I usually find nonfiction history to be so dry as to lose my attention. Lost in Shangri-La though is a non-fiction accounting of a plane crash that occurred in the last days of WWII with all of the elements of a fiction adventure thriller and author Mitchell Zuckoff has the spirited talent to paint the vivid scenes needed to seize your attention and not let go.
On May 13, 1945 twenty-four officers, enlisted men and WACs boarded a flight at the military base in Hollandia New Guinea for a sightseeing excursion over the inland jungle of the island. Before ever seeing what later became known as the Shangri-La Valley their plane crashed and burst into flames leaving only three survivors. With the aid of journals kept by survivors and rescuers, military data and long lost photos, Mitchell Zuckoff has recreated this larger-than-life story for us.
As Mr. Zuckoff points out, the Gremlin Special crash landed in a world that time hadn’t forgotten. Time didn’t even know it existed. He quotes Albert Einstein as once saying, “I do not know with what weapons WWIII will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones” and declaring that, viewed in that light, the people of Shangri-La had the most advanced warriors on earth.
The three survivors crawled out of the wreckage to find themselves in an unknown world. Even though Lt. McCollum was unhurt, Sargent Kenneth Decker and Corporal Margaret Hastings had received severe injuries and serious burns. The survivors knew that any rescue planes that might fly over looking for their plane would not be able to see them if they stayed at the scene of the crash. To reach a jungle clearing several miles away they first spent several days gathering their strength and then the three hiked, crept on their hands and knees and even scooted on their fannies several miles through the tangled jungle to reach what they found out later was a sweet potato patch. On reaching the clearing they fell to the ground exhausted, too tired even to be concerned about the natives who had been depicted as war-like cannibals.
Once the survivors were sighted by rescue planes at the inaccessible clearing, supplies were dropped to them while one rescue plan after another was desperately conceived and then abandoned. A walkie-talkie was included in one of the supply drops allowing the survivors to communicate with the outside world for the first time since the crash. When word of the severity of their injuries was received a group of paratroopers, including two medics, volunteered to parachute to the aide of the survivors. These heroic medics were later credited with saving Corporal Hastings’ gangrenous legs.
What follows this daring jump is a true story of heroism, courage, determination, fortitude, limitless bravery, inspiration and danger. This narrative is sometimes comic, often terrifying but always entertaining. It is a thrill-a-minute true life adventure you won’t be able to put down.
Mitchell Zuckoff is a journalism professor at Boston University and author of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend and Choosing Naia: A Family’s Journey. He lives outside Boston with his photographer wife and two daughters.