The deaths of the men galvanized the missionary effort in the United States, sparking an outpouring of funding for evangelization efforts around the world. Their work is still frequently remembered in evangelical publications, and in 2006 was the subject of the film production End of the Spear. Several years after the death of the men, the widow of Jim Elliot, Elisabeth, and the sister of Nate Saint, Rachel, returned to Ecuador as missionaries with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International) to live among the Huaorani. This eventually led to the conversion of many, including some of those involved in the killing. While largely eliminating tribal violence, their efforts exposed the tribe to exploitation and increased influence from the outside. This has caused Huaorani culture to begin to disappear, but anthropologists argue over the ultimate effect—some negatively view the missionary work as cultural imperialism, while others contend that the influence has been beneficial for the tribe.
Before their first peaceful contact with outsiders (cowodi) in 1958, the Huaorani fiercely defended their territory. Viewing all cowodi as cannibalistic predators, they killed rubber tappers around the turn of the 20th century and Shell Oil Company employees during the 1940s, in addition to any lowland Quechua or other outsiders who encroached on their land. Furthermore, they were prone to internal violence, often engaging in vengeance killing of other Huaorani. Raids were carried out in extreme anger by groups of men who attacked their victims' longhouse by night and then fled. Attempts to build truces through gifts and exchange of spouses became more frequent as their numbers decreased and the tribes fragmented, but the cycle of violence continued.
Another team member was Ed McCully, a man Jim Elliot had met and befriended while both attended Wheaton College. Following graduation, he married Marilou Hobolth and enrolled in a one-year basic medical treatment program at the School of Missionary Medicine in Los Angeles. On December 10, 1952, McCully moved to Quito with his family as a Plymouth Brethren missionary, planning to soon join Elliot and Fleming in Shandia. In 1953, however, the station in Shandia was wiped out by a flood, delaying their move until September of that year.
The team's pilot, Nate Saint, had served in the military during World War II, receiving flight training as a member of the Army Air Corps. After being discharged in 1946, he too studied at Wheaton College, but quit after a year and joined the Mission Aviation Fellowship in 1948. He and his wife Marj traveled to Ecuador by the end of the year, and they settled at MAF headquarters in Shell Mera. Shortly after his arrival, Saint began transporting supplies and equipment to missionaries spread throughout the jungle. This work ultimately led to his meeting the other four missionaries, who he joined in Operation Auca.
Also on the team was Roger Youderian, a 32-year-old missionary who had been working in Ecuador since 1953. Under the mission board Gospel Missionary Union, he and his wife Barbara and daughter Beth settled in Macuma, a mission station in the southern jungle of Ecuador. There, he and his wife ministered to the Shuar people, learning their language and transcribing it. After working with them for about a year, Youderian and his family began ministering to a tribe related to the Shuar, the Achuar people. He worked with Nate Saint to provide important medical supplies; but after a period of attempting to build relationships with them, he failed to see any positive effect and, growing depressed, considered returning to the United States. However, during this time Saint approached him about joining their team to meet the Huaorani, and he assented.
The first stage of Operation Auca began in September 1955. Saint, McCully, Elliot, and fellow missionary Johnny Keenan decided to initiate contact with the Huaorani and began periodically searching for them by air. By the end of the month, they had identified several clearings in the jungle. Meanwhile, Elliot learned several phrases in the language of the Huaorani from Dayuma, a young Huaorani woman who had left her society and become friends with Rachel Saint, a missionary and the sister of Nate Saint. The missionaries hoped that by regularly giving gifts to the Huaorani and attempting to communicate with them in their language, they would be able to win them over as friends.
Because of the difficulty and risk of meeting the Huaorani on the ground, the missionaries chose to drop gifts to the Huaorani by fixed-wing aircraft. Their drop technique, developed by Nate Saint, involved flying around the drop location in tight circles while lowering the gift from the plane on a rope. This kept the bundle in roughly the same position as it approached the ground. On October 6, 1955, Saint made the first drop, releasing a small kettle containing buttons and rock salt. The gift-giving continued during the following weeks, with the missionaries dropping machetes, ribbons, clothing, pots, and various trinkets.
After several visits to the Auca village, which the missionaries called "Terminal City", they observed that the Huaorani seemed excited to receive their gifts. Encouraged, they began using a loudspeaker to shout simple Huaorani phrases as they circled. After several more drops, in November the Huaorani began tying gifts for the missionaries to the line after removing the gifts the missionaries gave them. The men took this as a gesture of friendliness and developed plans for meeting the Huaorani on the ground. Saint soon identified a 200-yard (180 m) sandbar along the Curaray River about 4.5 miles (7 km) from Terminal City that could serve as a runway and camp site, and dubbed it "Palm Beach".
By January 2, Youderian had arrived and Fleming had confirmed his involvement, so the five met in Arajuno to prepare to leave the following day. After minor mechanical trouble with the plane, Saint and McCully took off at 8:02 a.m. on January 3 and successfully landed on the sandy beach along the Curaray River. Saint then flew Elliot and Youderian to the camp, and then made several more flights, carrying equipment. After the last delivery, he flew over a Huaorani settlement and, using a loudspeaker, told the Huaorani to visit the missionaries' camp. He then returned to Arajuno, and the next day, he and Fleming flew out to Palm Beach.
