I wrote the following column for the Lyon Tale in 1998.
There are many people of courage in Lyon County, people who were faced with defeating odds and conquered them. Robert A. Engels is one of those individuals. His intelligence, will to survive, and courage are as much a part of history as the events in which he took part.
The following letter (dated July 1, 1944) was written by First Lieutenant Robert A. Engels (who grew up in Ghent) to his father A.J. Engels (at that time, owner and proprietor of the Silver Dollar Bar in Ghent). First Lieutenant Engels had been reported as "missing" since April. This letter is a graphic description of how Lt. Engels and his crew worked their way back to civilization after bailing out over the Himalayan Mountains when the engines of their plane died. The crew was listed as missing for 93 days, the longest of any crew at that time, and spent 34 days walking over snow-capped mountains and through treacherous jungles before reaching their base in India. The letter was also published by the Marshall Messenger on July 6, 1944.
"Last March 29 (1944) I was on one of my routine flights back from a base in China. I was flying in a snowstorm and visibility was very poor. All of a sudden my right engine quit, so I ordered the crew to put on parachutes. None of us was excited and we all kept our heads. Approximately one minute after the first engine quit, the second one also quit. I ordered the crew to stand by to bail out.
Following my crew, I jumped into the swirling mass of snow, felt myself torn by a 120-mile an hour ice blast, and was tumbling over and over. I pulled my ripcord and was pleasantly shocked by the pull of the opening chute. It was very quiet and very cold. I could not see the rest of my crew because of the falling snow.
The plane was making a hissing sound as it swung around and headed right back for me. That was my first scare. As the plane approached me it made a gentle turn to my right and fell off in a stall.
I broke out of the snow and into a space of clear air. Below was another layer of clouds and off to my left, suspended by their chutes were the other members of my crew. A sigh of relief came to me. I had estimated our position as half-way to our base in India and that put us in the most rugged spot of the Himalayan range of mountains. I did some real praying right then because if we landed on the tops of some of those 15,000 foot peaks in the snow that runs up to 150 feet deep, there would be no escape.
Again I saw the other men in the crew, entering into the lower clouds, and I entered shortly after. We had jumped from an altitude of 16,500 feet and since we had now been going down for 10 minutes, I knew we had missed the highest peaks anyhow. All of a sudden I broke through the bottom layer of clouds and I have never seen a more beautiful sight. We were going right down into a prominent river valley and there was a native village right under us. The plane crashed down near the river and exploded in a bright smudge.
My next worry was the natives - were they hostile? There are head hunters in several regions near here.
The approaching side of a mountain gave me something else to think about. But before I knew it my legs buckled under me and my chute peacefully settled down alongside of me. Immediately, I had my pistol out and cocked, lighted a cigarette and, finding myself unhurt, started searching for me crew. I found them shortly after and we all sat down and talked the situation over.
We were interrupted suddenly by about 15 wild looking natives carrying wicked-looking crossbows and long knives. Our pistols were cocked and hidden from their view. A most welcome sight was the lead tribesman raising his right hand. Was it true we were having all this luck? It seemed too good to be true!
(Continued next week)