Early in the afternoon of April 5, 1944, an A-20 Havoc, struggling with apparent engine trouble after attacking the Japanese stronghold of Hollandia (present-day Jayapura, Indonesia), withdrew from formation and fell from the sky. It disappeared into a dense canopy of jungle and exploded on impact. On board were Second Lieutenant Thomas Freeman, 23, and Cpl. Ralph A. McKendrick, 22.
I visited and photographed this World War II crash site in 2019. But it was not my first visit. That came in 1986, when I was 12 years old. My family had recently moved to Papua New Guinea to work with a Bible translation organization – some 800 languages are spoken there – and as part of our introduction to its life and culture, we lived for six weeks in a village called Likan , next to the Clay River in East Sepik Province. The site of the wreck was an hour’s walk from the village.
Those weeks as a child in Likan were – and still are – a treasure. You felt your body through the tropical air as it blanketed your face with moisture, through the clayey soil on your bare feet, through the cool water of the river as you jumped in. You felt a connection to the people who cared for you, taught you. On walks outside the village, crossing trees that had fallen over streams and gullies and acted as rustic bridges, villagers, who were adept at balancing, held your arms and held you steady.
Back in the village you sat outside houses and shared stories, tasted new food, learned new words, watched the fading light of another day. On clear nights you gazed up at the Milky Way in wonder. You felt a growing sense of home.
This time and place in my childhood has nurtured a sense of belonging. The crash site did too.
Early in our stay in Likan, a group of villagers led my father, sister and me to the site. I remember the shrill sound of insects, the remoteness, a sense of the sacred as the wreck came into view.
While there was much that I came to love about living in Papua New Guinea, I also still mourned the separation from a place – the United States – and the people I had left and knew a few months earlier. that I wouldn’t see them again for four months. years, which is long for a 12-year-old.
To face this wreck was to be well aware that others had also been far from home. To look at the United States Air Force decal on the fuselage, to touch the rivets, to pick up one of the many .50 caliber cartridges scattered in the ground, to think that here two lives ended – it provided greater context in my own distance from home, my own place in the world.
So this wreck was not just a remnant of the war. It was also a message, an envoy, a neighbor.
In 1967, an American military team recovered the remains of the crew. But it was only in recent years, through a website called Pacific Wrecks, that I learned the names of these two men. Lieutenant Freeman was from Wichita County, Texas, and had enlisted in Dallas in April 1942. Staff Sgt. McKendrick – posthumously promoted to the rank of corporal – was from McKean County, Pa., and had enlisted in Buffalo, NY in October 1942.
Lieutenant Freeman was no stranger to tragedy: his mother died when he was 11, his father when he was 15. Both Lieutenant Freeman and Sergeant McKendrick were unmarried when they enlisted.
On June 20, 2019, sitting next to the pilot in a single-engine Quest Kodiak, I looked out over the familiar landscape as the plane approached Likan. Twenty-seven years had passed since my last visit in 1992, and I and many others made the journey here to celebrate with the community the completion of the New Testament translation into Waran, the local language. As the plane lined up to land on the grass runway, I felt a deep joy—the kind you feel when, after a quarter of a century of wandering, you return to a central place in your life.
There were hugs and reunions, an old friend’s hand resting on my knee as we sat and shared stories. There were gray hairs and fading eyes. There were acquaintances with children and grandchildren, the sharing of some breadfruit (the taste of which I had sorely missed), the cool water of the river back on my skin.
This return felt like a pilgrimage, a journey back to meaningful things that shaped me as a child and that I longed to encounter again. This is part of the reason I walked out of the village with others within 24 hours of landing, back to the crash site. Now that the plane had been at the bottom of the jungle for 75 years, it was getting slightly smaller; little by little parts were carried away like a propeller.
But most of it was still there. And standing in front of it, no longer a child, this is what I saw: that life is something that goes way back in time, and forward to an uncertain future. That life is birth and death, touchdowns and departures, a web in which we are all connected. That life is corrosion and decay, blossoms and smiles, the screeching of a cockatoo. That life is telling each other’s stories – our stories – and helping each other maintain balance, whether you’re crossing rickety bridges or just passing through time.
Joel Carillet is a photojournalist from Tennessee. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.