Stranded on an Island for a Year, Six Boys Were Saved by One Man

If you grew up in the US, chances are you were given William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies to read in English class. If not, then you’re probably at least familiar with its story of a group of boys stranded on a deserted island. For many, it was an unsettling reminder that an innocent child can turn brutal under the wrong conditions.

Mano Totau
Mano Totau 1966. Source: Twitter

In 1965, off the coast of Tonga, a real group of boys set out for a summer adventure that ended up lasting over a year. The boys’ situation, which initially mirrored Lord of the Flies, ultimately saw a much happier outcome. Luckily for them, a fisherman was in the right place at the right time. It all started in June of 1965, when six Tongan boarding-school students – Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano — needed a change of scenery…

Looking for Adventure

The strict Catholic school atmosphere just wasn’t suiting the boys, who ranged in age from 13 to 16. They shared a common dislike: they were bored and tired of school. They also hated their school meals, and so their solution was to go fishing. They planned to sail 500 miles to Fiji, but, considering they were only teenagers, none of them had any means of transportation.

Boys sitting in a man-made boat
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Tau’olunga

They needed a boat. Luckily, there was a local fisherman named Taniela Uhila who had a few. The boys, who disliked the fisherman, snuck down to the waterfront and essentially “borrowed” a 24-foot craft. They lacked any sailing experience, but they were too eager to wait around…

Packing a Little Too Lightly

So they didn’t really pack carefully for what would ultimately be a long and unforeseen adventure. They brought with them two sacks of bananas, some coconuts, and a gas burner. That’s it — nothing more. They didn’t even pack a map or a compass. Late in the evening, the group of boys made their getaway.

A fisherman standing on his boat which is tied up
Source: Tumblr

They left Nuku‘alofa’s harbor without telling anyone where they were heading. At first, things went smoothly. No one saw them leave. The weather was clear. But, by the wee hours of the morning, they realized they had made a huge mistake. After they dropped anchor off the coast of Tongatapu, the boys fell asleep, with no one on watch.

A Long Week at Sea

A storm rolled in and broke the anchor rope. They woke up suddenly to a major squall. The wind tore up the boat’s sail, and the tossing seas snapped the rudder. They spent the next week drifting aimlessly. Mano later recounted how they had no food or water, except for a few raw fish. They had to start thinking about survival.

Four boys on a boat drifting towards land
Source: Imgur

They tried to collect rain in coconut shells, but the water was limited. Each boy got about two sips per day. After eight days, the boat was starting to fall apart. As their fears grew, they suddenly spotted their saving grace. They saw, on the far off horizon, an island.

Finding Uninhabitable Land

One side of the island was mostly sharp rocks and cliffs. It wasn’t beachy or inviting by any means. But, it had a few trees and it was land, after all. The boys finally made it to the island and scrambled onto the shore. They didn’t know at the time, but it was the island of ‘Ata, which was considered to be uninhabitable.

Ata Island
Ata Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Arne Museler

The island had been home to a thriving community in the 19th century. In 1863, however, almost half of its population had either died from disease or been kidnapped for slavery. There were some remaining citizens, but they relocated to nearby ʻEua. Of course, the boys didn’t know any of this.

Laying Down the Rules

All they knew once they reached the island is that they needed to lay down some ground rules. They had originally set out in search of adventure and good food, but they didn’t realize just how much of an adventure they would have. Now that they found themselves in a survival situation, they needed to make sure things went as smoothly as possible.

A boy eating something
Source: YouTube

They also had no idea how long they would be on this island. If they wanted to make it out alive they would need to be wise. So, one thing they decided on as a group was not to argue with each other on the island since fights could escalate and become life-threatening.

Food, Water, and Soul

If things got heated between them, they agreed to separate until they calmed down. Then, they would regroup and maybe even apologize. The boys also decided to create a schedule. They did everything in pairs. That way, if anything dangerous happened, no one would ever be alone. Then they set up a garden, kitchen, and watch posts.

Boys climbing rocks onto shore
Source: Imgur

They made a roster with rotating duties. They also made sure to attend to the soul as something else that needed to be kept in check. And so, every morning and every evening, the boys sang and had group prayer. In the beginning, they ate coconuts and the fish and birds they managed to catch.

For the Next 15 Months

As they further explored the island’s premises, they discovered an old volcano in the same area that the former ‘Ata civilization had lived. It was there that they basically struck gold, so to speak. They found wild taro, bananas, and chickens – all of which remained from the days of the former inhabitants.

Boys on the rocks on the shore of an Island
Source: Flickr

With the gas burner that they had wisely brought along with them, the boys lit a fire and used it daily for the next 15 months of their lives. Yes, these boys lived out a real-life Cast Away situation (you know, the Tom Hanks survival epic). But, in their case, they had each other to talk to instead of a ball named Wilson.

