Donn Fendler, a Boy Scout who lost his way during a mountain trek in Maine in 1939, embarking on a nine-day survival story that transfixed the nation and inspired generations with its themes of self-reliance and intrepidity, died Oct. 10 at a hospital in Bangor, Maine. He was 90.
His son, Dennis Fendler, confirmed the death. The cause could not immediately be determined.
Fendler was a month shy of his 13th birthday when he became a national hero, the victor in a battle not of man vs. nature, but of boy vs. nature. His ordeal landed him in newspapers across the country and, it was said, in the prayers of mothers everywhere.
It was the summer of 1939. Fendler was vacationing with his parents and siblings in Newport, Maine, the annual retreat from their home in Rye, New York. On July 17, he set out with his father, his twin brother, another brother and two friends to hike Mount Katahdin – at roughly a mile high, the tallest peak in Maine.
As they made their way to the summit, Fendler and a friend sped ahead of the group. When fog suddenly rolled in, Fendler panicked and turned back to join his father. Along the way, he veered off the trail and became lost.
“I had a feeling I was right on the edge of a great cliff,” he recalled in an as-told-to memoir, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” (1939), co-authored with Joseph Egan. “The way the clouds swirled scared me. The rocks about me looked more like ghosts than rocks, until I tried to climb over them.”
Sleet followed the fog, and cold began to set in. A search party was formed and swelled during the next days into the hundreds, including police and fire officials, forestry authorities, game wardens, the National Guard, and concerned citizens.
As searchers combed the mountain, Fendler survived on what he described as his faith in God and his will to live – along with pointers from the Scouts.
By day, he gathered strawberries and checkerberries. By night, he slept in a burlap sack salvaged on the trail. He lost his shoes and, soon after, his pants, when he attempted to toss them across a stream, only to watch them float away in the water. What little clothes remained were snagged to shreds on jagged rocks, leaving Fendler with no defense against mosquitoes and flies.
At one point, he looked down at his bare feet and saw he had lost part of a toe.
Through his tribulations, he stuck to certain routines, such as going to bed early and saying his prayers. And he remembered a tip from the Scouts: If lost in the wild, follow a stream to civilization.
Unbeknown to Fendler, the search went on, but hopes began to dim. At a low point, a bloodhound traced his trail to a 400-foot precipice. “I’m trying to make myself believe there is still a thread of hope,” Fendler’s father told the New York Times during the ordeal.
Finally, on July 25, the owner of a sporting camp spotted a half-clothed, exhausted boy crying on the banks of the Penobscot River, 35 miles from where his family had last seen him. When the man asked for the child’s name, the lost boy replied, “Donn Fendler. I was lost on the mountain,” according to an account from the Associated Press.
Fendler was down from 74 to 58 pounds. After a joyful reunion with his parents, he received a hero’s welcome home, including a parade, a feature in Life magazine and a medal from the governor of Maine declaring him “the most courageous boy in America.” Later, Fendler received a medal of valor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“This boy is not strong and yet he achieved a superhuman endurance,” Egan, Fendler’s co-author, wrote in a foreword to the memoir. “He is highly nervous in temperament; yet he achieved calmness under circumstances that would have driven grown men insane.”
Donn Charles Fendler was born in New York City on Aug. 29, 1926. His father sold clerical vestments.
When Fendler was honored by Roosevelt, he declared that “if I were old enough, I would enlist in the Army today.” Five years to the day after he went missing, he joined the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War II.
He later joined the Army Special Forces, serving in the Vietnam War, among other postings, before his retirement in 1978 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
His wife of 56 years, the former Maryrose Connolly, died in 2009. Survivors include four children, Dennis Fendler of Nashville, Judith King of Cary, North Carolina, Bridget Fendler of Clarksville, Tennessee, and Joanie Fendler of Guthrie, Kentucky; two brothers; two sisters; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Fendler divided his time between Clarksville and Maine, where he spoke to young people about his adventure on the mountain. His memoir, which was adapted into a graphic novel with co-creators Ben Bishop and Lynn Plourde, became assigned reading in schools.
He replied to every student who wrote to him; he owed a debt of gratitude to Maine, he said. He gave them tips for the outdoors: If you go hiking, carry food and water, a first-aid kid and a whistle. “If you get separated, it will really help,” he said in remarks recorded by the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine.
Fendler once reflected on why his saga had so gripped the country.
“It was before the war,” he told the Boston Globe. “There just wasn’t much going on in the country, and so my story caught people’s attention.”
As for why it held the attention of youngsters so many decades later, he speculated that perhaps they looked at him and saw not an old man, but rather the plucky Scout he had been. He told the Bangor Daily News two years before his death, “I’m always the little boy.”