In February word came that Russell would be arriving from Manokwari. My excitement was without bounds, but why Manokwari, a village on the north coast of New Guinea? When the steamer eased into port at Macassar, I was nearly bursting with excitement. Positioned at the front of those gathered to greet disembarking passengers, I was totally dismayed when I saw a gaunt, wasted stranger with Walter Post.
The other missionaries recognized the slimmed-down Russell as the man they knew before his furlough. But where was the man I had married, the husband who had left for New Guinea? In just eighteen days on the trail and a few months of meager rations, he had lost more than sixty pounds!
"Darlene?" When I heard his voice, I knew it was Russell, but the voice shouldn’t belong to this emaciated stranger. I quickly looked down, not wanting him to see my uneasiness. My shyness amused him, but the shock I felt, thinking of what he must have suffered, was with me for days.
He walked with considerable pain, and once back at the house, when he removed his shoes and socks, I knew why. There was no skin on his insteps, the balls of his feet, or any of his toes. He had a serious, advanced case of jungle rot.
Dr. Jaffray immediately sent for a doctor, who came to the house to examine Russell’s feet. Turning to me, he said, "Do you see this tissue that is sloughing off? Each morning take a tweezer and tear off every layer until you reach the raw, throbbing flesh. Don’t apply the ointment that I’m giving you until that rotting tissue is removed. This will be very painful, but there is no other way to get to the fungus that has caused Mr. Diebler’s condition."
Morning after morning, I sat on the end of the bed dressing Russell’s feet. My unpleasant task was compounded by the strangeness I experienced in the presence of this wasted, spare man. Russell would laugh when I furtively looked up at him while I tended to his feet. It continued to tickle him that my garrulous nature had been bested.
Dr. Jaffray, his daughter, Margaret, and I spent hours listening to the firsthand account of Russell’s trek to the Wissel Lakes. After the first session, I came to wonder not at how much weight he had lost, but that he had survived at all.
During the first three days of the trip, the carriers forged their way upstream, and Russell claimed that in all of his travels up and down Borneo’s treacherous rivers, he had never felt as uneasy as he did with these inept oarsmen, who nearly capsized them in midstream. Russell had felt troubled when first introduced to the carriers; now he knew that he should have trusted his intuition. They, like many of the New Guinea coastals, moved with lethargic, expressionless motions. Russell saw the effects of jungle life on the long-time coastal inhabitants, debilitated by dengue fever and repeated bouts of malaria where no quinine was available.
When they arrived at Orawaja, expecting a crude base camp, they found nothing more than a large, mat-walled bamboo structure with a grass roof that barely provided a space out of the rain. His carriers were reduced to seven by sickness. The three who were ill returned to Oeta with the canoe. After a hastily prepared meal, Russell and the remaining men divided the supplies among them, then adjusted their packs for the trail, anticipating an early start the following morning. Stretching out on the floor, the carriers were soon asleep. In the stillness that followed, Russell took from his pack his Bible and diary. Lighting a candle, he read, then recorded the events of the past three exhausting days.
The trail was as hazardous as any of the explorers had described. All day the lead carriers hacked away at the jungle undergrowth that obscured the crude trail. Each succeeding day carried them farther into the central highlands, with each mountain range higher than the last. They inched along narrow ledges jutting out over huge gorges cut by the Oeta River rushing menacingly below, but serving as their guide to its source, the Wissel Lakes.
The jungle-clad mountains begrudgingly gave way to ranges covered with broken-bottle limestone outcroppings, often deceptively hidden under moss. The serrated shards cut through the leather soles of Russell’s field police boots.
On New Year’s Day Russell awakened feeling completely depleted physically and concerned. His carriers were few, too few. Would the supplies last? Needing encouragement for the walk ahead into this unknown wilderness, he opened his Bible and came to a portion that seemed illumined on the page: "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest" (Joshua 1:9). In His own inimitable way, with this exhortation, God fortified Russell’s soul for the desperate days ahead.
Great care was exercised by those in the lead not to dislodge the stones and boulders precariously balanced beside the trail. A boulder set in motion could easily crush others on the switchbacks below. Climbing the almost perpendicular walls of the mountains, the men had to test the handholds lest a stone be pried loose and hurtle downward, injuring those beneath.
The monsoon rains deluged them. Late afternoons they made camp. Already emaciated, Russell would drop his pack, then go back to help the carriers into camp. They made the minimum of repairs on the existing bivouacs, but the shelters still leaked. These bivouacs were low lean-tos constructed of saplings pounded into the ground and laced together with rattan between the four corner posts. Sapling doors were hung on hinges made of rattan. The roof was of grass or bark. The men’s clothes were always wet. They huddled around the fire for warmth, apathetically eating their rice, dried peas, and salt fish.
