A 29-year-Old researcher and an Arden Arcade man 60 years his senior have been brought together by the wreckage of a World War II airplane in New Guinea. Harvey "Gene" Rehrer, 89, was shot down by a Japanese pilot June 16,1942. He survived thanks to iuck, guts and the good will of the New Guinea people.
The researcher, Justin Taylan, from N.Y., whose own family connections to fighting in the South Pacific ied him to Rehrer's rusting aircraft, recently visited the former Air Force officer.
He found Rehrer after seemingly calling everyone by that last name in the United States. Taylan finally found Rehrer's brother in Reading, Pa., just as he was about to give up. Rehrer's brother pointed Taylan to Rehrer, who lives in the Wiihaggin neighborhood. A few weeks ago, Taylan called the ex-pilot and said: "Sir, I've found your airplane." For Rehrer, the telephone call was, of course, a surprise.
"Although it was an outstanding incident in my life, I didn't think much of that time," Rehrer said. "It was 60 years ago and you just go about living your life. It's incredible. "
The men spent several days v.lith each other. Taylan presented ReiHer with a bent and rusted cannon shell from his downed P-39 fighter plane that he bl oubht back from the New Guim\l iungle. Re!Her has lived with his wife, Norma in rhe Sacramento area since 1964 after retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. The couple met during the war in Australia.
Rehrer has spent the intervening years putting together large jigsaw puzzles and performing vcoman docent work for the state railroad museum.
Last week, he clutched the shell from his aircraft in his hand and recounted the mosl remarkable days of his military career. "This man has made a wonderful story out of this," Rehrer said of Taylan.
"I never did see the airplane after I was shot down. I struggled through the jungle and was rescued, All of tbe people of New Guinea had been advised that if they found all American pilot they would be richly rewarded. I was a treasure." In two interviews, Taylan related the journey that took him to New Guinea and then to Sacramento, CA.
"I wanted to meet this man very badly because just two month's ago I was looking at his airplane," Taylan said.
One of Taylan's grandfathers was a combat photographer and Army veteran, whose wartime duties included time in New Guinea.
Taylan's book, "No Place For A Picnic," is about his grandfather's wartime service. During a trip to New Guinea he saw the remains of war.
Among them was a plane in the jungle. wrecked and scattered. that Taylan photographed. A serial number allowed him to eventually identify the pilot of the World War Il wreckage: Gene Rehrer.
He knew he had to find out what happened to him.
"It is a pretty amazing story," he said. "Four airplanes were shot down on the mission. We have also tracked down the Japanese side of the mission, discovering the Japanese pilot f believe shot Gene down. "
That pilot has died, but he wrote a memoir before his death.
Rehrer's own story is preserved in a letter home to his parents. in which he described in great detail being shot down.
In the letter, Rehrer wrote that at tirst he could not open the doors of his plane because they were stuck. Eventually, he was able to exit the spinning. falling plane.
His shoulder was painfully injured as his parachute deployed. Rehrer wrote to his parents that he was glad that he floated downward through clouds, thus avoiding being strafed by lingering Japanese aircraft.
He wandered the jungle for days before finding the people of the Village of Brown River. They fed him, tended to his sore and blistered feet and reunited him with his compatriots. He had lost 40 pounds, and was resigned to dying before the Brown River people found him. "
He was really saved by the New Guinea people," Taylan said. "Those are the same people who brought me to the crash site. A son of one of the people who helped him helped me."
Taylan is eager to tell the story of meeting Rehrer to the Brown River residents. He also plans to bring Rehrer's story to a larger audience stateside either in print or on the Web.