Let It Be a Lesson

The things these boys managed to pull off on an island with little or no resources can serve as a lesson for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation. For example, the boys managed to carve out fallen tree trunks to collect rainwater. They built coops for the wild chickens they found and even made a makeshift gymnasium and badminton court for downtime.

Guys carrying wood through the rocks
Source: Imgur

To keep their spirits high, Kolo made a small guitar. He did it by salvaging steel wires from the boat (that was in pieces) and attaching them to a piece of driftwood and a coconut shell he carved with their only knife blade.

Just as They Lost Hope

The clever instrument, and the musical boost it created, was a much-needed reprieve. But the issue of thirst was a major one. Rain was scarce, and the boys were always thirsty. They needed to come up with a plan because they couldn’t just live out the rest of their days on this island. So, they built a raft as a means of escape.

A guy looking over a cliff
Source: Twitter

But, it didn’t work at first as it was destroyed in the sea’s powerful waves. One day, their situation got more complicated when Stephen was chasing a wild bird and slipped and fell off a cliff, breaking his leg as a result. Just when the boys figured they would be stuck there forever, they found their saving grace.

He Heard Rumors

Australian Peter Warner was sick of living in the shadow of his wealthy father. Throughout his life, he was expected to carry on the family business. But, the sea was Peter’s calling. Every chance he got, he was on the water. On one expedition in the summer of 1966, he sailed to the small Polynesian island of Tonga.

Peter Warner today.
Peter Warner today. Source: Twitter

Peter knew the route back home to Australia well. On the way, he would pass by the small, uninhabited island of ‘Ata. Warner knew that the island had been deserted for decades. He had even heard rumors that the place was cursed. But, as he passed the island, he suddenly saw people.

A Bush Fire?

There were strange shouting noises that seemed to be coming from the island – an island that had long been deserted. He quickly grabbed his binoculars, trying to make out what he was hearing. Peter saw smoke and a small fire. He thought it might be a bushfire because no one was supposed to be there.

Boys on an Island
Source: Twitter

In fact, spontaneous bush fires are common. It’s what he saw next that took him by surprise. He saw the silhouette of a young man emerge from the brush onto the beach. He was naked, with his hair down to his shoulders. He saw the young man jump into the water.

Coming Right for Him

Peter was shocked and intrigued. He sailed a bit closer to the island to check it out. But, as he watched the figure jump into the water and swim for his boat, he couldn’t help but feel concerned for his own safety. Who was this person and what was so urgent? Warner wondered if he had upset some indigenous people by sailing too close to their shore.

People on rocks near a cliff on the water
Source: Pinterest

As he took a second look toward the shore, he saw the boy wasn’t alone. Warner saw that there were five others behind him, diving into the water and heading directly towards him. The one swimming toward him was Stephen, who was followed by the other five.

“We’ve Been Here 15 Months”

As soon as he reached Warner, the boy cried out in perfect English, something Warner will never forget. Stephen frantically told him: “We’re from Tonga, and we’ve been here 15 months. My name is Stephen,” he yelled out as he paddled. Warner never expected to stumble upon six teenage boys, let alone become their savior.

The boys posing on the Island
Source: Twitter

Peter was in shock, looking at them in bewilderment. Stephen climbed up the side of his small boat, followed by the others. They seemed overjoyed to see him – their first human contact in 15 months. Once the group was safely on board, they explained that they were students from a boarding school in Tonga.

Waiting for a Response

The entire scenario was just too insane to be true. Who were these boys and what were they doing on this deserted island? For 15 months?! Peter immediately went to his radio and contacted Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital. “I’ve got six kids here,” he radioed in. “Stand by,” the operator responded. Once Warner spoke to the operator, there was nothing for him and the boys to do but wait.

Kolo looking out
Kolo after being rescued. Source: Twitter

For what felt like the longest 20 minutes of his life, Warner heard nothing on the other end of the radio. Thoughts were racing through his head. What would he do if no one replied? But, then, the operator radioed back.

102 Miles

Peter couldn’t believe what he heard: “You found them!” the operator exclaimed. “These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!” Peter looked at the six boys standing eagerly in front of him. What on earth was going on? The story started to unfold as Warner and the boys themselves learned what all of it meant.

Kolo on Ata Island in the 1960s
Kolo on Ata Island. Source: Twitter

They had drifted 102 miles southwest of Tonga when they landed at ‘Ata. It was “Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean,” Rutger Bregman, the author of the book Humankind, wrote.

For Over 100 Years

They also learned that the last indigenous people of ‘Ata had left the island in 1863. The six teens thus became the first people to live on ‘Ata for over 100 years. Amazingly, they survived. And it was no easy feat. There were nights when they were kept awake by rain until the morning. And when it rained, it really poured.

