The World News Saturday, September 20, 1952
This article is titled: How I survived 15 days in trackless jungle- A TRUE ADVENTURE
By Staff-Sergeant Louis Langston as told to James H Winchester
With four companions, a US Air Force sergeant parachuted deep into wild South American jungle to rescue stranded American missionaries. I WAS scared. Down below, the dense, unexplored Venezuelan jungle, its unbroken pattern split "only by the wide, sluggish channel of the crocodile-filled Orinoco River was an awesome blanket of green, stretching from horizon to horizon. It was early in December 1947.
Looking through the open hatch of the United States Air Force twin-engined B-25. I watched silently as the jungle below unfolded beneath my gaze. We were flying west, at 1500ft altitude, following the Orinoco inland from the sea. It was mid-morning, bright, clear. In a few minutes, I knew, I would be parachuting into that green hell below. It wasn't a pleasant thought. The pattern of events leading up to this moment had begun in Caracas, capital of Venezuela, three days before. An amateur radio operator, monitoring his set, picked up a faint distress call. It was from an American missionary named Phelps, well known in Venezuela and elsewhere in Central and South America, where he's worked with backcountry Indians and natives for years. Phelps' SOS, broadcast over a portable transmitter which was part of his camp equipment, was urgent: "Have been ambushed. Am besieged by unfriendly Indians. One of parties, an American, wounded. Short on food, medicine, ammunition. Need help."
Weeks before, Phelps, accompanied by four other Americans and a dozen friendly Indians, traveling by flat-bottomed rowboats, had set off up the Orinoco to visit a rarely traveled area up a side stream known as the Manapire River. Now, having run into unfriendly tribesmen, with one of his party wounded and their food supplies gone, he was badly in need of help. The Venezuelan authorities asked the American Air Force unit, stationed at Maracay, where we were teaching members of the Venezuela Air Force how to fly and maintain American-built planes if we could send a search plane out to look for the party. Flying in a B-25-I was the flight engineer and observer-it took us two days before we spotted the Phelps party. It was late in the afternoon. We were just ready to give up the search for the night.
Our gasoline supply was low. We saw them, huddled together, in a small jungle clearing on the banks of the Manapire River, about four miles from the stream's junction with the Orinoco. Flying as low as we dared, we dropped several containers filled with emergency rations. It was too dark to see clearly where they landed. Then we headed back home to our base at Maracay. Landing there, we received the heartbreaking news that all of the emergency supplies we'd dropped had fallen into the river bordering the clearing. They weren't recovered. Phelps, in another urgent radio message, said he still needed help particularly food, medicine, and ammunition. It was this message that motivated the decision to parachute a rescue party into the jungle to help them. A call went out for volunteers. Now, the five of us who'd volunteered to try and lead Phelps' party back to safety were riding the skies only minutes away from our jump point.
Four Venezuelan Air Force enlisted men, natives of the area where Phelps and his companions were stranded, had offered their services. I remember them only as George, Muldonado, Jesse and Choo Choo. But I'll never forget their courage and companionship when the going was rugged. I was the only American in the five-man rescue group. I was in charge. Because it was impossible to jump into the jungle near the clearing where the Phelps party had been located, our decision was to jump into the Orinoco River itself, right at the junction point with the Manapire, make our way to shore, then follow the shoreline upstream to the Phelps campsite. We jumped light. Each of us wore a pair of regulation Army pants and shirt and a pair of heavy Army boots. Over our shirts, each wore a jungle jacket. These jackets, a post-war development, were to save our lives again and again during the 15 days we were to spend in the jungle. The jungle jacket is a loose-fitting affair with a waterproof lining and a dozen pockets. Into this lining and into the pockets can be packed enough emergency rations and gear to enable a man to survive indefinitely in the jungle.
Among the gear we carried in them was a large folding machete, for use in chopping through the jungle; fish hooks and lines; matches in a waterproof container; a compass, fitted into the top of the match container; a metal spit for holding meat over an open, fire; water purifying tablets; a 45 pistol with extra ammunition; a metal mirror for signalling; and a cap with mosquito netting which came down the face and tied around the neck.
We jumped as close as possible to the banks of the river. That way we didn't have so far to swim ashore, thus reducing our risk of meeting a full-grown crocodile in the water face-to-face. Just before we jumped we took off our boots and tied them to our belts. Muldonado and Jesse bailed out first. On the second pass up the river, George and Choo-Choo hit the silk. I jumped on the third pass. All of us landed fairly close together, about 200 feet from shore. Frankly, I was so scared when I hit the water all I could think about was those crocodiles-that I hardly remember swimming shore. All of us reached there safely, however. We didn't see any crocodiles. Not then, anyway, Maybe the splash we made landing scared them away. The pilot in the B-25 made a wide circle, spotted us safely ashore, then headed back toward the coast. We were alone in the jungle.
