In his books and documentary films about Africa, John Heminway loved to tell the inspiring story of a woman doctor who flew a small bush plane all around Kenya, risking her life to bring free health care to thousands of poor villagers.

Heminway first met Dr. Anne Spoerry as a journalist looking for good stories in his beloved Africa. Over 20 years, they became great friends. By the time the legendary flying doctor died in 1999 at age 80, “Mama Daktari” was widely seen as a saint.

Yet a year later, Heminway happened on a shocking discovery. It sent him on a quest to uncover the truth about Spoerry, a search that led him deep into World War II history, a Nazi concentration camp and the heart of darkness.

The story of that search became “In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement” (Knopf, $27.95), Heminway’s sixth book. He plans to give a talk at the Country Bookshelf at 6 p.m., Feb. 13.

“It was a mountain of research,” Heminway, 73, said sitting in the office of his Bozeman home, surrounded by photos, maps, books and artwork from Africa, Peabody and Emmy awards for his film and television documentaries and, somewhere in the clutter, an honorary doctorate from Montana State University.

“The deeper I got into the story, the more terrified I became,” he said. Every time he made a discovery, it was exciting to be the first person since 1947 to see a historic document. “At the same time, my heart fell apart. I knew I was bringing down a saint.”

He has already received hate mail.

Spoerry had always refused to answer questions from him or other journalists about World War II. A medical student in Paris and member of the French Resistance, she was captured and sent to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp in 1944. Heminway always assumed it was too painful for her to talk about. Maybe she’d been tortured or mutilated.

Yet after her death, in a visit with her nephew, Heminway learned that papers found locked in her safe listed her on a registry of war criminals. She was accused in 1945 of torture.

“I saw that and my heart stopped,” Heminway said.

It couldn’t be true, he thought. She treated more than a million patients during her nearly 50 years in Africa, and inoculated 80,000 children against polio. “For two decades, I’d seen nothing but this dedicated, selfless caregiver for the poorest of the poor, scattered across Kenya.”

He was driven by curiosity and a sense of responsibility. He burnished her legend in magazines, books and documentaries.

“I’d been responsible for perpetuating a lie,” Heminway said. “Now I’m correcting the record.”

For 18 years, he searched through war archives in Europe, read trial transcripts, visited Ravensbruck and tracked down elderly survivors.

The French government had locked away its war crime records in 1947, but after nine years of persistent requests, allowed Heminway to read Spoerry’s file — for three hours. While an armed guard stood watch, he madly took notes. He found her confession.

From conflicting accounts, he pieced together the story of how in the camp’s Block 10, Spoerry fell under the protection and spell of a privileged prisoner, feared even by the guards, named Carmen Mory.

“She was really total evil,” Heminway said. “She was a seductress, duplicitous, used character assassination – and assassination. She probably had a narcissistic complex.”

The camp was full of horrors, brutality, torture, sadism and random death. Heminway said he believes Spoerry, then 26, felt weak and drawn to Mory’s power. At Mory’s direction, she killed at least one prisoner and likely harmed many more.

“When I looked at Anne’s confessions, she used the word ‘bewitched,’” he said.

After the war, Mory wore a red fox fur to her trial. Convicted, she slit her wrists before she could be hanged.

Spoerry managed to win acquittal. She fled to Africa and spent the rest of her life serving the poor, hiding her past and atoning for her crimes.

“If there had never been a Ravensbruck for Anne, there would never be this life of sacrifice in Africa,” he said. “That’s the big irony of this story.”

Heminway’s screenplay, based on her life, has been optioned for a possible film.

His book leaves it up to readers to decide whether Spoerry should be condemned as a villain or forgiven for her medical work. He still struggles with the question.

“I simply cannot forgive her for what she did in Ravensbruck; I can never forgive her for that,” he said. Still, “if she walked into this room, I would embrace her. … I still like Anne.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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