Operation Auca: Five Widows in Ecuador

Women’s History Month: March
Widows (and Orphans)

“Christ’s tenderness towards widows was one of the most marked features of his character.” ~Ambrose Bierce

A missionary, serving in a First World country, suffered a crazy car wreck. She was thrown from the vehicle, then under the vehicle, then run over several times as the car spun out of control. Her chest was crushed. She was airlifted to a hospital, but there was little hope she’d live.

From half a world away, her husband flew to her bedside. In his tender years he’d already experienced widowhood. He was not going through that again. This was the wife of his adulthood and the mother of his children. Shattered, weeping, barely able to speak above a whisper, he eked out what inwardly he was screaming in his booming preacher voice: “Mary, don’t you die on me!” At his word she lived—though for the rest of her life she had to sleep sitting up.

Death is the ultimate abandonment. If those who pass on so willingly could see the mess they leave behind, perhaps they would not be so eager to check out of here.

If you are a spouse and a parent, your first duty is to stay alive. You owe it to your family with whom you live in a covenant relationship. Your Christian duty is not to surrender your life foolishly to some misguided passion but to care for the people you love. Any fool can throw away his life. It takes courage to live.

Only an idealistic youth would romanticize martyrdom.


Elisabeth Elliot (1926- ), a missionary kid, born in Belgium, suffered a tragic end to her first marriage. The story was told by Reader’s Digest and Life magazine and retold by her in Through Gates of Splendor and Shadow of the Almighty

Elisabeth and her husband Philip James (Jim) Elliot (1927-1956), a native of Portland, Oregon, met at Wheaton College, where both majored in Greek. A year older than Jim, Elisabeth graduated first. While he was completing his senior year, she did an extra year of study at Prairie Bible Institute, Alberta, Canada. They went separately to the mission field in South America, to work with the Quichua Indians, married in Ecuador, built their own home in the jungle, and had one child, Valerie.

The Elliots were only one of five young married couples working together in Ecuador: Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Nate and Marj Saint, Ed and Marilou McCully, Roger and Barbara Youderian, and Peter and Olive Fleming. Most had small children still in arms. All were accomplished persons, with a bright future ahead of them. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot were active linguists, working on translation; Elisabeth was an organist. They were still young, very young, a mere twentysomething, when a dark chapter was written in their lives.


People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as  missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives … and when  the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted. ~Nate Saint

Nate Saint (1923-1956), a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had worked with both Army and Air Force before becoming an innovative pilot and mechanic with Missionary Aviator Fellowship. He stripped his Piper plane of every luxury so that he could carry bigger loads: less plane, more cargo. A believer in 2 Timothy 2:4, he shared that “When life’s flight is over, and we unload our cargo at the other end, the fellow who got rid of unnecessary weight will have the most valuable cargo to present to the Lord.” His wife, Marj, a graduate of UCLA, was a registered nurse (RN). They had three children: Kathy, Stephen, and Philip.


Ed McCully (1927-1956), from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, looked like an all-American, and, in fact, was an exceptional athlete. He studied business and economics at Wheaton, law at Marquette University Law School, and, after deciding on ministry instead, trained at the School of Missionary Medicine in Los Angeles. He also distinguished himself as a orator, winning the 1949 National Hearst Oratorical Contest, San Francisco. He and Marilou had three sons: Stephen, Michael, and Matthew.


Roger Youderian (1924-1956), a church pianist from Montana, had worked in the Army during World War II as an assistant chaplain and paratrooper and had been decorated at the Battle of the Bulge (1945). In Berlin, Germany, after the war, he felt a call to missions. He studied liberal arts at Northwestern College in Minneapolis, the school where Billy Graham served as president (1948-1952). There Roger met his wife, Barbara, a Christian education major. The couple stayed on after graduation at Northwestern’s School of Missionary Medicine and then studied Spanish in Kansas City. They had two children: Beth and Jerry.


Peter Fleming (1928-1956), a native of Seattle, studied philosophy at the University of Washington and took his masters degree in literature. He and his wife, Olive, spent a year in the mountains of Quito, learning Spanish. Still almost newlyweds, they had not yet started a family.

Though missionaries Robert Moffatt, David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, CT Studd, and others had gone to fierce unreached tribes, opened a door to Christian missions, and lived to tell about it, this was not to be the story of this young team. The Aucas were aborigines. Primitive warriors. Killers. The team knew this. Aucas had killed three Shell oil workers (1942).

One of their own, a woman named Dayuma, a refugee, had been taken in by the missionaries. She worked as a domestic and helped Jim Elliot learn the language. Dayuma described how the Aucas spent hours spying on Shell oilmen and other Westerners. Dayuma told the missionaries: “Never, never trust them. They may appear friendly and then they will turn around and kill you.”

