My Father’s Dragon

My Father’s Dragon

This is not that story.1 This is a story about another dragon, who looked like this:

A Komodo Dragon on Komodo Island in Indonesia
Komodo National Park

It’s a story about two Komodo Dragons that President Sukarno of Indonesia gave to America in 1964. They were in return for a pair of trumpeter swans that the United States gave to him.2

The Komodo Dragon is now the largest lizard in the world. It comes from a few islands between Flores and Sumbawa, including Komodo Island. This giant lizard can grow almost ten feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds.

Nobody knows how Komodo Dragons got so much larger than other monitor lizards. It might be the Komodo Dragon found its small, isolated islands encouraged large growth over many years. The islands had plenty of deer and wild pigs to eat, and not many people to bother the Dragons.3

A hatching Komodo Dragon

The map shows those islands, and how Indonesia is in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and the Asian continent. It also shows the city of Jakarta, where we were living (it was spelled Djakarta then), and the city of Manila in the Philippines, where we lived later.

This is what the American Embassy in Jakarta looked like in 1964. Embassies are buildings in foreign countries where Americans work for the United States government.

Chancery Building, built in 19584
U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia (circa 1970)5

The man in the white hat is a Marine guard. In 1964 the Marine’s desk was closer to the stairway and in front of a glass wall looking out over a garden in the back.

Not just a garden, but a pond, garages, and a small commissary or government grocery store, too.

Rear of Chancery Building, built in 19586

The Komodo Dragons were delivered to the Embassy one evening in wooden crates or boxes. They were put in the rear garden to wait for their plane ride to America. 

About two hours after midnight,7 the Marine at the desk felt something staring at him. He turned around and saw . . . 

One of the Dragons!

Looking through the glass!!

It escaped from its box!!!

It was the middle of the night, and the Embassy was closed. The Marines began to call in reinforcements. My father, John Walsh, was on call as duty officer that night. He was one of the people who went to the Embassy.

His title at the Embassy was Assistant Commercial Attaché, which meant he helped people doing business between Indonesia and America. This usually didn’t have anything to do with dragons. This is a story he wrote while he was in Djakarta:

International Commerce, March 30,19648

The people at the Embassy began to look for the missing Dragon. Some armed themselves with steel bars that were used to lock file cabinets. The Dragon eventually got tired, and was found sleeping under a tree in the Embassy garden. 

At sunrise, with the help of arriving Indonesian staff, ropes were slipped around the Dragon’s head and tail, and a net was thrown over it. The wooden crate was replaced with a metal one, and both Dragons eventually arrived safely at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

An official at the Smithsonian Institution later wrote that the Dragon “was successfully caught without harm to either it or its captors.”9

National Zoo

and his great grandkids

1 My Father’s Dragon, Ruth Stiles Gannett, illustrations by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, Random House, 1948
2 Letter from the Desk of David Challinor, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, November 1992
3 Letter from the Desk of David Challinor, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, November 1992
4 U.S. Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia, The United States Diplomacy Center
5 Embassy of the United States, Jakarta; WikiVisually
6 U.S. Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia, The United States Diplomacy Center 
7 A Communicator’s Bad Dream: The Night of the Dragon, David W. Smith, Foreign Service Journal, May 1988, pg. 70
8 International Commerce, March 30,1964
9 Letter from the Desk of David Challinor, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, November 1992

Posted in