Note:  The following is an excerpt from "An Everlasting Love," a biography that I'm currently writing about my parents, Don and Anne Leu, who died many years ago after 55 wonderful years of marriage.  This is the first excerpt I've posted and it involves two trips that my Dad took to the island of Roatan in Honduras:  the first in March 1967 by himself and the second a year later, in March 1968 with my mother and a large group of friends and family. 

My biography is now up to 240 pages and almost all of the stories that I've written have been positive and uplifting, reflecting the stable and happy family environment in which I grew up in.  This story, however, is more sobering and thought-provoking.  It describes how my parents, in search of adventure, crossed paths in Honduras during the 1960s with a self-described treasure hunter named Howard Jennings who could have been the archetype for the "Indiana Jones" character made famous in Steven Spielberg's movie 14 years later. 

My parents had several wonderful visits to Roatan and had nothing but warm and pleasant memories of the time they spent there.  But while they were alive, I'm sure they never realized Howard's disturbing backstory, something I only recently learned.  As I was writing the story of my parents' Honduras adventure and doing Internet research, I learned about the incredible and tumultuous saga of Howard Jennings and his wife, Anne, and I started thinking that their story should be made into a movie someday, perhaps called something like "Indiana Jones: Uncensored."  Then I learned that the movie, someday, might actually happen.  After I finished my parents' Honduras story for their biography, I decided to share it with others so I'm posting it on my website. 

Part 1 sets the stage, describing my parent's trips to Honduras in the late 1960s. 

Part 2 chronicles my 2019 research, connecting my parents with Howard and Anne Jennings. 

Part 3 describes the bizarre-yet-true story of the Jennings.

 

This is a story about human strength, resiliency, and the power of gold.

 

Above:  Location of Roatan, the largest island in Honduras.  Use the tools in the upper left corner to zoom in/out or change the basemap to an aerial photograph.

 

March 1967

The year 1967 would prove to be an exciting and interesting one for the Leu family.  Our adventures that year included a week-long trip from Michigan to Florida over spring break in April, a two-month summer road-trip out west to Washington state (which included an epic four-day family backpacking trip through the rugged Cascade Mountains, one of my very favorite memories), and finally a road-trip up to Montreal in the fall to visit what I believe was the last, great World's Fair, called "Expo 67."  The first adventure of the year, however, happened during March in Central America. 

My father, Don Leu, a professor of Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, flew down to Honduras in March to do some educational planning work with the World Bank in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  While working in Tegucigalpa all week, his Honduran colleagues told him about the beautiful Bay Islands, located several miles offshore in the Caribbean, so he decided to see them for himself, especially the island of Roatan (pronounced “ROW-a-tawn”), the largest island in Honduras.  Roatan is very long and narrow:  about 45 miles in length but only 4 miles across, and is heavily-forested and rugged, with a spine of hills running its entire length from east to west. Today, Roatan is a popular diving destination with tens of thousands of people visiting every year, but in 1967 when my Dad first visited, it was an unknown tropical backwater and tourists there were almost as rare as falling snow.

One reason Roatan was virtually unknown to the outside world was because getting to the island back in those days was itself an adventure.  Unlike now, there were no direct flights from the U.S. or cruise ship visits.  In fact, the only scheduled flight was a daily trip from La Ceiba, a coastal city on the Honduras mainland 40 miles away over the blue Caribbean via a rickety, DC-3 twin-motor plane (the type of airplane used in the movie “Casablanca”) with room for only about 10 passengers.  Flying in the slow, unpressurized DC-3, a relic from World War II, was a heart-pounding adventure – and a sensory experience as well, given the loud engine noise that made conversation virtually impossible and the engine fumes that permeated the cabin.  But the passengers were in good hands with Captain Kivett at the helm, an American and former World War II pilot who, for many years during the 1960s and 1970s, flew the once-a-day route to Roatan and then on to the neighboring island of Guanaja before returning to La Ceiba each evening.

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Above:  My Dad on Roatan in 1967 before a scenic flight around the island. (Clickable image is below)

 

The rugged island of Roatan had neither roads nor vehicles back then, so once you got to the island, it was hard to get around and therefore virtually all transportation was by boat.  Most people on Roatan lived on the developed west side while the eastern half was remote and largely unsettled.  The northern half of the island was generally inaccessible by boat, so most people on Roatan lived on the southern side, where numerous coves and inlets provided protected anchorages. 

