Imagine flying over a jungle, having your plane crash and kill all but three of the passengers and crew, struggling to find your way to a clearing to be spotted and rescued, only to come face-to-face with a jungle tribe of suspected cannibals. That's the real-life situation that three military personnel found themselves in during World War II, and the story is chronicled in the book Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. Zuckoff was unable to let this story die when he first ran across it while researching a different topic, and as a result we are able to get a closer look at an event that captured the attention of the country when it happened.
Zuckoff tells the story of a sightseeing flight that left a military base in Dutch New Guinea with 24 passengers. The personnel at the base knew that a jungle tribe existed on the island, and it was considered a special privilege to get a flyover to see them up close. On this particular flight, things went wrong and the plane went down in the jungle, killing all but three of the passengers. Margaret Hastings, John McCollom, and Kenneth Decker barely survived the crash (with varying degrees of injury), and began their trek to make it to some sort of clearing where they could hopefully flag down a search plane and get rescued. But that was just the start of their ordeal.
Once they made it to a clearing (death-defying in its own right), the dangers continued. It was there that they came face-to-face with the tribe they had viewed from above, a clan of jungle warriors thought to be cannibals. Fortunately for the three, the cannibal rumor was incorrect, and through various gestures and actions they were able to become friends with the tribe. They also were spotted by a rescue plane, but their location made any rescue attempt a risky event in itself. A paratrooper squad made up of mostly Filipino soldiers was called upon to jump into the camp to start medical care on the three survivors while the rest of the group hiked in from a base camp miles away. Amazingly, everyone survived the landing and the medical care was started. it's a minor miracle that gangrene and infection didn't kill off the survivors or lead to amputated limbs, but with painful and delicate care, the three were able to heal up enough to hike out to the base camp to be picked up. At that point, getting into a glider to be snatched up via a trailing hook of a passing plane (none of which had been able to be completely tested beforehand) almost seemed normal. :)
Zuckoff does a good job in fleshing out this story by tracking down a number of the people involved, both on the military side and with the natives that witnessed the original event. Since he goes into the background of a number of the people in the story, there are a few times when the action starts to slow down a bit. But overall, the pacing is such that the pages keep turning in order to find out what the next triumph or tragedy will be. I was also struck by how much of a difference it seems to make when a woman is part of the rescue situation. Had this been three men instead of two men and a WAC (Women's Army Corp), I'm not sure it would have been very newsworthy either now or back then. But it certainly made this story unique, and it definitely made for some interesting interactions with the natives. :)
Lost in Shangri-La is well worth reading, both as a story of human survival and endurance, as well as a look into what happens when cultures collide in unexpected ways.
This tale of a World War II plane crash and rescue is making everybody's summer 2011 must-read lists, and with good reason--it’s a well-researched and -written account of a minor event with so many dramatic angles it keeps the reader glued to the page to the end. I ended up reading it straight through in one day. In May 1945 (after Germany's surrender but with the Pacific war still active and dangerous) on the South Pacific Island of Dutch New Guinea, … more
Thomas Duff, aka "Duffbert", is a long-time member of the Lotus community. He's primarily focused on the development side of the Notes/Domino environment, currently working for a large insurance … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2011: Near the end of World War II, a plane carrying 24 members of the United States military, including nine Women’s Army Corps (WAC) members, crashed into the New Guinea jungle during a sightseeing excursion. 21 men and women were killed. The three survivors--a beautiful WAC, a young lieutenant who lost his twin brother in the crash, and a severely injured sergeant--were stranded deep in a jungle valley notorious for its cannibalistic tribes. They had no food, little water, and no way to contact their military base. The story of their survival and the stunning efforts undertaken to save them are the crux ofLost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff’s remarkable and inspiring narrative. Faced with the potential brutality of the Dani tribe, known throughout the valley for its violence, the trio’s lives were dependent on an unprecedented rescue mission--a dedicated group of paratroopers jumped into the jungle to provide aid and medical care, consequently leaving the survivors and paratroopers alike trapped on the jungle floor. A perilous rescue by plane became their only possible route to freedom. A riveting story of deliverance under the most unlikely circumstances,Lost in Shangri-Ladeserves its place among the great survival stories of World War II. --Lynette Mong