Boy lost in the Woods of Katadin



Alone in the Wild, and Then a Hero’s Welcome

CreditThe New York Times

July 1939. The world teetered on the brink of war as Hitler menaced Poland. The 11 millionth visitor passed through the turnstiles of the New York World’s Fair. Baseball fans still reeled after Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech at Yankee Stadium.

But many Americans could think only ofDonn Fendler, a 12-year-old boy lost on Mount Katahdin in Maine, the object of a frantic search and rescue operation that dragged on for nine days, monopolizing the radio airwaves and newspaper headlines.

Thousands of mothers sent prayers by Western Union to the boy’s mother. Boy Scouts joined the search, along with workers from the Millinocket paper mill. The New York State Police dispatched two of their best bloodhounds by air.

Hearts sank when Donn’s footprints disappeared at the edge of a sheer 400-foot precipice called Saddle Slip. “I’m still trying to make myself believe there’s a faint thread of hope,” his despondent father, Donald, told The Boston Globe.

Spirits lifted when new footprints appeared near the mountain’s base two days later.

Finally, on the ninth day, a miracle.

“Stripped naked by eight days of fearful battling with the Maine wilderness on the slopes of mile-high Mount Katahdin, Donn Fendler came back to civilization this afternoon — wan, cruelly bitten and scratched, delirious with joy at hearing a human voice again,” The Globe reported on July 26, under the headline “Boy Found in Maine Wilds.” The national ordeal was over.

Donn Fendler died on Sunday in Bangor, Me., his son, Dennis, said. Mr. Fendler was 90.

The Fendlers, from Rye, N.Y., had spent the previous four summers vacationing on Sebasticook Lake in Newport, in the center of Maine. On July 17, Donald Fendler and his sons, Ryan, Donn and Tommy, Donn’s twin, headed out after lunch to ascend Mount Katahdin, at 5,267 feet the state’s highest peak. They were accompanied by Henry Condon, the 17-year-old son of a local guide, and Fred Eaton, a young family friend.

Donn Fendler was honored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the Army and Navy Legion of Valor medal in 1940, a little over a year after his ordeal. CreditAssociated Press

Eager to climb, Donn left his father and brothers behind, pushing on with Henry and Fred, when bad weather set in. “Just as we reached the summit, the mist closed in around us and shut off our view of the mountain below,” he said in “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” (1939), an as-told-to account of his adventure written with Joseph B. Egan.

Ignoring the advice of his climbing mates, Donn headed back to rejoin his family. Lashed by rain and disoriented by the enveloping mist, he quickly became lost. And thus began his weeklong odyssey.

Recalling his Boy Scout training, he decided to follow a small stream toward what he hoped would be a camp or town. At night, he curled up between tree roots and covered himself with moss. He ate wild berries. On the second day, tripping as he walked in the stream, he lost his sneakers, which he had tied together and carried over his shoulder.

Not long after, trying to throw his soaked jeans onto a rock in the stream, he misjudged and watched as the water carried them away. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled in his book. “My pants were gone. There I was like a Kewpie or something.”

Small stones cut his feet. Near-freezing temperatures at night stiffened his limbs. Mosquitoes, black flies and moose flies bit.

“Somebody ought to do something about those black flies,” Mr. Fendler said in “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.” “They’re terrible — around your forehead, under your hair, in your eyebrows and in the corners of your eyes and in the corners of your mouth, and they get up your nose like dust and make you sneeze, and you keep digging them out of your ears.”

He prayed. He hallucinated. One day, he heard a plane circling overhead but could not find a clearing to wave at it. Twice he encountered bears, foraging, as he was, for berries. He began to lose strength and hope, before the sight of telephone wires suggested to him that he was on the right track.

On July 25, he came to a clearing and saw, across a lake, two canoes and a small cabin, part of a remote camp on the east branch of the Penobscot River run by Nelson McMoarn. Mr. McMoarn emerged from the cabin and did a double take.

“I crawled out on the big log so the man could see me, and began to yell,” Mr. Fendler said in his book. “I guess that yelling was pretty funny, for Mr. McMoarn told me later it sounded like a screech owl.”

Mr. Fendler chatting at a book signing in Bangor, Me., in 2011.CreditMichael C. York/Associated Press

After being carried to bed by Lena McMoarn, Nelson’s wife, and revived with coffee and soup, Donn was handed a telephone receiver. His mother was on the other end of the line. “Mama, I’m all right,” he told her. Scratched, swollen and eaten alive by insects, 16 pounds lighter, he had wandered 35 miles from his starting point. But he was alive. The news ran on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold. Life magazine published a photo spread.

A little more than one year later, Donn was in the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded him the Army and Navy Legion of Valor medal, recognizing him as the outstanding youth hero of 1939.

Donn Conner Fendler was born in Rye on Aug. 29, 1926. His father helped run a family business, C.M. Almy, which made clerical vestments and church goods. His mother, the former Ruth Ryan, was a homemaker.

After being transported by canoe from the McMoarn camp to Grindstone and spending several days in the hospital in Bangor, Donn quickly resumed his adolescent routine.

After graduating from the New Hampton School in New Hampshire, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served as a Seabee in the Pacific theater during World War II. He studied forestry at the University of Maine for two years and briefly attended the University of Georgia before making a career in the Army.

Trained as a Green Beret, he served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. In 1962, he was posted to West Germany. With the rank of lieutenant colonel, he later assumed command of a battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky. He retired in 1978 and moved to Clarksville, Tenn., not far from the Army base.

In addition to his son, he is survived by three daughters, Bridget Fendler, Judith King and Joan Bedwell; his brothers, Ryan and Thomas; and six grandchildren.

For the rest of his life, Mr. Fendler spent summers in Maine and, in the fall, visited schools there to talk about his exploits in the woods. “I hope the message that I give sinks in,” he told The Bangor Daily News in 2008. “It’s really about faith and determination. That’s the whole message.”

Visitors to Baxter State Park still hear his story, a cautionary tale that rangers know full well. For years, his book was required reading for Maine schoolchildren. In 2011, Mr. Fendler told his story in a graphic novel, “Lost Trail,” scripted by Lynn Plourde and illustrated by Ben Bishop.

“When I die, my ashes are going over Mount Katahdin,” he told The Bangor Daily News in 2014. “My brother said he’d fly or get someone to fly,” he continued. “Yup, they’re going to put me in a bean can.”