York – His signal flare had set his makeshift landing strip on fire and burned most of his survival supplies. The military had sent his wife word that he was missing in action. And for five days in World War II the only welcoming committees Joel Thorvaldson found were the crocodiles in the bend of the jungle rivers.
One day his meal was some chocolate melted in heated water. Another day he had chicken broth. Then he finished off the pemmican he himself packed in his P-40’s survival pack. There wasn’t much else - he lost 20 pounds in six days of hacking his way out of the New Guinea jungle.
His first real meal after his 1943 crash landing was a bowl of tomato soup provided by the Salvation Army at an Australian army base.
Then the Salvation Army fed him ham after Hurricane Isabel ransacked his Seaford neighborhood.
Last week, Thorvaldson repaid the charity with a 1980 gold krugerrand worth more than $500. He and his son, Eric, dropped it in a red kettle outside the Super Wal-Mart in York County.
“This is so interesting to me. Over six decades, we have made a difference in this man’s life,” said Major Harvey Johnson, commanding officer of the Salvation Army of the Virginia Peninsula.
The 85-year-old Thorvaldson had a long military career. He logged more than 400 combat missions in 44 different kinds of aircraft in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and after retiring from the Air Force in 1969 he helped design and then integrate the A-10 into Air Force bases around the world. He flew air defense patrols over the U.S. Capitol in the late 1950s, shook hands with LBJ in Vietnam and has donated some of his World War II winter gear to the Smithsonian Institution.
That career was only nine months old when he and six other fighter planes scrambled to intercept dozens of Japanese bombers and fighters over New Guinea on Sept. 13, 1943. Thorvaldson’s engine was acting up on takeoff, but he stayed with his formation and made a pass at a bomber.
He then tangled with a Japanese “Zeke” fighter and struck it with enough gunfire to cause it to smoke and drop towards the ground. A Japanese “Zero” fighter pounced him. Thorvaldson dove to lose him, and his nose cowling exploded and his engine caught fire. He prepared to eject but successfully cut off the engine and stopped the fire. He noticed an open grassfield and put the plane down on its belly without much trouble.
“I thought there was a problem with the engine because it started smoking, but now I know from photos of the wreck that they must have hit my engine,” Thorvaldson said.
His story is vibrant and detailed, in part because Thorvaldson still has a trunk full of military paperwork from all his missions. He has photos taken of the plane in the field in 1943 and just a few months ago – the photos are almost identical. He also has his pilot’s logbook from his World War II flights. It is crisp and dry, as if its last entry was made last week. The handwriting is neat and all of one hand – except for a September 1943 line in which a fellow pilot has noted that Thorvaldson went down, “guns blazing.”
American fighters went looking for Thorvaldson right away. A few minutes after he pulled his jungle survival pack out of his plane and began cutting up his parachute for carrying straps, he saw a P-38. He fired a flare, but the plane didn’t see it, and the flare caught the field’s kunai grass on fire. Thorvaldson had to abandon his inflatable boat and the rest of his parachute as he ran from the fire.
He kept going down a jungle stream and stopped for dark, covering his face with some parachute silk to protect himself from mosquitos. The next day he hacked his way along the stream with his machete, but it was slow going. And when he tested the water, he found crocodiles.
That made him return to his plane, which was now a burned hulk in the middle of a blackened field. On his third day alone, he set off in another direction down another creek. This had a large, shallow bed, and Thorvaldson traveled quickly. His matches had dried out, so that night he made a fire and cooked himself some chicken broth. His bed was the sandy bank of the water.
“There were crocodiles sunning themselves at almost every bend. The mosquitos were all over me. I saw some boa constrictors up in the trees. Everything is bigger in the jungle,” Thorvaldson said.
After a hot chocolate breakfast the next morning, he continued on the river, but at noon he found too many crocodiles to keep walking along the water. His boots got waterlogged, so he threw them away and went barefoot. He spent three hours trying to build his own raft but couldn’t do much with his machete. So he headed into the high rattan bushes. He saw some wild pigs and fowl but couldn’t kill them with his .45 pistol. He would see native people moving through the foliage, but he and they avoided each other.
Then several P-40s flew low overhead three times, but they couldn’t see him through the jungle growth. Thorvaldson went back to the sandy river bank, vowing to stay there and be seen.
The next morning – Day 5 of being lost – he built some fires and spelled BOAT with dry leaves on the riverbank. Soon a slow Allied search plane that resembled a crop duster passed over, and Thorvaldson fired two flares. The crew saw him and dropped milk. They returned later and dropped him an inflatable raft and some bread and meat.
Thorvaldson made his way down the river slowly because of the many crocs. He fell out of the boat three times but kept his provisions with him and kept going until about 11 p.m., when he went to sleep on the riverbank underneath the raft. Thorvaldson kept paddling downstream the next day and around one bend in the river he came face-to-face with two Australian soldiers pointing rifles at him. He had traveled about 150 miles toward the New Guinea coastline on his own.
Once he introduced himself to the patrol, they put him in their jeep and took him two miles to a large Australian base. The Salvation Army was there with the tomato soup.
“Those were the only people who have ever helped me,” Thorvaldson said, remembering that Salvation Army volunteers were also at the base he commanded in Vietnam.
His wife, Millie, collected coins as they traveled the world getting the A-10 fit into various U.S. Air Force bases. The krugerrand was not one of hers, but it was meant to symbolize that sense of adventure, and Eric Thorvaldson said it may become an annual tradition for he and his father from now on. Johnson said his office will try to sell this year’s coin donation at auction.
Millie died in September, and now Joel Thorvaldson is selling his waterfront home to move in with his son in Dare. Only one thing remains to be done to close the chapter of his life that began in the South Pacific during World War II. He did not receive a Silver Star or Purple Heart for being shot down because he couldn’t confirm that enemy fire brought his P-40 down. But the recent discovery of the wreck has shown bullet holes in the cowling.
“They put a bullet in my gear box,” he said.
He and his son are hoping to receive the recognition for surviving the dogfight.
“We just want to make history right,” Eric Thorvaldson said.