On April 9, 1944, five United Brethren missionaries met at the train station in Fort Wayne, Ind. All were headed to Africa in the midst of World War II. In Europe, American forces were battling through Italy–Anzio, Monte Casino–while allied bombers struck German assets throughout the continent. Russians had the German army in retreat across a wide front. US foces were advancing across the Pacific, island by bloody island, and the Japanese were being pushed out of Burma. D-Day was two months away…as was the arrival of these five travelers in Sierra Leone.
It was a low-point for our mission work in Sierra Leone. Dr. Leslie Huntley and nurse Emma Hyer had both left the country and were now in the US military, forcing the Gbangbaia dispensary to close. Only a couple missionaries remained. But now, reinforcements were on the way, including persons who could serve in every aspect of the mission–leadership, education, medicine.
Lloyd and Eula Eby were the only veterans, but had now been gone from Sierra Leone for 18 years. Joining them were three young women, all first-term missionaries who, nobody knew at the time, would spend many years in Sierra Leone. Erma Funk, an ordained minister and bishop’s daughter, would stay for three terms, mostly in Bonthe with the Minnie Mull school. Oneta Sewell, a nurse from Ohio, would give three terms at the Gbangbaia dispensary and Mattru Hospital. Bernadine Hoffman would spend an incredible 39 years in Sierra Leone.
The five missionaries traveled by train to Miami, and Pan American Airlines flew them the rest of the way. They left Miami on April 14. Three days later, after a bunch of stops—Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, British Guyana (now Guyana), and Dutch Guiana (now Suriname)—they arrived in Belem, a city in northern Brazil. Their destination was Natal, located on the eastern tip of Brazil which jutted into the Atlantic Ocean. From there, they would fly to Africa.
Pan Am could only take three of the travelers on to Natal, so the three single women left on April 19 and arrived the next day; the Ebys joined them several days later.
We’ll resume their story on April 20, and tell about the six weeks they spent in Natal, and their fortuitous encounter with a young Naval officer named Lt. DeWitt Baker.