After seeing Nankiwi in the plane, a small group of Huaorani decided to make the trip to Palm Beach, and left the following morning, January 7. On the way, they encountered Nankiwi and the girl, returning unescorted. The girl's brother, Nampa, was furious at this, and to defuse the situation and divert attention from himself, Nankiwi claimed that the foreigners had attacked them on the beach, and in their haste to flee, they had been separated from their chaperone. Gikita, a senior member of the group whose experience with outsiders had taught him that they could not be trusted, recommended that they kill the foreigners. The return of the older woman and her account of the friendliness of the missionaries was not enough to dissuade them, and they soon continued toward the beach.
The Huaorani arrived at Palm Beach around 3:00 p.m., and in order to divide the foreigners before attacking them, they sent three women to the other side of the river. One, Dawa, remained hidden in the jungle, but the other two showed themselves. Two of the missionaries waded into the water to greet them, but were attacked from behind by Nampa. Apparently attempting to scare him, the first missionary to be speared drew his pistol and began firing. One of these shots mildly injured Dawa, still hidden, and another grazed the missionary's attacker after he was grabbed from behind by one of the women. Accounts differ on the effect of that bullet. Missionaries interpreted the testimonies of Dawa and Dayuma to mean that Nampa was killed months later while hunting, but others, including missionary anthropologist James Yost, came to believe that his death was a result of the bullet wound. Rachel Saint did not accept this, holding that eyewitnesses supported her position, but researcher Laura Rival, a critic of the expedition, suggests that it is now commonly believed among Huaorani that Nampa died of the wound. The other missionary in the river, before being speared, desperately reiterated friendly overtures and asked the Huaorani why they were killing them. Meanwhile, the other Huaorani warriors, led by Gikita, attacked the three missionaries still on the beach, killing all three before they had a chance to report the attack over the radio. They then threw the men's bodies and their belongings in the river, and ripped the fabric from their aircraft. They then returned to their village and, anticipating retribution, burned it to the ground and fled into the jungle.
Saint and Elliot returned to Ecuador to work among the Huaorani, establishing a camp called Tihueno near a former Huaorani settlement. Rachel Saint and Dayuma became bonded in Huaorani eyes through their shared mourning and Rachel's adoption as a sister of the Dayuma, taking the name Nemo from the latter's deceased youngest sister. The first Huaorani to settle there were primarily women and children from a Huaorani group called the Guiquetairi, but in 1968 an enemy Huaorani band known as the Baihuari joined them. Elliot had returned to the United States in the early 1960s, so Saint and Dayuma worked to alleviate the resulting conflict. They succeeded in securing cohabitation of the two groups by overseeing numerous cross-band weddings, leading to an end of inter-clan warfare but obscuring the cultural identity of each group.
Saint and Dayuma, in conjunction with SIL, negotiated the creation of an official Huaorani reservation in 1969, consolidating the Huaorani and consequently opening up the area to commerce and oil exploration. By 1973, over 500 people lived in Tihueno, of which more than half had arrived in the previous six years. The settlement relied on missions aid from SIL, and as a Christian community set up by missionaries, all those living there were obliged to follow specific rules completely foreign to traditional Huaorani culture, most notably the prohibitions of killing and polygamy. By the early 1970s, SIL began to question whether their impact on the Huaorani was positive, so they sent James Yost, a staff anthropologist, to assess the situation. He found extensive economic dependence and increasing cultural assimilation, and as a result, SIL ended its support of the settlement in 1976, leading to its disintegration and the dispersion of the Huaorani into the surrounding area. SIL had hoped that the Huaorani would return to the isolation in which they had lived twenty years prior, but instead they sought out contact with the outside world, forming villages of which many have been recognized by the Ecuadorian government.
Among evangelical Christians, the five men are commonly considered martyrs and missionary heroes. Books have been written about them by numerous biographers, most notably Elisabeth Elliot. Anniversaries of their deaths have been accompanied by stories in major Christian publications, and their story, as well as the subsequent acceptance of Christianity among the Huaorani, has been turned into several motion pictures. These include the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor (featuring interviews with some of the Huaorani and surviving family members of the missionaries) and the 2006 dramatic production End of the Spear, which grossed over $12 million. Even so, Christians have noted with concern the disintegration of traditional Huaorani culture and westernization of the tribe, beginning with Nate Saint's own journal entry in 1955 and continuing through today. However, many continue to view as positive both Operation Auca and the subsequent missionary efforts of Rachel Saint, mission organizations such as Mission Aviation Fellowship, Wycliffe Bible Translators, HCJB World Radio, Avant Ministries (formerly Gospel Missionary Union), and others. Specifically, they note the decline in violence among tribe members, numerous conversions to Christianity, and growth of the local church.