T/Sgt Nelson, an aerial gunner, and six companions bailed out of their B-24 Liberator bomber in November 1944, parachuting into jungles of Borneo. They were found by natives who had been headhunters prior to getting a little religion from missionaries they had met. But it wasn’t the headhunters the men were worried about; it was the Japanese.
The Boise High grad was 19 when he found himself running from Japanese soldiers in Borneo. He and the other six who had parachuted from the plane joined up with five Navy fliers who had bailed out of their flaming plane. Five other Navy men had been found and killed by the Japanese.
The Americans were hustled from village to village trying to outrun the enemy. They were on the lam for eight months before they were finally rescued by Australian guerilla fighters.
Nelson had malaria four times during those months. He was finally cured of that when the natives fed him some medicine made from the bark of a tree.
The men subsisted mostly on rice with a little chicken and pork coming along occasionally. For entertainment, when they weren’t on the run, they read and re-read a few old copies of Readers Digest. In one village one of the Liberator engineers got an old phonograph working that had been left by Dutch traders. They had two records, “Star Dust,” and “Lullaby of Broadway.” Nelson, quoted in the September 7, 1945 Idaho Statesman, said, “I’ll never forget the taste of rice or the melodies of those two songs.”
The story of the men’s trial was told in the 2009 PBS documentary, The Airmen and the Headhunters. A transcript is available here, but the video itself was unavailable last time I checked.
John Nelson passed away in 2000 in Tucson, Arizona.