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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 9780061988349
Hardcover $26.99

I don't read a lot of WWII history books, but when I heard that Lost in Shangri-La: The True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff featured a WAC from Owego, I became intrigued.

I grew up near Owego in central New York, and my dad has older sisters who served as WACs during the war. I always found that interesting, and so dived right into this incredible story.

On May 13, 1945, a group of 24 American servicemen and WACs went on a sightseeing mission in New Guinea. They wanted to see this valley that "time forgot", and hoped to see the rumored "race of giants" tribesmen that they had been told existed there.

When the plane crashed, only three survived- John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash, Kenneth Decker, who was badly burned and injured, and Margaret Hastings, who also was badly burned.

The three managed to make it to a tribal village, and instead of giants, found a village filled with people who lived in a long-ago time. They had stone tools, wore gourds and skirts made of sticks, and had never seen a white person before.

The book recounts the horrifying crash and the efforts of a group of paratroopers who parachuted in to try and rescue the survivors, and even more difficult, figure out how to get everyone out of a valley where no plane could land.

Zuckoff had lots of primary source material, including the journals kept by Hastings, who caused quite a stir of interest from the tribesmen, and Captain C. Earl Walter, the man in charge of the paratroopers. They told their amazing story of the day-to-day life in the valley, working and befriending the tribespeople, and planning a way to get out.

Unbelievably, a documentary filmaker also parachuted into the valley to document the effort to rescue the survivors. He is quite a character himself, and the fact that he was allowed to do this sounds like something out of the TV show MASH, yet it happened.

Zuckoff's story is filled with photos of the survivors, paratroopers and tribesmen. The writing is superb, and the tension is palpable on the page as the survivors meet the tribesmen and try to communicate with them.

There is also humor, as when the daily supply plane keeps dropping cases of Kotex for Hastings, but not one extra pair of panties that she had requested, a typical bureaucratic bungle.

As I was looking at a photo of the servicemen and the tribesmen all working together to push a glider into position, I was struck with a thought: I think that everyone in Congress and the White House should read this book.

How is it that two disparate groups of people who do not speak the same language and have little in common were able to come together to work towards a common goal, yet the people we have elected and paid to work for the American people to solve the major problems that face us all seem unwilling to work together?

I can't believe that this story hasn't been made into a movie yet; it is made for the cinema (or maybe an opera?). I enjoyed the epilogue, where Zukoff follows up on the lives we have gotten to know, and he uses extensive endnotes to document each chapter. Zuckoff's website  has video and photos from the mission.

World War II history buffs will be thrilled with Lost In Shangri-La, as will readers who just enjoy a crackerjack true story, filled with interesting people in an amazing situation. It's better than any fictional thriller you could read.

rating 4 of 5

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this book a lot. It is an amazing story, and how it unfolds is both unlikely and great fun. It is great fun because it all turns out well for the survivors and their rescuers. The author has used original source material as much as he can. It would be five stars if he hadn't had to fill in some blanks with his own conclusions from his material.