Aucas killed two children and their mother, then escaped in a stolen canoe (1955). In Arajuno an Indian met an Auca with a lance fifty yards from Ed McCully’s home (December 1955). None of this information changed their plans. Their mission was to go in, even if it cost their lives, and it did.

Operation Auca began October 1955. Jim wrote his parents not to tell what they were up to. It was all secret. “Not even our nearby missionary friends know of it yet.” “There are some who, if they got wind of our plan, could wreck the whole deal.” “These people are killers …. Our Indians are deathly afraid of them.” That the young missionaries were doing this on the sly should have told them something.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. ~Alexander Pope

The team got close to the Aucas via plane, talked to them from the sky, and thought they were making headway in establishing rapport. Their next scheduled move was to touch down and talk to them face to face.

There was no peace about this mission. This too should have been a warning. December 1955 Elisabeth noticed that Jim was discouraged. “A gloom seemed to settle over his spirit.”

Not all the team was convinced this was a good move. (Another missed clue.) There were doubts that landing the plane and getting on the ground in Auca territory was a good idea. Those who dreaded going, like Roger, for instance, were duped by peer pressure. If everyone else was in, how could he opt out?

When the time came, shortly after New Year 1956, Jim was eager to go. He stuffed his duffel bag with hardly a look back. As he put his hand on the brass door handle, Elisabeth was tempted to say aloud: “Do you realize you may never open that door again?”

On 3 January 1956 the men began setting up camp along the Curaray River. Having already contacted and exchanged gifts from the air, they were hoping for a friendly encounter with the Aucas. But it happened exactly as Dayuma had forewarned. Friday, 6 January, Aucas approached and appeared friendly. Two days later, Sunday, 8 January, Aucas ambushed the men, killing all five. Later that week the widows and orphans knew for sure what had happened. There was no funeral and no tombstone. (Jim, who had been born and married on 8 October, was killed on 8 January.)

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot

Five widows, left alone with nine orphans, rationalized that this was God’s plan and that the world would not understand. Later the Aucas were evangelized for Christ, which seemingly justified the killings. Not everyone would agree. It could’ve been done without loss of life if done wisely. National magazines told the story, which helped to launch Elisabeth’s writing career: she went on to write more than twenty books and to have her own daily radio broadcast. After thirteen years of widowhood she remarried (1969): to Addison Leitch, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Four years later she was widowed again. She subsequently (1977) married Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain. To date, they have had a happy thirty-five years together. Marj Saint Van Der Puy and Olive Fleming Liefeld also remarried, showing there is life after death.

“A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.” ~Thomas Mann

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Coca Falls, Ecuador

About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
This entry was posted in World History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Operation Auca: Five Widows in Ecuador

  1. Renee says:

    I had to comment as I have been studying this matter by reading articles (such as this), listening to recording’s of Elisabeth Elliot, watching documentaries (one by Stephen Saint, son of Nate Saint), and more. These missionaries, and other’s before and after them, who have gone into such remote territories simply fascinate me. Surely, they know and accept the dangers that lie ahead. Yet they are willing to venture into these places for one reason-to share with those who otherwise would never have the chance to hear about, the love of Jesus Christ. These men and women have something within themselves that most of us, Christian or not, cannot understand or comprehend. It is a sold-out, giving-it-all-up-for-God-and-man Love. A love that compels them forward into a life-service of fulfilling the Great Commission- “Go and make disciples of all nations…”, regardless of cost. Were they afraid? Yes. But, they had the courage to stand in the face of fear. The most moving, and beautifully inspiring aspect of their courage is twofold. First, the men who were speared to death, took guns with them, never planning to use them for protection but, to subdue their wives. In fact, they even fired two warning shots when the 4 Indian warriors came out of the bush at them with the spears, shooting one into their plane and grazing an Auca’s arm with another. You may wonder the reason they chose not to kill these charging indians, but instead chose to be martyred. These men wrote in journal entries that they were ready for heaven, but the Auca Indian’s who would kill them were not. So, these men, these courageous, loving, missionaries chose death, over saving their own lives, knowing that doing so would only sentence their killers to never know God and His love-So amazing! Next, it is incredulous, that when circumstances allowed, two years later, Elisabeth Elliot took her three-year-old daughter to dwell within the Auca tribe, some-of-whom had just killed her husband and fellow missionaries. She and her daughter Valerie lived among them for several years, learning their language, teaching them of God’s love and learning the terrible reason they killed her husband and the other men. What I’ve learned is this tribe was angry-full of rage, really and went on killing sprees throughout the Amazon. Other tribes suffered great loss within their families at the Auca’s hands and were terrified of them. These Auca’s were even killing off their own people, as they resolved conflict through spearing. The love the Auca’s were shown despite killing the five missionaries resonated greatly with them and changed their lives. Their entire tribe accepted God and turned from anger and the spearing stopped. This radically changed the entire region for the better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s