It is a story that has been passed down from generation to generation around campfires in tribal New Guinea, a tale that once held Hollywood's attention. A U of M alumnus is now bringing a fascinating story of survival and courage back to life.
Then I looked into my rearview mirror and saw an unmistakable image: that of a Japanese fighter in firing position. He was so close I didn’t bother to look over my shoulder, and I didn’t have time to be afraid. Instinctively, I shoved the P-38 into a violent dive, dropping my auxiliary gasoline tanks as I went. It was then that I felt the shudder of bullets striking my plane.
When Josh Baxter happened upon the story of retired Col. Charles O’Sullivan about a decade ago, he couldn’t have asked for more: a U.S. pilot shot down behind enemy lines, a bloody encounter with headhunters working for the enemy, a jungle full of unexpected dangers at every turn. As a fan of action/adventure stories, what more could Baxter want? Permission. Permission to officially document a tale so large, so fantastic, it would take a historian and an elderly native tribal member to verify the events.
Col. Charles O'Sullivan during the making of a documentary that details his 30-day World War II adventure in which he encountered headhunters
in New Guinea.
The first night in the jungle was terrifying because of the strange noises and shrieks of birds and small animals. Little did I comprehend the power of the jungle and the difficulties that lay ahead. The jungle closed in on me oppressively. I panicked. I wanted to run blindly away, anywhere — just run and run. It was a terrible, fearsome feeling that I had never experienced before or since.
“When I first heard the story, I was completely blown away,” says Baxter (BA ’96), who studied film and video production at the University of Memphis. “I wanted to hear every detail, what he was thinking when this happened and that happened. My comment at the time was, ‘This should be made into an action adventure movie.’ Mrs. O’Sullivan, who was there at the time (I heard the story), said, ‘We do, too.’”
For a young filmmaker looking to make a lasting impression on Hollywood, the script was perfect.
O’Sullivan was returning from escorting bombers on a mission in New Guinea when he was intercepted by the enemy. The date was Sept. 23, 1943, when a Japanese fighter pilot happened upon O’Sullivan’s P-38 and eventually shot him down. Thirty days after crashing in the jungles of New Guinea, O’Sullivan was rescued. But not before a series of escapades that included O’Sullivan having to shoot his way out of captivity of a group of native headhunters who had found him earlier and “befriended” him.
I was on the ground, feeling lonely and sensing that I had been thrust back 500 years in time. Home was nearly 400 miles away. To the west were mountains, which I hoped to cross to an outpost mission and airstrip named Bena Bena.
Baxter was surprised that the account had only been told to church groups and schools, but never on film.
“I found out when he returned from war, Paramount Pictures approached him about making a movie out of his story,” says Baxter. “But he was interested in other things at the time, starting a family and such.”
Baxter was interviewing O’Sullivan for a completely different project when he discovered the colonel’s dramatic tale. Baxter was working for a historical society that was interviewing people who had some type of involvement with the Little Rock Air Force Base.
“I did two or three of the interviews and Col. O’Sullivan was one of them. I was told to get him to tell about his airplane crash, as a point of personal interest.”
O'Sullivan shortly after his rescue.
Gradually, the figure of a man appeared from behind the tree cover. He had a weapon, a spear or bow and arrow, which he lowered. I felt he had drawn a bead on me from behind his cover.
Baxter had just completed a documentary that was used by NASA during congressional hearings on the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.
“That was a big boost to me,” says Baxter of the NASA film. “I had just met Col. O’Sullivan and I thought, ‘I can make a documentary about his story. I have experience with that, and I can pull this off.’”
As a relatively new independent filmmaker, Baxter had to come up with what he terms “a game plan.”
“It was a challenge, as an independent filmmaker, having to stay on a tight budget,” says Baxter. “If I had $100 million, I could go rent planes and buy costumes, just the way Steven Spielberg would. But I wasn’t in the position to do that, not just yet.”
Quietly, we plodded on for perhaps 30 minutes before Tootaroo (the native who found me) stopped and began to shout as if to warn someone ahead that he was bringing a stranger home for dinner. My heart sank. What should I do? I considered my options: either leave them and go back to the known loneliness of the jungle, or continue with them to an unknown but at least human company.