By the way, my Dad once told me a funny story about the first vehicles on the island.  A few years after his visit, in the early 1970s, the first real "road" on Roatan was built, which circled the western part of the island.  Two jeeps were shipped over from the Honduras mainland and the Bay Islanders had a big party to celebrate the opening of the road and the arrival of the first vehicles.  The rum flowed freely and everyone got inebriated, then an islander got in one jeep and took off in one direction, bouncing wildly down the roadway, while another person in a similar state of drunkenness got in the other jeep zooming off the other way.  Both jeeps were careening down the circular road, going in opposite directions, but then they collided at the mid-point and both jeeps were totaled.  So much for the first two vehicles on the island!

But getting back to my Dad's story:  After working for a week in Tegucigalpa in March 1967, he flew out to La Ceiba and boarded the rattletrap DC-3 for the noisy flight over the Caribbean.  After landing at Roatan's grassy airstrip at Coxen Hole, the administrative capital of the island lying on the western edge of the island, he took a scenic flight around the island in a Cessna to get an overview, then he hopped on a passenger ferry, a 50-foot white powerboat called the Norma Don.  The Norma Don was Roatan’s only scheduled passenger ferry and ran every day except Sunday along the south coast of Roatan and then out to Guanaja, which lay 20 miles east.  For many years before the first road was built on the island, the boat Norma Don served as Roatan’s main transportation link, its lifeline and the “coconut telegraph,” delivering island news and gossip to each coastal community. 

From Coxen Hole, my Dad rode the Norma Don about 20 miles east to Oak Ridge, a small village on the southern shore of Roatan, located about halfway up the coast and about the last semblance of civilization as you were heading east.  He stayed for several days at Merlee’s Island Inn guesthouse, a large, old two-story house overlooking the Oak Ridge lagoon and run by a gracious middle-aged woman islander named (of course) Merlee.  Merlee's Inn was one of only a few lodging establishments on Roatan at that time, given the scant number of tourists who took the trouble and made the effort to visit the island back in those days, and it had a spacious front veranda where locals and guests alike gathered almost every afternoon.

During his week-long visit to Roatan that spring, my Dad met an eccentric American about the same age, in his early 40s, who said he was a treasure hunter.  His name was Jennings and he told my Dad that he had recently married a young woman from England, and that they had just moved to Roatan, to a large, remote and beautiful cove lying a few miles east of Oak Ridge called Port Royal harbor, which, except for the house they were building, was primitive and completely undeveloped.  This fellow Jennings told my Dad that he owned about 30 acres of land there and had subdivided it into seven parcels to sell, and Dad was interested. 

My father spent several enjoyable days on Roatan touring the island, fishing, swimming among the coral reefs, and getting a tour of Port Royal from Jennings and his wife.  And as he flew back home to Michigan, he began thinking about buying some of Jennings’ land in that beautiful and secluded harbor called Port Royal. 

 

My Dad's 1967 Trip to Roatan

 

March 1968

My father was wise, cheerful, generous, and very open-minded and trusting.  He was also extremely adventurous and throughout his life he constantly sought out new challenges, opportunities and places to visit.  Of course, that made growing up in our household interesting and exhilarating, with one new adventure after another (something I took for granted when I was young and didn't fully appreciate, figuring that everyone's family was like that). 

Sometimes, however, my father's sense of wonder got the best of him and, occasionally, he was almost too adventurous for his own good.  He never realized it while he was alive, but one episode in his life, involving the treasure hunter he had met on Roatan in 1967, could have easily had a dark ending, for him and our whole family.  Instead it turned out to be one of the more uplifting and fascinating stories in Leu family lore.

After my Dad returned to our home in Michigan from his week-long trip to the island of Roatan in Honduras in the spring of 1967, he told all of us – my Mom, my three older brothers and myself – glowing stories about the tropical climate, the beautiful beaches and mysterious jungles, the incredible diving among the coral reefs, and the relaxed and easy-going attitude among the islanders.  He also told us about the land that Jennings was selling.  My Mom became interested, figuring it might be a good place to spend the holidays or perhaps even retire someday, and soon they started talking about taking a trip there together the following spring, in 1968.  My parents were always investing in land somewhere and at that time, they owned a small piece of waterfront property on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle in Washington, but they thought about selling it to buy Jennings’ land in Honduras.   

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Above:  My parents in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in March 1968, heading for the Bay Islands.  (Clickable image is below)

Over that winter Dad told several of his colleagues in Michigan State’s Department of Education about beautiful Roatan and about a 10-acre waterfront parcel of land there that Jennings was selling in Port Royal, and he stoked a lot of interest and excitement.  With a price of $2,500 (about $20,000 in today’s dollars and worth many times that today) the waterfront property wasn’t cheap, so Dad asked his colleagues if they wanted to co-invest with him and several said yes, including fellow professors Stan Hecker, Lou Romano, Herb Rudman, Carl Hereford and Clint Cobb.  All the guys pitched in and gave Dad money for the 10-acre parcel, figuring the land was either a good investment or they could subdivide it among themselves later and develop it individually. 

