Capt. Charles P. Sullivan’s harrowing story of heroism and survival in the jungles of New Guinea in World War II is nothing short of amazing.
But as extraordinary as it is, it just goes to show the kinds of known and unknown dangers veterans of every era have had to face while serving their country. And as we observe Veterans Day, it also illustrates that incredible stories of bravery, service and sacrifice are all around us, even at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
An Arkansas Blue Cross connection
Sullivan was the father of our own Patrick O’Sullivan, executive director of the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas. (Confused by the name difference? Don’t be. Patrick’s dad discovered in the 1970s that the family name was really “O’Sullivan,” so he added the “O’” back.)
“Sully” as he was known to his U.S. Army Air Forces buddies, enlisted 2½ months before Pearl Harbor and in 1942 found himself in New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, flying a P-38 Lockheed Lightning – a twin-tailed fighter he affectionately called “my steed” and named “Mareelee” (after his wife). Sully quickly became an “ace,” downing five enemy aircraft.
Day 1 – Welcome to the jungle
But on September 20, 1943, while returning from a raid, a Japanese fighter strafed his aircraft, and he crash-landed in a small, swampy clearing in the jungle, sustaining a nasty gash to his head. Dazed and bleeding, he quickly bandaged his wound, using his canvas flight cap and goggles to hold pressure on the cut. He then fled the crash site to hide in the cover of the trees at the jungle’s edge, where he stayed for two days.
On the third day, concluding that a rescue was not coming, he began making his way through the dense Indonesian jungle with only a 12-inch machete, his .45-caliber automatic pistol and a few items he could carry.
Eluding Japanese patrols, eerie jungle sounds and the fear of unseen beasts made his trek through the jungle even more daunting. Obstacles and dangers were everywhere. Thick, 10-foot-tall kunai grass. Nearly drowning in the rapids of a swollen river. Crocodiles. Wild boars. Sweltering heat. Daily downpours. Oppressive humidity. Harassing insects. Hunger and thirst. And then there were the headhunters. Yes – headhunters.
On the fourth day, he ventured from his camp and found a river he had suspected was nearby. While trying to return to his camp, he became disoriented and confused. Fearing he was hopelessly lost, he knelt and prayed. When he rose, his calm was restored, and he made it back to the river. But his camp and the items he had left there were lost.
Day 5 – Friend or foe?
On the fifth day, he encountered a native. Was he friendly? To find out, Sully smiled, shouted happily and waved his left arm – but he kept his right hand near his pistol. To his relief, the hunter did not appear threatening. The native, accompanied by a woman, was busy field-dressing a freshly killed wild pig. The woman even gave the starved Sully some bananas, which he quickly scarfed down.
Then the hunter led Sully back to a village. There, Sully was fed well and sheltered and quickly became something of a village attraction. But all the attention made him a bit wary. He wondered if his newfound celebrity might lead the Japanese to him.
Keeping a cautious eye, he spent a “pleasant, light-hearted, jovial evening” feasting as the village’s guest of honor, telling the story of his crash – to their delight – through crude sign language.
Day 6 – An ill wind
On the sixth day, he was escorted to another village. There, however, the mood took an abrupt turn, with the appearance of two new natives. The pair violently argued with his host and angrily thrust their spears into the ground. Sully later recalled that it was as if an ill wind had arrived. The atmosphere was no longer friendly. These men seemed to be hostile … and scheming. “I felt I was being stalked,” he later recalled.
For several hours, Sully and the sinister newcomers did an uneasy dance. They gathered some other men and herded Sully from one hut to another. They seemed to be jockeying for position and waiting for an opportunity.
At first, Sully sang loudly to give the appearance he was unafraid. The snarling natives simply stared back at him. Later, he spoke to them confidently and waved his sidearm. The message: he would not go down without a fight. The group sat crouched around a fire as the standoff dragged on into the wee hours.
A fateful fight – 2 seconds of chaos
Then, as Sully was shifting positions, the most aggressive of the group lunged, clutching both his wrists and forcing him against a bamboo wall. Sully was able to force his right hand down and blasted the warrior in the chest. A split second later, a second native sprang from the left, seizing Sully’s left wrist. Sully fired with his right, mortally wounding the second attacker.
The battle lasted all of two seconds. His attackers were dead. The rest had fled into the night. “I can picture the dull glow from the fire, my smoking .45 and me standing there in a crouched position, like it was Custer’s Last Stand,” Sully recalled, years later.
The village was now quiet and still.
A fearful flight – a long, dark night
Realizing he was alone, Sully ran into the dark. But after running only a short distance from the village, he tripped in tall grass and “slithered” into a small depression. After a few frozen moments, there were signs of life. Torches … coming closer. The villagers were awake. Screams and shouts rose. Sully knew the search for him would start soon. He lay motionless, concealed by the dark, as the villagers mourned their fallen warriors, wailing and beating the ground for about an hour. He was so close he could see their shadows. One girl came within an arm’s reach away. He was sure he would be discovered at any moment. Again, he prayed.