Picking up his diary, Russell began to read to us: "This has been a grueling day; I forced myself to eat and boil water for drinking, but I have little appetite. All day I remained at the end of the line, endeavoring to keep the carriers in sight. From their furtive glances in my direction and whispered conversations during the rest stops, I feel convinced they plan to desert. After we made camp tonight, I prayed and reasoned with them that our only hope is to remain together, trusting God for strength to go on...
That night was spent in prayer, pleading that God would keep the carriers from running away. In an early hour of the morning, Russell dropped into a troubled sleep. Noise of the carriers moving about the camp awakened him, and miracles of miracles, all were still with him.
He could sympathize whole-heartedly with the men. Six carriers had died on a former expedition over this trail. Every night the carriers, staggering under their loads, were helped into camp. Russell felt physically buffeted by the ever-increasing demand upon his fast-dwindling strength. This was not a large expedition with many police, sufficient carriers, and ample supplies; it was one man alone, exhausted, in an unfriendly jungle with seven equally exhausted carriers. However, abandonment on this ill-defined trail, one-third of the way in and two-thirds of the way to his destination, meant certain death. Even though he was able to persuade his party to accompany him further by agreeing to leave a portion of his supplies, Russell knew it was possible he could awake some morning to discover that he had been forsaken during the night and that his supplies were gone. His only recourse was prayer. To the burden of the days fraught with hazard was added the agony of pleading by night for divine intervention and protection. He encouraged himself in the New Year’s promise - "Be strong and of a good courage...the Lord thy God is with thee" - and went on.
Not a week later, Russell realized that it was imperative they retrieve the supplies left in the bivouac downtrail, so he called a halt. He and some of the stronger men returned to bring the rest of their supplies forward by relay. After the change of pace and rest, the carriers were in a better frame of mind.
As the men climbed higher, ever higher, into the mountains, the days were warm but the nights brought the added misery of a drastic drop in temperature. Russell and the men huddled together in their blankets around the fire, trying to take the warmth from one another. They were coastal men, unaccustomed to the cold of the high altitudes. They suffered, some weeping in the bitterness of believing that death hovered about them. There was no respite from the penetrating chill winds that shook their crude shelters and made a mockery of their fires. They came to dread seeing the sun sink behind the craggy ranges.
Then came the last dreadful day, the eighteenth day, a day of near-total disaster that, by the goodness and mercy of God, ended at midnight in victory!
They topped the fourteenth mountain range and emerged in Kapauku country. The terrain was comparatively flat, and a trail wound between potato gardens. Sometimes the men toiled through mud up to their hips.
About three in the afternoon, the trail led to the river’s edge, where they found canoes that were evidently used by government parties. They had not paddled far before they realized it would be suicidal to go on. A storm upriver on Lake Paniai caused high waves and dangerous currents where the lake, in its feverish thrust toward the coast and the sea, funneled out into a narrow, high-walled channel to become the Oeta River. Six miserable hours they waited in the canoes for the wind and the waves to die down. By nine o-clock, all of them were shivering from the cold, and Russell felt he could wait no longer. Paddling against the current in the river warmed their blood. With grateful hearts, they cheered when they swept out of the river channel into the larger body of water. They still had to cross the corner of the lake to reach Enarotali, the government post.
Faint lights could be seen on the distant shore. Just when they began to relax, the ordeal seemingly over, Russell’s canoe struck a submerged rock and overturned. Every person and piece of gear plummeted into the tumultuous, icy lake. The piercing cries for help from the carriers awoke the government personnel. Russell and the carriers swam madly in the current, and all managed to scramble aboard the second canoe. They bailed frantically, for the canoe, now severely overloaded, was shipping water. Lanterns appeared and kind hands helped to pull the canoe onto the lakeshore. Though water soaked, every man and piece of luggage was eventually salvaged.
At midnight on January 13, 1939, Russell, a lone pioneer missionary, stepped foot on the land, like Joshua of old, to lay claim to the territory and all of the primitive tribes scattered throughout the interior valleys and ridges, anticipating the time when all would hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At dawn Russell peeked out of the makeshift government hut only a little rested but eager to meet the native people. Dozens of dark brown, pygmoid people with full lips and broad noses swarmed around the post during the morning, curious to see the newcomers. One brave man quickly offered his bent index finger to Russell, who stood back and watched as the patrol officer reached out and clasped the man’s finger between his own bent index and middle fingers. Both then pulled their hands apart and downward, producing a sharp snap. This was repeated many times - the more snaps and the louder, the more certain the bond of friendship.
Feeling brave with his newly learned greeting, Russell mingled among the people. Their wiry hair was caked with dirt and ashes, and their small bodies were smeared with a combination of mud and pig fat that closed the pores and substituted for clothing. The men’s complete attire was a phallocrypt gourd, which hung from a string around the waist and was held in place by another string around the scrotum. Little girls wore grass skirts; women wore brief string or rope skirts. The women and girls carried net bags that hung from their heads, functioning as a carry-all by day and a Stone Age version of thermal underwear by night, as they stretched them around their small bodies.