It was now almost 11 am. Using the machetes from our jungle kits we started working our way through the jungle, sticking as close to the river bank as we could, toward the place where we knew the Phelps party were waiting. It was hard going all the way. The jungle closed over our heads like a tunnel. No sunlight penetrated through the closely-intertwined growth of ferns, trees, and reeds. By mid-afternoon, we estimated we were halfway to the Phelps site. Our going became slower and heavier as the ground became more boggy and marshy. We were in swampy country. Occasionally, we'd have to wade in water above our waists across dank, smelly pools. All of us were deathly afraid of crocodiles. To guard against them, as we crossed the bogs and swamps, we sent Choo-Choo ahead of us a few yards. Every few feet he would stop to throw a large stick ahead of him. If no crocodile reared up to snap at the stick we felt safe enough to go ahead a few more yards. We carried our 45s in our hands, ready for instant use. It was in one of these swamps, shortly after 3 o'clock that first afternoon, that disaster almost struck. Choo-Choo, out ahead of us, slipped and stumbled. His pal, Jesse who was nearest him, rushed forward to help him. As he started lifting him up, a huge, ugly scale-encrusted crocodile lurched upward about 25 feet away. Muldonado and I spotted the reptile at the same time. Both our 45s roared out as one shot. We were so close I could hear the squashy impact of the powerful steel-jacketed bullets as they struck through the slimy creature's leathery hide- His eyes were ripped right out of his head.
The crocodile, fatally wounded, thrashed in a death fury. All of us continued to pump .45 shells into the beast. Then, Choo-Choo having been pulled to his feet, we streaked for a small clearing. Reaching it, I collapsed. I just sat there shaking like a leaf for fully 15 minutes.
It was after dark when we reached the Phelps campsite. It had taken us seven hours to cover four miles through the jungle and swamps. Phelps, a very rangy man in his early fifties, was reading the Bible as we staggered into the clearing. The rest of the party was gathered around him, listening. They looked pretty haggard. They'd had no food, other than what they'd been able to get out of the jungle itself, for several days. The wounded man was weak. His wound, inflicted by a native dart, was sore and festered.
Although Phelps had 12 friendly Indians with him and three serviceable rowboats he'd made no effort, after being ambushed by the unfriendly tribesmen, to work his way back down to the Orinoco, "Why?" I asked him. "I was afraid we couldn't make it," he replied. "I'm sure there are Indians waiting along the banks to ambush us if we try it." We'd encountered no Indians friendly or unfriendly-on our seven-hour trek in from the Orinoco. But that didn't prove anything. There were enemies around, as the wounded missionary in Phelps' party proved.
We decided that the best thing to do, despite the darkness, was to get out of the clearing that night. We didn't want to run the risk of being ambushed there in our sleep. Besides, we reasoned, we'd have a better chance of running any ambush down the river in the darkness than we'd have in daylight.
As we prepared to leave in Phelps three rowboats, we set fire to the jungle, behind us. It was the dry season and we figured that the trees and grass would burn like tinder. This blazing foliage gave us a fiery cushion of safety as we slipped away downstream.
Five hours were required to reach the junction with the Orinoco. We had to be extremely careful. If one of the boats had turned over in the night, the crocodiles would surely have snapped us to death before we could have been picked up by one of the other boats or made our way to shore.
There were 22 men in our party: the five missionaries, the four airmen, myself and the 12 friendly Indians. After the first day, our emergency rations were gone. We had to live entirely off the jungle. It was here that the training I'd received two years before at an Air Force Survival School in the United States paid off its big dividends. I found that nearly everything I'd been taught in that course could now be applied, from what was safe to eat from the jungle growth to how to make a bed safe from reptiles along the river bank.
In eating, we followed a simple rule of thumb: "Anything that a bird will eat is okay for a human to eat." We left the fish in the Orinoco alone. Many of them are poisonous. Unless you're a real expert it's hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones. We weren't experts. The staples of our diet were eggs, grubs, berries, and a native wild banana, about three inches long. We got the eggs from huge lizards, which abounded in the trees along the river banks. We'd shoot them with our 45s, cut them open and remove the eggs from their bellies. We wouldn't eat the meat, however, fearing it might be tainted. We drank water from the river, using our water purifying tablets with it. The grubs, which we dug up from the river bank, we boiled with river water to make a thin soup. We'd been told that monkey meat was very tasty-something like chicken, only a little more stringy but, unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to find out for ourselves. Monkeys kept out of our way. It took us a week to make our way down the Orinoco to a friendly Indian village, where Phelps was favorably known. During those seven days, we existed entirely off the jungle itself. Always, as we slipped through the sluggish stream, there was the threat of the crocodiles. Ashore, where we camped each evening, there were the poisonous snakes, which teem in that part of the world.
On the eighth" day, as we reached the Indian village, Phelps decided he and his party would leave us. He wanted to stay with the Indians. I tried to dissuade him. "My place is here with these people," he told me. "I'll be all right now. They'll take good care of us." The four Venezuelans and I had easier going from there on. We were able to walk along the banks of the Orinoco for long distances, using only our machetes to whittle a narrow path for ourselves. We still lived off the jungle, supplementing our diet with dried fish given us by the friendly Indians. Four days before Christmas and 15 days after we'd bailed out into the jungle to help the Phelps party-we walked into the village of San Jose, located on the banks of the Orinoco. From there we were taken in a horse-drawn cart to a mountain high way, nearby, where we caught a ride on a truck. It carried us all the way back to Maracay.
At the start of my jungle adventure I weighed 13st 31b. When I got back to Maracay I weighed 10st 101b. I'd lost 35 pounds in two weeks' time. A month after our return, Phelps sent word to Caracas that all of his party had recovered. They were headed back again, he said, up the Orinoco. For ourselves, the four Venezuelan airmen and myself were awarded the "Cross of the Venezuelan Air Force" for our successful jungle mission. I treasure that medal very much. But I treasure just as much the knowledge that the lessons I learned in the Air Force's survival course were practical and real-that they worked when I needed them most. I know that these lessons helped to save my life more than once during my 15 days of survival in the Venezuelan jungle.