Castaways: Navy Vet From Lincoln, 100, Recalls Month on Remote Island

Radioman L.T. O'Neal, pilot B.J. Skuda and gunner John Boosalis. (Photo courtesty of John Boosalis)
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March 14, 2019 - 6:45am

He turns 100-years-old today, but for John Boosalis of Lincoln, Nebraska, what happened to him 76 years ago this month doesn’t seem like that long ago. As a young Navy radioman and gunner, he found himself on a remote island in the middle of the South Pacific, long before “Lost” was a TV show and “Castaway” was a movie.    


As he looks at an old photo of a younger version of himself, John Boosalis is a long way from where he was in early 1943. Back then, he was aboard the U.S.S. Suwannee, a Naval escort carrier stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Boosalis was part of a three-man crew on an aircraft on anti-sub patrol. It was supposed to be a routine mission.

“It was a very boresome, tiresome flight, those anti-sub patrols because you had to keep a lookout,” Boosalis said. “But then the pilot came on the intercom that we were going to go down. So we landed at sea. A lot of people have the impression that landing on water is kind of a soft landing. However, this is not true. It’s like hitting a brick wall.”

George Boosalis with his father, John Boosalis in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Boosalis, the pilot and a radioman quickly scrambled out of the plane, unscathed by the hard landing. They deployed a rubber raft, loaded some emergency supplies and then watched as their plane sank in less than two minutes. They were in the middle of the South Pacific, but could see an island about 20 miles away. So they started rowing.

“Trying to help things along, the pilot and I got into the water and tried to push the raft and that was all well and good until we saw some shark dorsals,” Boosalis said. “We got back in the raft in a quick hurry.”  

As they got closer to the island, they realized they were being pulled back out to sea. Running low on supplies, they knew getting to the island was a life-or-death proposition.

“We started rowing, I would say a little before midnight. It would be one man on each oar and one man sitting steering it,” Boosalis said. “We rowed steadily from that midnight to afternoon the next day because we were being pushed out to sea again.”

Finally, they made it to shore and later found out they had landed on Erromango, an island about 30 miles long and 20 miles wide. They had to navigate a rugged shoreline, with sharp coral and lava rock before they found a place to settle down. They were sunburned, exhausted and thirsty.

The shoes John Boosalis had to cut open on the island of Erromango in 1943. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

 “The first thing we did was look for water and a short ways back from the shoreline, there was this lava rock and there was some water in that that didn’t have the saltwater,” Boosalis said. “ We got some of that and we just rested. We just flopped down and regained our strength before we started walking.”

They wandered along the shoreline for four days, sometimes sleeping in a cave. They had a few Hershey bars, a can of SPAM and some crackers, but that didn’t last long. They needed more.

“We’d catch these little sand crabs, build a fire and we’d roast them,” Boosalis said. “The meat in a sand crab is about the size of, probably smaller than a toothpick. And we ate those, as many as we could find.”      

The men had come across an old fishing camp along the shoreline, the first sign of civilization on the island. They also found oranges, limes and papaya about a half mile inland. On the fifth day, they saw an island native out looking for a lost pig.

The farmhouse where Boosalis and two others recovered on the island of Erromango in 1943. (Photo courtesy of John Boosalis)

“We hailed him in our language and he answered back in pigeon English and we came to find out that other Navy personnel had crashed up there,” Boosalis said.    

The native took the men back to his village, where they spent a few days resting. Boosalis’ feet had swollen from sunburn and saltwater and he had to cut open his shoes to be able to put them on. The villagers then took them to the farmhouse of an Australian rancher who lived on the other side of the island.

 “When he saw us, he started to laugh and it kind of bothered us a little bit,” Boosalis said. “But then he told us his hobby was collecting American airmen because there were others who had crashed-up there before we did.”

By this time, Boosalis had malaria and was in bad shape. The rancher had a supply of quinine and nursed him back to health over the next three weeks. Boosalis celebrated his 24th birthday on the island, passing his time reading the books the rancher had in his library. The nearest radio was on nearby Tanna Island, and a supply ship that delivered goods to Erromango told the residents on that island that Boosalis and the other two had survived their crash and were waiting to be rescued. Within a couple of days, seaplanes landed and took the men back to their ship. They had spent an entire month on the island. 

 “The will to survive is very strong, very strong,” Boosalis said.  

100-year-old John Boosalis, who survived for a month on a remote island in 1943. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Boosalis, who had four brothers who served in the military during World War II, went right back to work on his ship with little fanfare. He eventually entered cadet training in Florida before he was discharged from the Navy when the war ended in 1945.  He got married and headed back to his native Minnesota before eventually moving to Lincoln in 1961 to work in the restaurant business. He’s been there since and now lives in an assisted living facility, still active and friendly, with clear memories of what happened in 1943. His son George visits often. Much like others from the Greatest Generation, Boosalis doesn’t think he did anything special.

“There were a lot of heroes back in that time, and he was one of them,” George Boosalis said.

“Ah, I don’t know about that,” John Boosalis said.     

John Boosalis says the experience changed him. He didn’t take everything so seriously after that and realized others had it far worse than he did. 76 years later, he’s still grateful, with the adventure of a lifetime fading into the waters of the South Pacific.    

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