A newspaper clipping from 1969 with the headline reading 6 Boy Castaways Starved 18 Months
Source: Flickr

Due to the rain, rats would rush into the boys’ shelter to keep warm. The boys recounted how one night, a 40-foot tree crashed inches away from their heads. There were days when they feared they would live the rest of their lives on that island. Then, on one fateful Sunday, on September 11, 1966, the boys saw a fisherman who became their way out.

Seeing Their Campsite

The boys recalled how when they saw the sailboat, Stephen started screaming, “Boat coming! Boat coming!” The rest of them began yelling from the mountains, heading quickly down to the shore to follow Stephen into the water. Once they were safe and waiting for the rescue team to arrive, Warner asked to see their campsite.

People on the coastline with a sailboat in the distance
Photo by Des Willie / Pymca / Shutterstock

He was not prepared for what he saw. “By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune,” Warner wrote in his memoir. He recalled seeing what the boys had set up for themselves. “A food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens, and a permanent fire, all from the handiwork of an old knife blade and much determination.” It was all very impressive.

Leaving Behind Families

After 15 months passed with no sign of the students, the group of six was assumed dead by the people of Tonga. In fact, they even held funerals for them. They left behind families, and we can only imagine how their parents and siblings felt. A few of the boys also mentioned that they had girlfriends before they set sail.

A fishing boat leaving the shore while people wave goodbye
Photo by Daily Mail / Shutterstock

Some had new brothers and sisters who were born while they were missing. Although everyone expected a happy homecoming, that isn’t exactly what happened. While the boys were gone, Taniela Uhila, the man they stole the boat from, was still upset that his boat had been taken. He was, after all, a fisherman who needed that boat.

Arrested Upon Arrival

Because they took his boat, they essentially threatened his very livelihood. When he learned that it was this group of six, he went ahead and pressed charges. When the boys arrived on the Tongan shores, they were immediately arrested. Not the type of homecoming they were expecting, that’s for sure.

A harbor with fishing boats
Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

Warner, who unwittingly rescued six stranded teenagers from an abandoned island, couldn’t accept that such an incredible story of survival would end in their arrests. He had to do something. Through his father’s business, Warner came into contact with people in the TV and film industry. He did his best to obtain the story’s film rights and, then, he presented an idea to the government.

His Cinematic Plan

Warner agreed to pay Uhila for his boat, as long as the boys would be let free so they could participate in the movie he was planning to make. In the end, the plan worked. At last, the boys were finally released and free to go home to reunite with their families. The community was beyond happy to see that the six teenagers they thought were dead were indeed healthy and alive.

Tongans dancing
Tonga 1969. Source: Flickr

Pretty much every single person from the tiny island of 900 people where the boys grew up came out to celebrate their homecoming. They were greeted by their families, who were obviously brimming over with tears of joy.

Getting the King’s Blessing

The members of the island sat down for a huge celebratory feast. Warner was welcomed and also honored as a hero. Even the King of Tonga requested to see him. Warner knew it would be the perfect time to discuss his plan. After a day of celebration, including singing and dancing, Warner was brought to the capital to meet with King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. Photo by Daily Mail / Shutterstock

According to Warner, the king said, “thank you for rescuing six of my subjects.” He then asked Warner, “Now, is there anything I can do for you?” Warner took the opportunity to ask the king if he could start a business trapping lobster on his island. It was a dream of his, and he hoped he would get the king’s blessing.

The Film Didn’t Take Off, But…

Warner would finally be able to fulfill his dream of working on the water. He also wanted to offer the boys he had rescued a job opportunity. And so, all six of them signed on to be his newest crew members. Warner then taught them everything they needed to know to sail safely and explore the world. For years, the Tongan boys worked as his crew members, and to great success, too.

A fishing boat
Photo by David Muscroft / Shutterstock

Eventually, the crew returned to the island to film their documentary. Unfortunately, the documentary never took off and the story was nearly forgotten. But, in 2020, the story resurfaced and Peter Warner reconnected with the remaining four survivors.

A Happy Ending

With time, everyone moved on with their lives, the boys included. But, once news of their reunion reached Hollywood, the US film studio New Regency bought the rights to their story. The survivors were hired as consultants. Unlike the tale of Lord of the Flies, which ends horrifically, the story of the six Tongan boys had a much different, more positive ending.

Kolo Fekitoa standing on the rocky shore of Ata Island
Kolo Fekitoa visiting Ata Island. Source: Twitter

The young boys were stranded without parents or adults and, instead of being filled with fear, they worked together and made the best of their time on the island. It’s quite incredible to see just how well they handled themselves. Their story should serve not only as a lesson on survival but also on friendship and teamwork.

Since we’re on the topic of incredible survival skills, there’s no one better to consult than Bear Grylls – the Man vs. Wild phenomenon himself…