WASHINGTON -- The summer of 1942 was rough for the United States Air Force. Their planes couldn't reach the same altitudes the Japanese planes were flying, making Americans sitting targets in the sky.
But by the fall of 1943, the P-38 Lightning Plane had arrived and morale started to soar.
Charles O'Sullivan was proud of his new aircraft and surprised when it started acting up over New Guinea during a routine bombing mission. He radioed his wing man and told him he was heading back to Port Moresby for repairs and that he didn't need backup, a decision that would change his life forever.
"I looked in the rear view mirror and there is a Japanese fighter, and he's so close I didn't even turn around and look at him. I saw him in the rear view mirror and thought, 'oh'".
Sully, as his buddies call him, dove into the clouds as the enemy riddled his wings and engines with bullets. He lost the Japanese pilot, but as smoke billowed out of his engines he realized he was going down into the isolated jungle.
Nearly 70 years later, filmmaker Josh Baxter was praying that God would send him a new project when he met Col. O'Sullivan and learned about his story that needs no embellishment. He soon began work on the documentary: "Injury Slight: Please Advise."
"My first reaction was this is too big for me to do by myself, this is too big. And there came the tap on the shoulder that said, hey, you been asking for this," Baxter said.
Hungry and Hunted
After his crash landing and a few days alone in the jungle, O'Sullivan came across a native man and woman hunting along a mountain river.
Natives along the coast near Port Moresby were friendly towards American troops and the hungry Sully thought he'd take his chances.
"And I had this hand up like this and I had my hand on the 45 down here (on his hip) and I looked up and there's a guy. He either had a spear or a bow and arrow on me," O'Sullivan remembers as he chuckles.
The native pulled him up the river bank and the woman gave him some bananas to eat.
They had just slaughtered a wild pig and were collecting its blood in a bamboo tube.
"Then they would hold this bamboo tube and maybe put some vegetables or herbs or something in it and shake it up and then hold it over the fire and let it cook up," O'Sullivan remembered.
The tribe was friendly and fed O'Sullivan for a few days, but he realized their hospitality was over when some of the men forced him into a hut he calls the "execution chamber."
"They started a fire and brought in the bamboo tube which was a little disconcerting and I didn't see any other pigs in there.... I was it."
O'Sullivan still had his gun and tried intimidating the ring leader.
"I thought maybe they had been touched by the missionaries and so I said, you know, 'God wouldn't like it if you hurt me'…And he said, 'no savvy talk' and I said 'you savvy this?' And I whipped my gun over on him."
O'Sullivan finally shot his way out of trouble and escaped into the bush. He was hunted for days and spent the next three weeks alone, on the run in the jungle.
He finally bumped into an Australian Commando Unit, who sent his superiors a message that read, "Injury Slight: Please Advise." They also offered to fly him back to Port Moresby in their small plane.
"We flew for about a half hour and then the engine quit on that so we crashed again."
Remarkably O'Sullivan eventually made it back to the Port relatively unharmed.
O'Sullivan's story recently premiered in Washington, DC, at the 3rd annual G.I. Film Festival, a star-studded event designed to restore the luster to America's military.
Actress Karri Turner, best known for her role as Lieutenant Harriet Sims in the TV show J.A.G., was one of the festival's headliners.
"I mean, you have films that came out that decided to tear down our military, decided to point out the negative things about what had gone on that were negative. Why would you do that in a time of war? That seems ridiculous to me," she said.
Turner volunteers with the United Service Organizations and often visits American troops serving overseas and wounded warriors recovering here at home.
"When you come home it's almost like, you're angry for a little bit because you want to scream at everybody...you don't get it! That there are guys wearing backpacks in 130 degree heat for your freedom and you're cutting me off in traffic to get a latte. Really?" she said.
Although Col. O'Sullivan never imagined he'd be one of the featured attractions at a film festival, the 93-year-old climbed the stairs of the red carpet with ease.
Like other vets at the festival, he knows no film will ever accurately capture the horrors of war.
"I was scared to death, I thought I was gonna die for sure, I was even saving the last bullet for myself and then I thought, that's not the way to do it."
Thirty days in the jungle -- alone, hungry and hunted, Sully says his conversations with God kept him alive.
His plane was rediscovered in 1993. O'Sullivan wanted to go and see it, but was "implored" not to for his own safety. As it turns out he's a notorious legend among the mostly still isolated New Guinea natives.
Baxter and his film crew interviewed one native who was a young boy when O'Sullivan shot his way to safety and recalls the story just as Sully tells it, except he and the locals conclude the young pilot was deranged.
After his ordeal, O'Sullivan enjoyed a long and successful career in the Air Force. He and his wife had five sons and O'Sullivan says life has been good to him. Not surprisingly, one of his mottos is "never give up."
"That message has kind of been conveyed through the entire process beginning in WWII with his story and now as we've been able to bring it to the screen the same faith and determination has been the one constant in this process," Baxter said.
Now the two new friends are waiting to see where their next adventure takes them.
*Originally published June 11, 2009