Baxter says accurately portraying O’Sullivan’s story was of the utmost importance. “Audiences are now more sophisticated,” the filmmaker says.
He used photos from the era and talked to historians to make sure his depictions were “just right,” from outfits they would have had in the South Pacific at the time all the way to specific markings on the airplanes.
“Some of the stuff we were able to make from scratch: the parachute, the Mae West life preserver that he wore. A lot of the things we had to buy off eBay or from military surplus stores,” Baxter says.
Because filming in New Guinea was impractical because of political reasons, Baxter took his six-person crew to Honduras, where a Garifuna tribe played the role of the New Guinea headhunters. His cousin, Clayton Bowman, was cast in the role of O’Sullivan (known at the time as Sullivan).
Baxter was able to draw upon his past, including his time at the U of M, to put the film together.
“I have been making movies my whole life, ever since I was a kid,” says Baxter. “We would always make Indiana Jones movies and we would try to make Star Wars movies and try our hand at special effects with the flying ships and blowing things up.”
Baxter says his education at the U of M was “the best I could have gotten.”
“I knew people who were taking courses in other colleges and they were always jealous when I told them we got to go out with a camera on our own and film something. Every class was in a studio, a lab or in the field. My friends at other schools were learning things out of a text book.”
One (tribal) man held up three fingers and pointed to me, as if to say that three men like me had been there. I made signs: did they go that way (toward suspected Japanese-held areas), or did they go that way (toward Australian — or American-held territory)? The native pointed down at the ground! Now there was a discomforting thought: the three like me had not left the area; they had died or had been killed!”
To become more intimately familiar with O’Sullivan’s story, Baxter traveled to New Guinea. The colonel told Baxter not to let the natives “know you know me” for fear of retribution.
“When we got to the area, we just went in saying we were looking for airplane wrecks and we knew there was supposed to be one out here,” says Baxter.
Without any further prompting, the natives began telling the story of O’Sullivan.
“They didn’t know his name, but they knew there was an American pilot who came in, went to a village and shot a couple of people and then disappeared in the jungle. We hadn’t been in New Guinea for more than an hour and we were hearing this story.”
Without anyone actually jabbing me with a spear, I was prodded, not too subtly, along a path that led up a small incline. Soon we reached a circular hut — the execution chamber? The headman came in from my left and went for both my wrists. He got my left wrist and grappled for my right. I pulled my gun back and shot him in the chest from my left side, WHAM! WHAM! Two shots, one to [the native] and one to the headman, in the space of two seconds. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I can picture the dull glow from the fire, my smoking .45, and me standing there in a crouched position, like it was Custer’s Last Stand.
In New Guinea, Baxter was introduced to an elderly man who as a boy was living in the village O’Sullivan had escaped from.
“Everything he told us matched, word for word,” says Baxter. “He says he heard the story from his father who was one of the men in that hut where the altercation took place.”
I knew the natives would not be kind to me after I had killed two prominent members of their tribe. What could I do? Should I save the last bullet for myself — a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
U of M alumnus Josh Baxter traveled to New Guinea and found O'Sullivan's plane - nearly 65 years after it was hot down by a Japanese fighter pilot.
The natives in New Guinea guided Baxter to O’Sullivan’s plane deep within the jungles of the Ramu River Valley. He found the plane, partially submerged in a swamp, but still in good shape.
“It was an eerie feeling to be walking in the same steps he took 65 years later,” says Baxter.
Finally, I came out from behind a tree and saw that they were indeed Aussies who had come down from their fortification for lunch. The Aussies had a radio and asked if I wanted to send a message. Of course I wanted to let my squadron and the Fifth Air Force know that I was safe. I composed a very concise message: ‘Captain Sullivan, 39th Fighter Squadron, arrived at this point. Injury slight. Please advise.’
Baxter had a screening of his documentary at a Hot Springs, Ark., film festival last October, where critics gave the movie very favorable reviews. He says he hopes the film will eventually be picked up by an entity such as The Discovery Channel, and sometime find its way to Hollywood as a full feature movie.
For O’Sullivan, who would retire from the military in the early 1970s after a distinguished career, the documentary, which includes film of his downed plane in the swamp, brings events full circle.
“After so many long years, they found you old friend,” O’Sullivan says of the plane. “I am glad they found you. It kind of makes our mission complete.”
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