As World War II was coming to an end in 1945, soldiers and WAC's based on the huge island of New Guinea felt as if they were being passed by. The war was going well (at least as well as a war can go) and the Army personnel on New Guinea didn't have very much to occupy their time. When pilot Col. Ray T. Elsmore, seeking a spot for a landing strip, was shown a hidden valley which had previously been discovered by his co-pilot Major Myron Grimes, he saw a deep valley about forty miles long and five miles wide between to mountain ranges. Within the valley, later called Shangri-La after James Hilton's 1933 novel of a lost Tibetan city, lived somewhere between sixty and 100,000 native people subsisting at a stone age level and not affected by the perils of war or the rigors of modern civilization. The valley soon became a tourist attraction for the bored Army personnel located on the base at Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea. On Mother's Day, May 13, 1945, twenty-four people boarded the Gremlin Special, for a sight seeing flight over the valley. There were nine officers, nine WAC's (members of the Women's Army Corps) and six enlisted men. A few hours later, due to bad weather and, perhaps, pilot error, the plane crashed into a mountain side at the edge of the hidden valley.
The Three Survivors
Three people survived the crash, Lieut. John McCollum, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, and Cpl. Margaret Hastings. The story focuses on Hastings because, as the only woman on board the ill-fated flight, she was inherently more interesting and because she maintained a vivid diary throughout the experience. The story soon splits in two: the effort to survive in the face of a difficult environment and the, at first, frightening contact with the indigenous population and the difficult problem back at the base of how to locate and rescue the survivors. The latter problem is made more difficult by the isolation of the valley and the remaining Japanese soldiers hiding in the forests of New Guinea. The tale is made more interesting by the competing motives of various people seeking to burnich their own careers as international attention is drawn to the survivors, particularly the "glamorous" Maggie (she hated the nick name) Hastings.
Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University, has taken a rather slim story and developed it into a 400 page book containing 316 pages of text as well as copious notes, index, responses from participants descendants and relatives, and acknowledgements. His thumbnail descriptions of the backgrounds of the participants and his extended discussions of their complexities add depth and color to this story of cultural clashes, ambition, grief, and redemption. It's all there and, for the most part, moves along quickly. By avoiding melodrama, Zuckoff makes the plight of the survivors more real. Their encounters with the native Dani people of New Guinea are fraught with cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings as well as the good will that keeps situations from becoming incidents. Perhaps the most interesting person in the book is Capt. C. Earl Walker, a one time playboy who, given command of the Filipino soldiers selected to parachute into the valley as part of the rescue, matures and develops as he grows into his command role and comes to terms with his efforts to reconcile himself to his guerrilla fighter father fighting in the Philippines. Zuckoff brings Walter to full realization.
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff is published by Harper Perennial and is available in all formats. It was sent to me by the publisher in return for a review through TLC Book Tours. It's a good read, thought provoking and adventure-filled at the same time.