About six torturous hours later, the village grew quiet and completely dark. But dawn was coming. It was now or never. Sully rose hesitantly. And nothing happened. Encouraged, he stealthily crept out of the village.
Day 7 – crawl before you run
As dawn broke on the seventh day, he spied two natives in the distance. As he retreated to cover, he stepped on a twig. The hunters froze and looked his way. They could not see him, but one soon dropped out of sight. He knew he had to act quickly and silently. He took off his shoes, hung them around his neck and started crawling away. Crawl for 3 minutes. Stop. Listen for 2 minutes. Repeat.
Eventually, he deposited the shoes under some brush. Even around his neck, they had knocked together noisily. They were a liability.
Eventually, he came to a mountain brook and walked in it to hide his tracks. He then crossed a rushing stream, taking care to leave no footprints on its banks. Once across, he “took off, almost running” to get away from the area, but the effort took a terrible toll on his shoeless feet. He treated them with the remains of the sulfa powder he had used on his head wound.
When he felt he had successfully eluded the hunters and search party, he built a shelter and rested for a couple of days. This became his pattern for the next 3 weeks: travel … shelter … rest … repeat. “By then, I was getting pretty weary,” Sully recalled.
By now, he thought he was far enough away to try a signal fire. But it raged out of control and only succeeded in charring acres and acres of ground that he then had to walk through. “I must have burned off about half of New Guinea,” he said.
Found – a ghostly encounter
Eventually, he encountered an Australian patrol. He cautiously emerged from cover about 30 feet from the group, being careful not to startle them.
At first, the Australians stared at him, as if they were seeing a ghost. Sully later learned that he bore a resemblance to one of their comrades who had been killed in combat about two weeks earlier.
At the Australian camp, Sully radioed his unit that he was alive. He was advised to get back to his base as soon as he was able. There would be no rescue party.
After two days of rest in the Aussie camp, Sully set off with one of their patrols. After a 2-day hike covering 30-40 miles, they arrived at a camp that had a small observation plane.
One more crash – then back to base
The pilot offered to take an exhausted Sully to another airstrip, but a short time into the trip, the plane had a mechanical failure. Another crash-landing. The plane’s landing gear dug into the ground and caused the craft to flip upside down. Miraculously, neither Sully nor the pilot was seriously hurt, but they had to walk several miles back to camp.
The next day, October 20, 1943 – exactly one month after he was shot down – a transport plane flew Sully back to his base, where his squadron (who had long ago written him off as dead) welcomed him heartily.
Sully promptly cabled Mareelee that he was alive and well.
On the homefront – holding onto hope
Unbeknownst to Sully, Mareelee had been fighting another kind of battle – to keep hope alive. An insurance agent had been dogging her for several weeks to pay off on Sully’s life insurance. She repeatedly told the man she would not consider it. But privately, she set a deadline to concede and accept the payment: one month. Amazingly, she received the happy news of her husband’s survival on the deadline day.
After hearing about his ordeal, the Air Force brass offered to let Sully lead a “revenge raid” on the native village. But Sully, who had now contracted malaria, declined.
Back home – and on with life
Upon his return to the United States, Sully became an air combat instructor. After the war, Sully and Mareelee started their family (five sons), and Sully decided to stay in the service as a career. He was anxious to achieve some semblance of normalcy. So when Hollywood came calling shortly after the war, he turned down offers to bring his story to the silver screen.
In his Air Force career, Sully:
- Became one of the first military jet pilots in the United States
- Was an air instructor in the Illinois Air National Guard
- Served as Chief of Plans in the 1009th Special Weapons Squadron in Washington, D.C.
- Attended Air War College
- Served as Air Attaché in Lisbon, Portugal
- Was the first Wing Commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing (Titan II missiles) in Arkansas. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel.
After leaving the service in 1968, he went on to a 12-year career as a banking executive in Little Rock. He was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.
A big discovery – and a big danger
In yet another amazing twist, in 1993, nearly 50 years to the day of his crash, he was notified that the wreckage of his P-38 had been found in the New Guinea jungle.
Understandably, Sully wanted to go back and see his beloved “steed,” but he was sternly warned to stay away. The villagers and their descendants had vowed to kill him if he ever returned. A half-century later, he was still a marked man.
Fast forward to 2008 – when an Arkansas-based documentary film crew traveled to New Guinea to chronicle Sully’s story.
An aging villager, a boy in 1943, told interviewers that villagers were angry at the man who had killed their warriors. But they were mystified by how he had magically disappeared. All they found, he said, were the man’s shoes, sitting under a bush, as if he had vanished right out of them.
And in a final irony, Col. O’Sullivan passed away at the age of 98 on September 20, 2013 – the 70th anniversary of the start of his heroic jungle odyssey.
You can read Sully’s gripping, detail-rich first-person account of his ordeal at http://cobraintheclouds.com/colcharlesposullivan.html. Or if you’d rather see it in documentary form – told by Sully and others, including the villager who was a boy in 1943) just check out Arkansan Josh Baxter’s “Injury Slight: Please Advise” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmLunXAqjOw.