Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Hardcover in dustjacket, 384 pages, bibliography, notes, and index
Published by Harper Collins, 2011
Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
In the central mountains of Dutch New Guinea lies a valley, cut off from the outside world by mountainous terrain and jungle. In the valley thousands of people lived in isolation, a stone-age society with their own unique culture and traditions. The area was uncharted and did not show up on any of the maps of the time. During WWII the USAAF became aware of the valley and its people while searching for areas suitable for constructing new airfields. The reconnaissance flights were tricky, requiring the aircraft to fly through passes in the mountains before dropping into the valley, often through clouds and shifting winds.
By May 1945 the war had moved on and New Guinea had become a backwater. Japanese troops who remained on the island were disorganized and avoided contact with the Americans. Likewise, Allied troops avoided the cannibalistic tribes which inhabited other parts of the island. To break the boredom, additional personnel began tagging along on the reconnaissance flights to the newly-discovered valley, eager to see its natural beauty and the villages scattered throughout. Little was known about the people there, so imagination filled in the gaps and soon the inhabitants became seven-foot-tall cannibals, the valley’s natural beauty causing it to be called Shangri-La. As the stories spread, the local command began organizing sight-seeing flights for personnel.
On 13MAY45 a C-47 transport named the Gremlin Special failed to clear a ridge and crashed in the valley. Of the twenty-four people on board only three survived – Lt. John McCollom, who lost his twin brother in the crash; Sgt. Ken Decker; and WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings. Both Decker and Hastings were injured.
This is an excellent story and author Mitchell Zuckoff does an outstanding job telling it. The rescue effort was considerable and involved air drops of various supplies and a small unit of Filipino-American paratroopers to assist. Only after the paratroopers were inserted was the question of how to get everyone out addressed. I was surprised to see the perspective of the local tribesmen included. Their society and culture has since been studied by anthropologists and Zuckoff flew to New Guinea to conduct interviews with those who witnessed the events as children. This is a fast read which I can recommend without hesitation, both as an adventure story and to those interested in military history.