Kenneth E. Douglas of Hobe Sound, a real-life Indiana Jones, diesJuly 31st, 2009 by TCPalm.com
HOBE SOUND — Before Harrison Ford donned a brown leather hat and whip, Kenneth E. Douglas’s two sons knew their father as the real-life Indiana Jones.
But Douglas, who was befriended by a rocket scientist, served as a police chief in tribal Liberia and had his plane attacked by a South American anaconda, was more than just a thrill-seeker.
Douglas also had the amicable Forrest Gump-like knack for running into and befriending some of the world’s most influential people across all walks of life.
The humble 88-year-old adventurer who called wildernesses from Africa to Wyoming home passed away in his Hobe Sound house Monday.
“As a kid growing up, I thought, ‘Gee, Dad has gold nuggets he found in the South American jungle,’” said his son Kenneth about the Indiana Jones comparison. “‘He has spears covered in snakeskin and poison darts and a blowgun.’”
Born Aug. 28, 1920, in Kingston, N.Y., Douglas’s mother died when he was 9, and his father abandoned him. He found solace by going out into the wild, his son said.
Douglas trained pilots before World War II, and fought with the Air Force in the war in China and Africa, a continent he grew to love.
According to letters to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, in 1946 Douglas accepted a flight captain position with an upstart airline called Liberia International Airlines in Western Africa.
A few months later, his wife Beth and two sons joined him in tribal Liberia, where they lived in a “Tarzan-like” existence, his son said.
“We could hear the native’s drums from across the field at night,” he said.
Douglas also warmed up to then-Liberian President William Tubman, who offered him a police chief position in an outer province. A tribe called the Leopard Society terrorized and robbed the locals there, until a new friend helped Douglas out.
According to Peabody letters, in 1948, when Douglas crashed his single-engine plane in a largely uninhabited African forest, he broke off the plane’s hang lights to send up a Morse code signal. A plane came to his rescue, and medical missionary Dr. George Harley housed him for three days.
Harley gave Douglas a Poro Mask, or “death mask,” to hang above his door. The natives believed anyone who viewed the object with an evil heart would die. It succeeded in scaring off the natives — but unfortunately that included Douglas’ two native house hands, who ran off screaming when they saw it.
The mask was donated to the Peabody in 1998, along with seven other rare African items.
Douglas then made his way to South America to explore for two years via float plane, and had a close encounter with what he hoped was just a log.
Douglas crashed his plane, hit an anaconda in a river and narrowly escaped as the plane sank.
The adventurer returned to the states sometime before the 1960s, eventually moving to remote Boulder, Wyo. And one look at his photo collection shows how popular he’d become.
He posed with astronaut John Glenn. He got a personalized autograph from Elvis, a fellow plane owner, for his wife. He knew the shah of Iran personally,and befriended several kings, his son said.
He hunted with Dr. Wernher von Braun, a German rocket scientist, who, after sitting, white-knuckled, in the passenger seat while Douglas sped in his 1961 Corvette, called his adventuring “foolish,” his son said.
Douglas lived half the year in Hobe Sound, half in Wyoming for the past 13 years, His health deteriorated and he couldn’t leave Florida the past two years. Douglas had two knee replacements, and once he lost his mobility, he lost his spirit, his son said.
Douglas is survived by his sons Kenneth, and Bill,, his grandchildren Chris, Alex, Craig and Diana, and great grandchildren Billy and Breanna.
“He was a lovely man,” said Viva Fisher, registrar at the Peabody Museum. “He was very gracious, modest about his adventures, and had wonderful stories.”
Jonathan Mattise, TCPalm.com