It was January of 1956 when five men were lanced on the banks of the muddy Curaray River by the savage Auca tribe. These five young men gave their lives for that highly primitive Ecuadorian tribe, but they did not die in vain.
Pennsylvanian Nate Saint and his wife Marj had come to the Oriente, the eastern jungle of Ecuador, in September of 1948. While in Ecuador they were blessed with three children. Nate was a missionary pilot who delivered medicine and supplies to stations around the jungle.
Jim Elliot, an Oregon native, and his buddy Pete Fleming from Seattle had come in 1952. Jim and Pete had prayed for years about where they should serve as missionaries. Jim heard about the Quichua (keech-wa) tribe in Ecuador and had prompted Pete to join him. Pete, who had a master’s degree in literature and planned to be a professor, left his new sweetheart Olive Anisole in Seattle with a promise to marry her later. Jim and Pete settled in Shandia (shan-dya), on the banks of the Rio Napo.
Elisabeth Howard, the sister of Jim’s best friend, had come to serve the Colorado Indians on the coastlands of Ecuador. Jim had known her since their college days in Wheaton, Illinois. They planned to marry one day, but when a major flood came upon Shandia and destroyed all of Jim and Pete’s work, Jim decided he should marry Elisabeth immediately. They had a small wedding ceremony there in Shandia. Together, Jim and Elisabeth met life in the jungle with determination and joy.
Ed McCully, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a good friend of Jim’s. He had met Jim at Wheaton College, where Ed had been a star orator and athlete. He accepted Jim’s challenge to be a missionary. He left for Ecuador in December of 1952 with his wife Marilou and their little son Stevie. They worked in Shandia so Jim and Elisabeth could start a missionary station in Puyupungu (poo-yoo-poongoo).
The following year, Pete went back to Seattle to marry Olive. They had a six month retreat before the two of them went to Quito for Olive’s Spanish training. Then they moved to Puyupungu to work at the missionary station that Jim and Elisabeth had started.
Roger Youderian, a decorated paratrooper in the US Army, had come from Montana to Ecuador in 1953 with his wife Barbara and his little daughter Bethy. They served in Macuma (ma-coo-ma) among the Jivaro (hee-va-ro) Indians of Southern Ecuador. Life was not easy among the hateful, unsaved Indians, but like the other missionaries, he did not give up.
Nate had heard about the Auca tribe years ago, when he first arrived in Ecuador. He wanted to share the gospel with this tribe, and had been looking for them as he flew over the jungle. He had heard that the Auca (ow-ka) tribe was so hostile that no one could get close enough to them to find out their real name. The tribe had been given the Quichua name “Auca,” meaning “savage.” The Aucas had been treated very poorly by the Spanish, and since then did not trust anyone outside of their tribe. Whenever an outsider came into their territory, the Aucas monitored their every step, watching for a reason to kill them.
When Jim, Pete, and Ed heard of the Aucas, they were also filled with a longing to reach them with the gospel. For years everyone worked at their missionary stations, waiting for an opportunity to share the gospel with the Aucas. Ed and Marilou had another boy, and were expecting a baby again. Jim and Elisabeth had a baby girl, and Roger and Barb were blessed with a baby boy. Life was good in the jungle, but they kept on thinking about the Aucas.
Ed and Marilou McCully decided to set up a missionary station on the Auca’s side of the Arajuno (a-ra-hoo-no) River at an abandoned Shell Oil Company reserve. The Aucas had killed three Shell Oil workers there about ten years previous, but Ed and Marilou were willing to take the risk.
On September 19, 1955, Nate flew to the McCully’s base at Arajuno. He asked Ed if they should go looking for his “neighbors.” Ed happily agreed to ride along in Nate’s plane. It was a nice clear day, but still Nate and Ed could see nothing but the ocean of green trees. Nate was about to turn back for more gas when he saw Auca huts! The next time Nate saw Jim and Pete, he told them the exciting news. All the men felt that God was putting things in place. Jim, especially, felt they should share the gospel soon with the Aucas. Pete felt they should not be hasty. The men discussed how they would share the gospel, if they were to do it soon, as that seemed to be the general consensus. They knew Nate’s plane would help them, but they prayed for further direction from God.
Jim heard that there was an Auca girl named Dayuma (dye-u-ma) living at a hacienda down the road near Shandia. In fear of her life, she had escaped the Auca village during an inner-tribal dispute. Jim met with Dayuma. She taught him some Auca phrases. She thought he was just curious about her primitive tribe. She did not know that he wanted to visit them. “Never trust them,” she told Jim. “They will appear nice and then they will turn around and kill.”
Jim and the other men were ready for action, and in October of 1955, they started “Operation Auca” when Nate and Ed went on a “gift drop.” Nate had developed a new technique of lowering a bucket from the plane. It had been helpful in delivering supplies to missionary stations around the jungle. Now Nate was using it to give his first message of goodwill to the Aucas. He lowered down a kettle and ribbons as Ed looked for the Aucas. They could not see any Aucas, so they set the gifts on a road in the village.
The next week, when they came to deliver a machete, the kettle was gone. As they lowered the machete, it dropped into the river, and several Aucas dove after it. When they came up, Ed started to yell through the megaphone, “Biti miti punamupa!” which means, “We like you. We want to be your friends,” in the Auca language. The Aucas called back, but Ed could not hear what they were saying. Ed kept on calling friendly Auca phrases. Nate did a gift drop each week with any of the men that could tag along. Sometimes the Aucas would send things back, like fruit, headdresses, or a parrot. The Aucas liked Nate’s gift drops. They would crowd in the clearing and wave happily whenever his plane appeared. The missionary men were excited.
