By Tom Eck
We all have our heroes. Mine include my father, a WWII veteran who valiantly fought campaigns in Germany, Italy and the Philippines. And my five children. All now successful professionals, parents and spouses in spite of enduring childhoods raised only by their father.
But the real hero in my life, the one who defines the word” heroic”, was a diminutive man who smoked too much and bathed too little. Claude Vanerum, French-born, spent the latter part of his life piloting people throughout the South Pacific and Coral Sea.
I met Claude in 1980 when he was assigned to fly me to the islands of the New Hebrides in the process of explaining a constitution proposed by the northern islands as an alternative to the official government version. The New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) was then a colony of both the French and British set for independence for the next year.
I didn’t like him. His French-flavored supercilious attitude did little to endear him to anyone. Add his general scruffiness to his garlic-laced breath, and it was easy to see why he was not high on the social register. Still, he was a good, if not slightly bold pilot, who was always on time and landed alive—even on the last flight of his life.
“Are we ok to fly today?” I asked Claude as we were set to fly to New Caledonia in my exodus from the islands in which I had just spent over 30 days.
“Sure, no problem.”
But there was a problem and it appeared about forty-five minutes into our flight. “You’d better strap on the five point restraint. This might get a little rough.”
The storm came from nowhere and met us with unexpected ferocity, pummeling the small de Haviland like a boxer pounding a defenseless opponent. Then, appeared Malekula, and a small savannah- our only hope to land.
As the plane plunged toward the ground, the winds became unseen hands, clasping the plane in a death grip, dropping it to stall speed. Just before it touched down, a brutal blast slammed us. The right wing dipped just enough to catch its tip in the murky meadow below, hurtling us into an eternity of cartwheels.
Then everything went black.
Several hours later, I regained consciousness lying in a covering concealed by fronds and branches. Claude had dragged me from the plane. Fortunately, it had not burned.
“Why are we hiding?” I asked.
“Because this island is half cannibal and I’m not sure where we are. We can’t light a signal fire. We just have to wait.”
“Fantastic! Who’s going to find us?”
“I don’t know.”
For eighteen days, we hid from the natives, who systematically dismantled the plane. First the seats, then the radios, flares, the horizontal stabilizers. Then, the crumpled wing.
“Tomorrow it will be the last wing. I need to do something”.
“You’re crazy, Claude. You can’t do it.”
The next morning, despite my protestations, Claude headed to the plane. With a rock, he continued to pound the remaining wing. Fuel gushed out. He threw his lighter onto the wing. It burst into flames. The pounding and fire was not unnoticed by the natives, who now ran toward him, howling fiercely. Claude bolted away from where I hid, pursued by the frenzied foursome. But he was no match for the lead pursuer, who stopped about thirty feet from him, planted his feet, and hurled a spear. It tore though Claude, its bloody spearhead ripping out through his stomach. Claude stumbled for a few more strides and then fell. He raised his hands in futile defense and looked toward me. Gleeful shouting, brutal thrusts, then silence.
I retched as I watched Claude trussed onto the bowed spears and carried off like a pig. The horrific underscored the local language for a human being—“long pig.” Back into our hiding place I lay in shock. Claude’s empty space now haunted me. We hadn’t talked much during our ordeal, but he knew about my children. He had no one, he told me.
Then I noticed a scrap of paper. Remember me Tom. No one else will.
Claude had sacrificed himself to save my life to give me a chance to return home to my children. The ploy worked. Two days later, a small plane saw the burned out plane and landed. I traded my black pearl necklace, given to me by the New Hebrideans, for a flight to safety.
Claude, you are my true hero. And this is written in your memory with my undying gratitude.
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