"If people today had the mindset of the '6 Tongan Castaways' — if we all help each other, not be greedy, care for each other — we can all survive what is happening in the world," says Sione 'Ulufonua Fataua, 73

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Diane Herbst
June 05, 2020 12:05 PM
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John Carnemolla

Sione 'Ulufonua Fataua is 73 years old, but the busy head pastor for the Church of Tonga and its 16 U.S. congregations says he can never retire — the debt he owes to God is too great.

Sione was 18 in June 1965 when he and five restless friends at St. Andrew's Anglican boarding school on Tonga "borrowed" a boat, thinking they could sail to New Zealand for "a better life." But a storm their first night at sea derailed their pipe dream.

"The boat was all torn up — no rudder, no sails — and for eight days we drifted with no food, no rain to drink," Sione says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "We prayed, knowing only God could save us."

That the boys, ranging in age from 13 to 18, survived eight days at sea was miracle enough. But what happened after their battered craft slammed into the rocks of the deserted island of 'Ata in the South Pacific was even more astonishing — especially to students of William Golding's 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies.

Unlike in that classic novel, which is the story of boys on a deserted island turning on each other, Sione and his friends made a pact that first day to live on the island just as they had been raised in their respective families scattered across the small islands of Tonga.

"We all come from close and poor families where, whatever you get, you share," says Sione, describing a detailed system the boys worked out for growing food, tending a permanent fire (the flame never went out over 15 months), exercising and resolving arguments.

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Nights around the fire were for airing grievances. "If anybody had something they didn't like, they talked about it and we say 'Sorry' and then pray and everything's okay," recalls Sione, one of the two eldest boys, who took on a leadership role. "If someone got really mad — like, if I planned something and they didn't do it — you disappear for a few hours, look at the ocean and clear it out of your mind."

For much more of the Tongan boys' life on the island and the enduring bond among the survivors, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Sione and (behind him) Tevita Siola'a and the other survivors returned to the island with a camera crew in 1966 to reenact how they survived.
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They were rescued in September 1966 when a fishing boat captained by Australian Peter Warner passed 'Ata near enough for one of the crew to hear the boys shouting. Remarking today on the tale he had heard once all six boys swam — naked and with long hair — out to his boat that day, Warner says: "They created a mini-civilization. For people so young, the wisdom was amazing."

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The boys' story was tucked into Warner's 2016 memoir Ocean of Light: 30 Years in Tonga and the Pacific, but didn't get widespread attention until Dutch historian Rutger Bregman stumbled upon a brief mention of the Tongan boys' adventure in an obscure old newspaper clip. Bregman had been looking for a real-life Lord of the Flies to include in his new book Humankind.

"We've been telling ourselves cynical stories about humanity for decades," Bregman tells PEOPLE. "A more hopeful view of human nature is exactly what we need right now. We can't allow ourselves to be cynical these days; the challenges are too big."

Sione remains close to one of the "boys" — Luke Veikoso, now 72, who relocated to the U.S. after retiring as the Pacific Heavyweight boxing champion. He moved in with Sione in Oakland, California, two years ago. Of retiring from his work managing 16 congregations and leading services in his own, Sione says, "I always say that God kept me alive, so I'll work for Him for the rest of my life."

Unable to travel because of the coronavirus, he and Luke recently joined a Zoom call with Warner, Bregman and the only two other castaways still living, Tevita Siola'a and Mano Totau, to give Hollywood studio New Regency the movie rights to their story.

Sione says he waited 54 years for that story to become famous — and 2020 turned out to be the perfect time: "If people today had the mindset of the '6 Tongan Castaways' — if we all help each other, not be greedy, care for each other — we can all survive what is happening in the world."