By this time, my Dad and Mom were planning to visit Roatan in the spring of 1968 so that my Mom could see it and they could buy the land, so the MSU group, along with a few spouses and some of their teenage kids, decided to join them.  My brothers Don Jr. and Dave, who were in their late teens and early 20s, also wanted to come.  So during spring break week in March of 1968, a large group from Michigan headed by my parents flew down to Roatan.  But unfortunately, my Mom and Dad – and probably more Mom than Dad – decided that my brother Dwight and I were too young to travel to Central America, so he and I stayed home in East Lansing that week with a sitter.  And although I understood, I was still disappointed not to go.  My Mom, Dad and the whole gang, meanwhile, headed down to Roatan for a week of diving and adventure, and to buy the waterfront property from Jennings.

The group flew from Miami to El Salvador, then onto San Pedro Sula, on the mainland and the second-largest city in Honduras.  From there, they flew onto Roatan, landing on the island’s airstrip at Coxen Hole, then took a boat up to Oak Ridge, the small village about half-way up the south coast of Roatan.  In Oak Ridge they met Jennings, who took them in his new motorboat across the rough, open ocean a few miles farther east, to the remote and virtually-uninhabited cove of Port Royal.  This calm and protected inlet, about three miles across, had been a refuge for the notorious seventeenth-century pirate, Henry Morgan, and a hundred years later, in the mid-1700s, it was the site of two small British forts, Fort George and Fort Frederick, the remains of which were still visible.

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Above:  Payan Indian artifacts unearthed during the dig, which I still have. (Clickable image is below)

 

At the time of my parents’ visit in 1968, Jennings and his wife were the only inhabitants of Port Royal harbor and had just finished building an impressive Tudor-style home with white walls and exposed, dark beams and situated on the site of the former Fort Frederick.  The Jennings' house, the first of three Tudor homes they would build in Port Royal over the next few years, sat prominently on a bluff overlooking the water with a magnificent view of Port Royal harbor.  My Dad, Mom and the rest of the MSU group looked at their newly-acquired 10-acre property, which Jennings had recently cleared of jungle vegetation, and liked what they saw.  The parcel, located just north of the Jennings’ house, was rugged with a bit of slope and had a narrow and rocky beach, barely wide enough to walk on.  Everyone loved the property. 

My parents spent a lot of time that week with Jennings and his wife, and the Jennings led them on a few “digs” where they looked for buried pirate treasure.  They didn't find any pirate gold, unfortunately, but they did excavate several Payan Indian pottery artifacts.  An unauthorized dig is illegal today, but not back then and I still (and legally) have many of those thousand-year-old terra cotta artifacts.  I’ve thought about sending them back to Honduras, perhaps to a museum, so they can be enjoyed by others but the logistics would be challenging.

As I say, I was just a little kid then, but I do remember my parents being excited about their trip to Roatan when they returned to Michigan, and for several years afterwards, they occasionally mentioned interesting stories about that week, including hunting for buried pirate treasure and digging for artifacts, diving among the reefs, and buying the property in Port Royal.  And the booty they brought back to Michigan was impressive:  not just the Indian artifacts but also an old, empty rum bottle with thick, dark glass and in perfect condition, which the Jennings had given to Dad, telling him it had once belonged to the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  For years afterwards, the bottle sat prominently on a shelf in my father's den, and whenever someone asked him about it, he always said with pride that it was "one of Henry Morgan’s rum bottles" (though more likely it had been discarded by the British Navy back then).

As for the waterfront property they bought?  My parents and the MSU folks went down to visit it occasionally in the 1970s but they never built anything and everyone gradually lost interest and stopped paying the taxes, so the land eventually reverted to the government (it was posted on a real estate website in May 2019 with a $1.4 million price tag – just a bit more than the $2,500 that my parents paid in 1968).  Even though the property was never developed, the whole Roatan saga had been another interesting Leu family adventure and everyone returned to Michigan that spring of 1968 very happy and excited.  And fortunately, my Dad took dozens of slides during their trip, which helped me visualize their visit.  

My parents’ week-long Honduras expedition, however, had a fascinating and disturbing backstory that I discovered in 2019 while writing their biography – and which neither of them, I’m sure, were ever aware of. 

 

My Parents' 1968 Trip to Roatan

 

This Story Continues in Part 2 

 

 
 
 
 

 

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