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The Wittmers of Floreana

Vernon Lange

A page in the Wittmer Guest book for 1944. Photo shows Ed Farrand, Vernon Lange, Ernest Reimer.

In 1944 I was stationed on a small island named Isla Baltra, or Seymour Island. It is one of the Galápagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. We were there to protect the approaches to the Panama Canal.

All of the Galápagos Islands have both Spanish and English names. The island our base was on is in the rain shadow of low mountains of another island. Consequently we had bare, crumbled lava with some cactus, sparse grass, large iguanas, and domestic goats gone wild. The goats had been left there many years before by pirates, who had used the islands as operating bases.

Some of the islands supported almost tropical jungles and some were between the two extremes, with temperate climates. The overall situation was unique. The islands straddled the equator but a cold ocean current came up from the south and bather the islands. Therefore the temperature was not what one would expect at the equator.

We learned there was a German family living on Isla Santa María, also called Charles and Floreana. It was about 75 miles south of our base and had a temperate climate. My bombardier, Ernie Reimer, could speak German so one day we decided to fly to Floreana for a visit with the Wittmers. We took a single-engine observation plane, one which could take off and land at a very low speed in a very short distance.

We circled the island until we located their home at the base of a low mountain. Then we landed in a small meadow nearby and started walking up the trail toward the home. Soon a boy of about ten stepped out into the trail, holding a rifle pointed in our direction, and said “Halt!” Ernie had a short conversation with the boy, in German. The boy then stepped away from the trail, motioned for us to go ahead, and followed several paces behind us.

When we arrived at the home, a man of about 45 years came to meet us. Ernie introduced us and told him why we were there. He introduced himself as Herr Wittmer and shook hands with us. Only then did the boy relax and put his gun away. He was introduced as Rolf, the family scout, guard and hunter.

Herr Wittmer took us inside their home to meet his wife Margret and their daughter, Floreanita. The girl was so named because she had been born on the island. She was seven years of age at the time of our visit. They said they had another son who was 16, but was on another part of the island that day. He was blind but still made his way about the island alone.

They explained that they had come there ten years before, to escape the Nazis. They were eager for news, especially of how the war against Hitler was going. They were glad the Allies were making some progress.

They proudly showed us around their somewhat crude but comfortable home. It was constructed of such materials as were at hand. Logs and rocks enclosed an area partially under the mountain side, a sort of semi-cave. They had fixed it up nicely so that the impression was that of a homey house, not that of a cave.

There was a fireplace. Some parts of the solid-rock floor, and portions of the rock wall, were covered with cowhide rugs in interesting color combinations. Most of one wall was covered by a rough bookcase filled with books. The parents taught the children the things they would have learned at school in Germany in normal times. Frau Wittmer said the children were well-educated and that was easy to believe.

They explained that wild cattle roamed the island and it was occasionally necessary to kill bulls which became belligerent and threatened them. They canned the meat and tanned the hides, leaving the hair on. They had a large garden of many kinds of vegetables, especially potatoes. In that perpetual summer, vegetables produced all year round. It was simply necessary to plant at the right intervals.

There were some real caves nearby in which they stored vegetables and fruit in the coolness under the mountain. They also canned fruit and vegetables. They picked several kinds of wild fruits and berries for jam, jelly, and sauce, and made excellent wine. Frau Wittmer served us each a tall, cool glass of it, taken from the cold spring which flowed from the mountainside just a few yards from their house. They also kept the milk and cream from their two cows in that spring.

They had a small flock of chickens for eggs and meat. Four times yearly a small ship stopped at the island and from it they bought flour, sugar, salt, pepper, coffee, tea, and a few other things they couldn't make or grow for themselves.

There was more they wanted to show and tell us, but we had to be back on the base within four hours of the time we had left there. All too soon we had to say goodbye and leave. It had been a most pleasant visit and we hoped we could accept their invitation to return someday.

However, our squadron soon moved to Panama. When we moved back to the islands a year later, the light plane we had used was gone. There was then no plane available which could land in Floreana's little meadow. So, we never saw them again.

I often think of the Wittmers and wonder what happened to them. I thought they would return to Germany after the war, but it appears that at least part of the family remained in Galápagos. I found a book at the library titled Darwin's Island, written in 1971 by Ian Thornton. He states that Margret Wittmer still lives on Floreana with her family.

Did they all remain there? Did some of them return to Germany? I suppose the parents are quite old by now, if still alive. But what of sweet little Floreanita, and brave young Rolf, and the blind young man? Now they would be 46, 49, and 54—seems impossible! What kind of life have they had and what are they doing now?

I wish I knew—but I can only hope they're well and happy.

Vernon Lange with the Wittmer Children

Postscript: In 1989, the author learned that Mrs. Wittmer was still living on Isla Floreana.—JW.