Early in the afternoon of April 5, 1944, after an attack on Japan’s hometown of Hollandia (now Jayapura, Indonesia), the A-20 Havoc, suffering from obvious engine trouble, withdrew from formation and was out of the air. it fell. It exploded on impact and disappeared into a thick jungle canopy. Ensign Thomas Freeman, 23, and Cpl were on board. Ralph A. McKendrick, 22 years old.
I visited and took pictures of this World War II crash site in 2019. But that wasn’t my first visit. It came in 1986 when I was 12 years old. My family recently moved to Papua New Guinea to work with a Bible translation organization. About 800 languages are spoken there. As part of an introduction to that life and culture, we lived in the neighboring village of Rikan for six weeks. Clay River in East Sepik Province. The wreck was an hour hike from the village.
Those weeks of childhood in Rikan-and they are still-was a treasure. You felt your body as the tropical air moistened your entire face, through the clay soil of your bare feet, and through the cold waters of the river you jumped into. You feel connected with the people who care for you. I taught you. When hiking outside the village, the villagers, who are skilled in balancing, support your arms and stabilize you as you fall over streams and canyons and cross trees that act as rustic bridges.
Back in the village, you sat outside the house to share stories, taste new food, learn new languages, and see the fading light of another day. On a sunny night, you looked up at the Milky Way. You felt the feeling of a fast-growing home.
This time and place as a child fostered a sense of relevance. So was the crash site.
Early in my stay in Rikan, a group of villagers took my father, sister, and me to the place. I remember the sacred sensations of the high-pitched sounds of insects, remote areas, and debris.
Living in Papua New Guinea has made me love a lot, but I was still saddened by the location, the separation from the United States. Those who left a few months ago knew that they would never meet again for four years. It’s been a long time for 12 years old.
Standing in front of this wreckage made me realize that others were too far from home. To stare at the U.S. Army Air Force insignia on the fuselage, touch rivets, pick up one of the many .50 caliber cartridges scattered in the soil, and think that two lives ended here. Your place in the world to keep your distance from your home.
Therefore, this wreck was not just a relic of war. It was also a message, an envoy, and a neighbor.
In 1967, a U.S. military team recovered the wreckage of the crew. However, I learned the names of these two men in the last few years through a website called Pacific Wrecks. Lieutenant Freeman was born in Wichita County, Texas, and joined Dallas in April 1942. McKean Rick-he was promoted from the rank of Corporal after his death-was from McKean County, Pennsylvania, and joined Buffalo, New York in October 1942.
Lieutenant Freeman was not a stranger to the tragedy. The mother died at the age of 11 and the father died at the age of 15. Lieutenant Freeman and Sergeant McKendrick were unmarried at the time of enlistment.
On June 20, 2019, sitting next to a single-engine Quest Kodiak pilot, I overlooked the familiar landscape as the plane approached Rikan. Twenty-seven years after his last visit in 1992, I and many others have traveled here to celebrate with the community the completion of the translation of the New Testament into the local language of Waran. I felt a deep joy when the planes lined up to land on the grass runway — as you feel when you’re back in the center of your life after a quarter-century wandering. It is a thing.
There was a hug and a reunion, and an old friend’s hand was on my lap while we sat down and shared the story. I had gray hair and faded eyes. Introducing children and grandchildren, sharing breadfruit (a taste I missed very much), and the cold water of the river were once again on my skin.
This return felt like a pilgrimage. It was a journey back to the meaningful things that shaped me as a kid, and I was anxious to meet again. This is one of the reasons why we hiked outside the village with others and returned to the crash site within 24 hours of landing. Having laid on the jungle floor for 75 years, the size of the plane was slightly reduced. Little by little, parts like propellers were being carried away.
But most of it was still there. And standing in front of it, I’m no longer a kid, this is what I saw. That life goes back a long time and moves towards an uncertain future. Life is a web that connects us all: birth and death, touchdown and departure. Its life is corrosion and rot, flowers and smiles, parrots. That life tells each other’s stories, our stories, and helps each other balance, whether crossing awkward bridges or simply moving time.
Joel Caliette A photojournalist based in Tennessee.You can follow his work Instagram When twitter..