As is well known, April 16, 1944 was a dark day for Fifth Air Force crews. Many of the men were on missions that day when a front set in, wreaking havoc on their journey home. Thirty-seven planes were lost due to the terrible weather, through crashes, running out of fuel or losing their way. Among the planes lost was one belonging to the 22nd Bomb Group’s 408th Squadron. It was flown by 1/Lt. Robert Stone, who was returning from a mission to Hollandia when the weather moved in.
Because visibility was poor and planes were being tossed around so much, there was a higher potential for a mid-air collision. Stone made the decision to separate from the rest of his squadron and head back home alone. The B-24 was caught in numerous up and down drafts, rendering the plane almost uncontrollable. The pilot continued through the storm for nearly two hours before realizing he was lost and, with no fuel left to spare, he made the decision to bail out. He took the plane up to 18,000 feet where the crew jumped out over the Finisterre Mountains 25 miles south of Saidor. The men experienced snow and sleet during their decent, and soon became separated in the heavy cloud cover.
Bombardier 1/Lt. Truman T. Henderson landed in the jungle alone. He spent the afternoon searching and calling for the rest of his crew, but never heard a reply. With that, he found a somewhat sheltered spot in the jungle, where he spent a miserably soggy night. The next morning, Henderson decided that his best chance of survival would be to head for the coast, keeping in mind that there were still small groups of Japanese moving through the area after the Allies seized it. The allegiance of the natives was also questionable, so he was cautious about any interactions with them, lest they turn him over to the Japanese.
He spent the day trekking through the rugged terrain along a river, only stopping once to eat a chocolate bar. When night fell, he sought the shelter of giant tree roots, where he was unable to sleep. His confidence in his survival buoyed his spirits and he got an early start the following morning. This time, he found a trail, which he followed to a clearing. In this clearing was a garden, full of sweet potatoes, green beans, sugar cane and corn. Henderson called out to see if anyone was around before helping himself to some of the produce. He spent the rest of the day and the night at the garden to gather his strength for the next leg of his journey.
Before setting off again on the 19th, Henderson packed his parachute bag with some of the garden’s produce. He saw a couple of natives, who ran away when they spotted the American. Eventually, it was time to find a spot to rest for the night. His best bet would be to cross the river he had been following and find a good spot there. The river was wide, and it was apparent there was no easy way to cross it. If he fell into the water, the current could easily sweep him downstream and over a 60-foot waterfall. About eight feet into the middle of the river was a rock Henderson could land on, provided he could make the jump. He felt he could do it and leaped off the shore, only to land short of the rock. He hung onto it for dear life, spending about five minutes fighting the current as he struggled to climb on the rock. There, he would spend another night, hoping he’d have the strength to make the jump to the other side the next day.
Morning brought a renewed determination to get to the shore and Henderson successfully crossed the river. After following another trail, he happened on a lean-to, whose occupants again fled when they saw the American. (Henderson later learned that Japanese soldiers were raiding the villages.) He stopped to roast some of his corn over a fire when he saw two local men cautiously heading towards him. After some attempts to show he was friendly, Henderson was taken to a village where he met the chief, who promised to give him a guide to the coast the next day. He was fed very well by the natives, before turning in for the night.
The following three days were spent hiking up and down the slopes and crossing swamps. Henderson learned how to get drinking water by cutting green bamboo canes and how to cook food like that of the locals. When the group reached the coast, Henderson took the opportunity to bathe in the ocean. It was his first bath in a week. On the following morning, they got an early start and encountered an American Army patrol that had been sent out to search for the crew. He went back to the base with the patrol, where he planned on beginning his journey home the next day. After a morning of swimming and an afternoon of target practice, Henderson headed for a boat to Saidor and ran into three of his crew members, who had spent six days making their way to the coast. Nine days after leaving Nadzab, the four men finally returned to the 22nd Bomb Group. The final three members of their crew arrived at Nadzab two days later, all with stories of their journey.