In early 1956 Bub Borman faced a decision. Word earlier that day in Ecuador had said communication was lost between his missionary friends deep in the jungle and their base station at Shell in Pastaza province.
Pilot Nate Saint had flown fellow missionaries Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian to a river sandbar in territory of the notoriously hostile Waorani people, then known by the Quichua language term Auca, which means “savage.”
The Search Or Safety? Family or His Friends?
With a search team forming, would Bub go along? “I was scared, to be honest,” Borman wrote years later. “The Aucas had evidently killed five personal friends of mine.” He could cite an Old Testament exemption from military service for the newly married as adequate rationale for staying back. Just months earlier, Bub and his wife, Bobbie, had become parents to a son, Randy.
He continued wrestling with the question as he rode with his family to Shell. Then later, he found himself on a plane to a missionary outpost at Arajuno. “Whether I’d said ‘yes’ in my heart or not,” he later told, “I’d brought my .38 pistol and my .22 rifle along.”
“Well, I’d forgotten to bring a hat!” he continued. “However, [McCully’s wife] Mary Lou loaned me one of her old straw hats, rather feminine with round crown and attached straw flower. I took off the flower and rolled the brim to disguise the looks of the hat and started off down the Arajuno airstrip with Don Johnson and Dee Short.” The missionaries were accompanied by 13 Ecuadorian soldiers—who had volunteered—and eight Quichua Indian guides. *
They spent the first night in the jungle, coming to the ravaged airplane the following day on the shore of the Curaray River. Missionary physician Art Johnston checked for identification the missionaries’ bodies they found, making notes on jewelry and other items to take to the men’s widows.
“Between his [Jim Elliot’s] body and the shore, Nate’s Rolleiflex camera was found,” Borman wrote, adding that although partially damaged, the film proved useful in telling of the men’s deaths. Some of Saint’s photos appeared in a LIFE magazine story of the men’s deaths while trying to reach the Waorani with the gospel.
Burying the Dead Buried As A Storm Blows In
Using as litters the tin roofing Saint had flown in to construct rustic shelters, Borman and the others slid the dead into a grave. “Rain began to fall from the dark sky as dirt was pushed in and Frank Drown began a short service and prayer,” he wrote.
“The wind blew, and gave the impression of Satan seeking to make one last assault,” he continued. “We heard a noise and saw the helicopter come in low over the beach, drop a passenger and turn tail running out ahead of the dark storm front. The passenger proved to be LIFE photographer Cornell Capa.”
After Colonel Nurnburg’s departure via helicopter the following morning, security slackened among the searchers during their walk to the mission station at Arajuno. “The Aucas could have picked us off one at a time like in a shooting gallery,” Borman recounted.
“I found myself alone once and then heard a stick break somewhere back in the jungle,” he said. “No Auca would have done that, however, and as I waited in the shadow of a tree, I saw Jack Shalenko climb down off an old Shell Oil Company bridge abutment and come toward me on the trail. I stepped out and joined him and we went on to Arajuno together.”
Bible Translation Among the Cofán People
The Bormans returned to their Bible translation work in Sucumbíos province that lies north of Pastaza province. They raised their sons and daughter and invested themselves in the lives of Christians among the Cofán people. Several years later in 1964, the Bormans and their language helpers from the tribe published the Gospel of Mark in the Cofán language. In October 1980 they dedicated the Cofán New Testament; the Abridged Old Testament came a decade later in January 1990. The Bormans moved to the U.S. in mid-1992 when the SIL-Ecuador branch closed. (In field endeavors, missionaries affiliated with Wycliffe Bible Translators work under the auspices of the mission’s sister organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, or SIL.)
Unthwarted by the 1956 killings on the Curaray River, evangelical missionary outreach to the Waorani pushed on. Jim Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, entered the jungle with a Waorani woman, Dayuma, to live with the Waorani and learn their language. Most of the missionary men’s killers placed faith in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of their sins.
A Waorani Christian Conference 50 Years Later
In the ensuing decades, the gospel made inroads into the Woarani culture. In early 2006 Christians in the tribe held a 50-year commemoration of the 1956 event, inviting the missionary martyrs’ survivors to visit for a three-day conference in the jungle. Bub attended the event, as did another member of the search party, Don Johnson.
Successes and failings of the Waorani church surfaced during the conference, according to Borman. “One of the Christian Waorani leaders had led a raid on another village a couple of years ago,” he said, “killing 17 men, women and children.” As a consequence, Christian Waorani had ostracized the lapsed believer and Borman said at the gathering, “he was repenting and asking for forgiveness. He had been given banana drink laced with alcohol by those instigating the raid. He went wild with the unaccustomed drug and reacted violently and led the raid.”
The conference also featured Christian hope for younger generations and for the Waoranis’ collective future. “We went to the big beach and got ready for the baptisms,” Borman recalled, “Five were scheduled to be baptized. It ended up being 10—three women and seven men.”
Tired from standing during the service, he went to the back of the beach, sat on a large log and sang Na Jesucrisoi ccu gi jacana in Cofán as the others sang in Spanish as Waorani people were baptized. The words mean in English, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”
* Borman recorded the search party as being led by Frank Drown (Avant, then known as Gospel Missionary Union) and consisting of Morrie Fuller (Christian & Missionary Alliance), Dr. Art Johnston (Reach Beyond, or at the time HCJB), Dee Short (Christian Missions in Many Lands), Jack Shalenko (Slavic Gospel Association/HCJB), Don Johnson and himself, Bub Borman (Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics. Col. Malcolm Nurnburg of the U.S. Air/Sea Rescue Squadron of the Caribbean Command also participated.