A hole was pierced in the nasal septum of both boys and girls at an early age. A straw was inserted in the hole until the perforation healed; then a small reed replaced the straw. Periodically the reeds were exchanged for one slightly bigger, until the hole was large enough for the men to wear a pig tusk or a piece of bamboo and the women a reed or stick pointed on either end. All had pierced ears, not for earrings but for an occasional quill from a cassowary feather; or more practically, the holes functioned as a storage place for roughly crafted cigarettes or bamboo pipes. Without trousers, shirts or pockets, they found ingenious ways to store necessary items!
Necklaces fashioned from shells or the teeth of dogs or rats were worn by both sexes. Wigs fabricated from cassowary feathers commonly covered the balding heads of the proud but aging men.
The Kapauku houses were built of hand-split planks, pointed on one end and pounded into the ground for a crude framework. The trees were felled with stone axes; the trimming or shaping of the planks was done with stone adzes. The walls were a single thickness, and the roof was of tree bark. The floor was bare earth, with three stones forming the fireplace. The householders slept around the fire in a tight cluster with the pigs. Especially the piglets that were being suckled by the women when a mother pig had died.
More than thirty varieties of sweet potatoes were grown and tended by the women in the surrounding lake area. In the absence of cooking utensils, the sweet potatoes and edible greens were sometimes steamed with hot rocks in an outdoor pit, but they were more often roasted in the hot ash under the coals in the indoor firepit.
Pigs, killed for spirit appeasement, rats, crayfish, tadpoles, birds, caterpillars, wichery grubs, bee and wasp larvae, grasshoppers, stinkbugs, and other insects supplied interesting varieties of protein in their diet.
The Kapaukus exchanged cowrie shells as money. Russell found that a large, fat pig or a young, strong wife could be bought for the same price - a string of from forty to sixty yo (the old, thin cowries). It dealt my female pride a blow to know I would be considered no more valuable than a dirty, fat hog!
Dividing his time between firsthand experience with the Kapaukus and the friendly, knowledgeable government personnel, Russell was able to ascertain what materials and arrangements were available locally and what would have to be brought in to establish a permanent mission station.
Russell was at the point of complete physical exhaustion. Understandably, he faced the arduous trek back to the coast with reluctance. During his stay the patrol officer became very ill with fever, and when the governor dispatched a navy plane to evacuate him, the officer requested, against standard procedure, that Russell be allowed to accompany him. "Look at his feet! He’ll never make it back to Oeta alive!" Three hours later they deplaned in Manokwari. From there he booked passage on an interisland steamer to Ambon, where Mr. Post joined him, and then to Macassar. That providentially arranged plane ride saved Russell the impossible trek to Oeta and exactly one month of travel time.
One morning after Russell told the final episode of his story, Dr. Jaffay walked into the bedroom and saw me tearing the dead tissue of Russell’s feet, the blood and pus running. A wave of nausea passed over his face, then he turned and without a word abruptly left the room. He closeted himself in his bedroom, and when I called him at noon, he said he would not be out for lunch. About four that afternoon, he walked out and laid a manuscript on the table in front of me.
I picked it up and read the editorial for our field magazine, The Pioneer.
"This morning I looked at the bleeding feet of a missionary, saw his wife tending them, saw the blood and pus running from them and thought to myself, "What a nauseating sight that is!" But, as I walked from the room, the Lord kept saying to me, "Oh, but to Me they are beautiful feet!"
Then I remembered - "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings" - good tidings to men and women like those in New Guinea who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Someday it will all be over. Someday the tired, bleeding feet of the missionaries will for the last time cross the broken-bottle limestone mountains. Someday for the last time they will go down into one of those newly discovered valleys. Someday for the last time they will speak the message of redemption through Jesus Christ our Lord. Someday the last one will turn to Jesus. Then the clouds will part asunder and our Savior will be there."
Reverently, I laid the manuscript on the table and lifted my tear-filled eyes toward the east. I knew that soon I would join the long line of intrepid missionary pioneers who had walked into the unknown to lift up His ensign on the mountains and lay a claim for the Lord.
From that day on, although hurting at the pain Russell was experiencing when I dressed his feet, I thrilled to think my Lord was looking at them, saying, "To Me they are beautiful feet!" It served to increase my desire to join him when he returned to Wissel Lakes. I was impatient. Dr. Jaffray had shared his vision for the day when it would be over. I just wanted it to start! When Lord, when?
About the Author
Darlene Diebler Rose and her husband were pioneer missionaries to the Dyak tribe in New Guinea. Both were taken prisoners by the Japanese during WWII. Darlene survived the nightmare only to find that Russell had died in the prison camp. Later, Darlene remarried and returned to the islands that represented her pain to yet again take the Gospel to a tribe (the Dani) that had not heard of Jesus. This is an excerpt from her great book: Evidence not Seen, 1988.