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February 26, 2024

In 1966, a Group of Six Teenagers Were Discovered Living on the Tongan Island of Ata, They’d Gone Missing 15 Months Earlier

In June 1965, a group of six Tongan teenage boys, aged between 13 and 19, who shipwrecked on the uninhabited island of ʻAta and lived there for 15 months until their rescue. The boys were Luke Veikoso, “Stephen” Tevita Fatai Latu, Sione Fataua, “David” Tevita Siolaʻa, Kolo Fekitoa, and “Mano” Sione Filipe Totau.

The boys ran away from St Andrews Anglican boarding school in Nukuʻalofa on Tongatapu. They had stolen a 24-foot (7.3 m) boat on short notice and with little preparation. After they anchored for the night (approximately 5 miles (10 km) north of Tongatapu), a storm broke their anchor rope. The boat’s sail and rudder were destroyed quickly by the wild winds. Over the next eight days, they drifted for almost 320 km (200 mi) generally southwest, bailing water from their disintegrating boat until they sighted ʻAta; at that point, they abandoned their ship and swam to shore over the next 36 hours, using planks salvaged from the wreck.

Mano was the first to reach land; weak from hunger and dehydration, he could not stand but called out that he had safely reached shore, and the rest followed him. After escaping the sea, the boys dug a cave by hand and hunted seabirds for meat, blood, and eggs.

Initially, they were desperate for food and water, but their situation improved after three months when they discovered the ruins of the village of Kolomaile in the island’s volcanic crater, following a two-day climb. They revived the remnants of 19th century habitation, surviving on feral chickens, wild taro, and bananas; they captured rainwater for drinking in hollowed-out tree trunks. They drank blood from seabirds when they did not have enough water. The boys divided up the labour, teaming up in pairs to work garden, kitchen, and guard duty. One of the boys, Stephen (who would go on to become an engineer), managed to use two sticks to start a fire, which the boys kept burning continuously for more than a year while marooned.

At night, they sang and played a makeshift guitar to keep their spirits up, composing five songs during their exile. Once, they attempted to sail away on a raft they made, but it broke up approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) offshore, and they were forced to return. The breakup of their raft was fortunate in retrospect, as the boys believed they were in Samoa and had started sailing south into the open ocean.

On September 11, 1966, the Australian fishing boat Just David, captained by Peter Warner, approached ʻAta after Warner noticed patches of burned grass on the island’s cliffsides. Warner, moonlighting as a fisherman operating out of Tasmania, was sailing near ʻAta while returning home.

After spotting the unkempt, naked boys through binoculars, Just David approached cautiously, as Warner had been told that serious criminals were sometimes marooned on remote islands. When the ship was close enough, Stephen dove in and swam to the boat, explaining himself in English.

To verify their story, Warner radioed their names to Nukuʻalofa and after a 20-minute wait, was told, “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!”
The photos you see here are from the original 1966 documentary with the actual boys themselves.


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