Book review: 'Lost in Shangri-La': a plane crash and a daring rescue attempt
Mitchell Zuckoff's "Lost in Shangri-La: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age" is the thrilling true-life story of three military personnel, two men and a woman, who crashed into a remote valley in Dutch New Guinea in 1945 and braved impenetrable jungle, possibly cannibalistic tribes, pain, illness, hunger and the Japanese enemy while waiting for an almost impossible rescue.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Lost in Shangri-La: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age'
by Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper, 400 pp., $26.99
On May 13, 1945, a U.S. Army Air Force C-47 nicknamed the Gremlin Special crashed into the side of a mountain in what was then Dutch New Guinea. The plane carried 24 officers and enlisted women; only three survived, only to find themselves suddenly flung from the middle of the 20th century into the middle of the Stone Age.
Mitchell Zuckoff, an author and professor of journalism at Boston University, has produced in "Lost in Shangri-La" a historical reconstruction to rival — nay, surpass — the excellent work he did in "Ponzi's Scheme," the story of the archetypal investment fraudster Charles Ponzi. Everything that made life perilous for the three survivors — impenetrable jungle, possibly cannibalistic tribes, pain, illness, the nearby Japanese enemy, lack of food, the seeming impossibility of rescue — makes for a riveting tale in the hands of a good storyteller.
Nor does it hurt to have a stunningly attractive heroine. Petite WAC Cpl. Margaret Hastings, who became the star of subsequent newspaper reports, was one of the survivors. She and Sgt. Kenneth Decker were badly hurt. Only Lt. John McCollom, now their leader, was relatively unscathed, though overwhelmed by grief over the death in the crash of his twin, Robert.
It was not really a Shangri-La, that peaceful valley-in-the-mountains paradise of James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon." Recently discovered in overflights by Westerners and dubbed Hidden Valley, it was renamed Shangri-La by two reporters, and the name stuck. Servicemen and women clamored to see it. It was during one of the sightseeing flights organized by local commanders to boost morale that the Gremlin Special crash occurred.
Despite the pain of their wounds, Hastings, Decker and McCollom managed to climb down the nearly vertical mountain to the valley floor where, exhausted, they encountered their first natives. Shy, curious, never having seen white people before, the natives thought they were spirits.
The white people, having heard the rumors, thought the natives were cannibals. Possibly they were, but only occasionally and only involving traditional enemies in other tribes. But the survivors did not know that.
One of the several delights of this book is its account of the interrelationships that developed between the two "sides." Affection grew on the part of certain Westerners. No one was ever sure what the natives felt, but they were often helpful, generally friendly and always peaceful.
On the valley floor the three Americans were spotted by one of the frequent search flights, but that proved to be only the beginning of a rescue effort that stretched for seven weeks.
The account of the rescue is one of bravery, perseverance and ingenuity. First, supplies were dropped; then a rescue team, made up entirely of volunteers from a Filipino-American unit commanded by Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr., parachuted in. The two medics first to land quite possibly saved the lives of Hastings and Decker by treating in time the gangrene that had advanced alarmingly.
Flying out was impossible, either by airplane or helicopter. A 150-mile march through potentially Japanese territory was rejected, along with several other options. Finally, a daring "snatch" using gliders was decided upon. The comic highlight of the book is the role played by a newly minted war correspondent — and thrice-married former actor and jewel thief — who, never having parachuted before, dropped in drunk with all of his equipment to film the snatch.
The incidents and people themselves make this a riveting story, but they would not be so alive to the reader had the author not made such skillful use of sources, including, after 60-plus years, interviews with Walter and other aged participants in the adventure.
"Lost in Shangri-La" is the most thrilling book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read since I can't remember when.
Roger K. Miller, a former Wisconsin newspaper editor, is a novelist and freelance writer and reviewer.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.