the damage, I almost passed out again. My leg looked like hamburger.

"Look here, I can touch your leg bone, the tibia," he exclaimed as he inserted his forefinger into the gaping holes.

The operation proved successful. I was stitched up, received excellent medical care for five days at the government-run hospital, and my bill totaled $140. This included the surgery, daily changes of dressings, drugs and doctors' fees.

On the second day of my hospital stay, I befriended a fellow patient who told me, "When you are better, come to my home and my family and I will prepare you dinner."

I thanked him for his gracious offer and asked what he would serve me.

"Dog. We like to eat dog," he answered.

"Dog?" I asked, incredulously.

"Yes. I come from the nearby island of Tonga and Tongans like to eat dogs. We cook them with mangoes, papayas and vegetables in an oven called an omu," he said.

"Thanks, but no thanks," I winced.

Knowing of my run-in with the dogs on Aunu'u Island, he laughed uproarishly. I managed a weak smile.

DAVID C. HENLEY, a writer, photographer, long-time Newport Beach resident and a member of the Board of Trustees of Chapman University.

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