Nate started to look for a good landing spot in the Auca territory. He found a place to land along the Curaray River, and it was near the Auca camps. He called it “Palm Beach,” so that no one would know about their secret mission. Pete, Jim, Ed, and Nate prepared to depart from the Arajuno missionary station and land on Palm Beach on January 3, 1956. They started gathering bug repellant, food, toys for the Aucas, and other things they needed. They packed a portable radio so they could keep in contact with Marj Saint at their home in Shell Mera.
The men realized that in order for it to be a successful mission, they needed a fifth man. The men told Nate to tell Roger Youderian of their secret mission. Roger was willing to take the risks and join them.
Departure time came, but the plane could not hold all of them at the same time. Jim and Ed had to pull straws to see who would get to go first. Ed won, so on the morning of the third, Nate flew Ed to Palm Beach and left him there with the supplies. The others soon came. That afternoon, Nate flew over “Terminal City,” which was the name the men had given the Auca village. Nate used the megaphone to tell the Aucas to meet them at the Curaray River the next day. Nate and the other men waited on the beach, but the Aucas did not come the next day, or the next. The men waited impatiently, yelling Auca phrases into the woods, hoping for their voices to be answered.
On January 6, the day started as usual. The men each took their turns yelling Auca phrases into the woods. They called this “beach patrol.” A booming male voice answered them. An Auca man and two Auca women came out of the forest. The missionaries were so happy and greeted the Aucas in their native language.
Jim wasted no time in escorting the Aucas across the river to the camp. The missionaries called the man “George” and the younger lady “Delilah.” the older lady did not get a name. The men showed the Aucas a picture of Dayuma, the Auca girl that had escaped. That was a big mistake. The Aucas did not understand pictures or the pocket it was taken out of. The Aucas thought the picture meant that the men had eaten Dayuma. The Aucas enjoyed the toys, but the man, George, wanted more than toys. He wanted to fly in Nate’s plane. Nate agreed and took him for a flight. George waved happily at his jealous tribesmen. The visit went well, as far as the missionaries knew. George and Delilah left when night came, but the older lady stayed until right before the missionaries got up from bed. The missionaries were very excited. They thought the visit was a success. They hoped more Aucas would come soon.
The next day the Aucas did not come. The missionaries waited. Nate looked at the Aucas from his plane once in a while. He saw that the Aucas seemed fearful and confused. He did not like that. On January 8, Nate went to look at them again from his plane. He saw about ten Auca men headed toward Palm Beach. He was so excited. He called Marj and told her that he would call her at 4:35 p.m. “This could be the big day,” he told Marj over the radio as he flew back to Palm Beach to join Pete, Jim, Ed, and Roger. All the men were excited. They knew something big was going to happen that day. They waited patiently.
Marj Saint and Olive Fleming sat by the radio at 4:35. Barb Youderian and Marilou McCully were in Arajuno awaiting the news. Nate was never late with a call, but there was no news from Palm Beach. Minute after minute passed. The men did not call. The wives were worried, but they hoped their husbands were just busy with the Aucas. The next morning the wives called Elisabeth Elliot who was teaching school in Shandia. They told her that the men were missing, and that Johnny Keenan, another missionary pilot, was flying over Palm Beach to give a report. Johnny saw that Nate’s plane was damaged beyond use, and that the camp looked desolate. He couldn’t see anything else. Word was getting out quickly about the missing men. A search party of soldiers, missionaries, and a physician were sent to investigate the camp. The wives were certain at least one of their husbands had survived. Then news came from the Quichuas who had seen Ed’s body downstream.
The search team continued and finally came to the wives who anxiously sat down for the news. Four other bodies had been found in the river: Nate, Jim, Pete, and Roger. None had escaped. The search team had buried the men at Palm Beach. The wives were very sad, but they were filled with God’s peace that passes all understanding. They did not hate the Aucas for killing their husbands. They prayed that the Aucas would know God.
Marj Saint went to a new post in Quito. Marilou McCully went to the United States to birth her third child, joining Marj in Quito later. Barbara Youderian stayed in Macuma and continued work with the Jivaro Indians. Olive Fleming returned to the US and remarried.
Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister, came to Ecuador. In a few years, both she and Elisabeth Elliot were teaching the Bible inside the Auca camps. The Aucas wanted to learn about the men and their God after seeing angels dancing and singing over the men’s bodies on the beach. The Aucas said the angels were as bright as a thousand flashlights.
It was five years after the men’s death when the first Auca finally became a Christian. Soon after, the entire Auca tribe was praising God, even the natives who had killed the men. The Aucas now understood what the missionaries had been doing. They were very sad they had killed them. But the prayers of the missionaries and their wives had been answered. Operation Auca had been successful. The Aucas became nice to people. They are not called “Aucas” (savages) any more. They go by their original tribal name “Waodoni,” meaning “humans” or “men.” The Aucas live on, and so does the legacy of Nate, Jim, Pete, Ed, and Roger–a legacy of love, trust, and faith in God.
By Faith Williams
March 4, 2017
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Elliot, Elisabeth. Through Gates of Splendor. Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic Media Limited, 2005.
Miller, Susan Martins. Jim Elliot. Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 1996.