Hero's voyage ends in Hollywood

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The Independent Online
A survival story to end all survival stories has just come to light. David Usborne on a true war epic

COMING soon to a screen near you: a story of courage and endurance, a story of one man's escape from his Japanese captors in the Second World War, a story of a journey across 3,000 miles of open ocean in a leaky boat with no water and rations of coconut milk and shark flesh. A story of unbelievable human survival.

Unbelievable but, it seems, true. The star will doubtless be a Hollywood idol - Brad Pitt, perhaps, or Ralph Fiennes - but the hero portrayed will be an American aviator who really existed. He was Lieutenant Damon "Rocky" Gause, a flier with the America's 27th Bombardment Group (Light).

Lt Gause did not survive the war. In a final irony, he died in March 1944, not in action, but test-piloting a P47 bomber over the Isle of Wight.

For reasons never determined, he flew nose first into the ground. On the instructions of his father, Lt Gause was not returned to the US, but buried alongside victims of both World Wars at the Cambridge American cemetery in Cambridge.

What is about to make "Rocky" Gause one of the most famous heroes of the war years, however, all happened in the South China Sea two years earlier. Almost as remarkable as the story itself is the manner in which it has come to light today. Throughout his odyssey from the Philippines all the way to Australia, Lt Gause scribbled notes, which he later rewrote as a seamless journal entitled "By the Grace of God and the Fillipino People". Accompanying it are photographs taken with a box camera and eight rolls of film.

The journal and pictures remained intact in an Air Force footlocker shipped back to his widow and only son, Damon Jr, in Georgia in 1944. There it remained undisturbed for more than 50 years, until the widow, who is still living, gave her son permission to publicise its existence and contents.

It was in contacting a New York literary agent, Mary Tahan, that Mr Gause ensured his father's odyssey would finally be unveiled. The journal opens in December 1941 when Lt Gause arrives in Manila just before its fall to the Japanese. The incredible journey really begins in April 1942, however, when, after a knifing a prison guard, he escaped captivity and swam three miles to the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Corregidor, however, fell on 6 May and Gause was forced to flee once more.

Gause made it first back to Luzon, half by boat and half swimming, before washing up soon afterwards on the island of Mindoro to the south. There, in deep jungle, he met an American Army Captain, William Osborne. Together, they resolved to make it all the way to Australia in a dilapidated 22ft boat with a diesel engine that ran, but only sporadically.

What followed was a series of incidents and visits to tiny islands along the way that makes even the story of Papillon seem pale. They raided a Japanese lighthouse for fuel for the engine and food, killing a Japanese sentry. Love and sex, those other vital Hollywood ingredients, also feature. "There is a love affair there," confirmed Ms Tahan, that happened during the boat journey.

One stop was at a leper colony on the island of Bugsanga, where an American marine engineer, suffering from the disease, helped them repair their sputtering engine. On another island, a woman missionary gave them shelter and provided Gause with the camera and rolls and film.

Finally, 159 days after first setting sail, Gause and Osborne washed up in Wyndam, Australia, 300 miles to the southwest of Darwin. Disbelieving Australian servicemen took them in.

"Rocky" Gause became, in fact, the first genuine American hero of the war, feted in front page articles, still available from archives, in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

He was shipped home to Georgia where he remained just long enough to attend the birth of his son Damon Jr. He begged to be allowed back to the war, however. And, in late 1943, with his son just one day old, he found himself dispatched to the Isle of Wight and a mission to test P47s to see if they could stand up aerodynamically to being used as dive-bombers.

Incredible as the tale may be, it stands up to all scrutiny, insists Ms Tahan.

Some of those named in the journal who are still living have been contacted for their memories of Gause and his companion, Osborne. "There are several survivors who can give an eyewitness account", she said yesterday.

Ms Tahan hopes to conclude the auction soon. It cannot be long, before the full, astonishing, story of Lieutenant Gause, lying today beneath the grass in Cambridge, England, becomes fully known to us all, in book form first and surely, quickly thereafter, on the silver screen.