Friday, July 1, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La,” a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.

But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend’s shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.

Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside—a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man—or woman.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio—dehydrated, sick, and in pain—traversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.

By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives’ remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.

Pete says:
'The epic true story of a plane crash into the stone age by Mitchell Zuckoff

If you loved Laura Hillenbrand's
Unbroken as much as I did, and if you're properly recovered after reading her account of Louis Zamperini's amazing tale or survival and triumph, then please take a deep breath and read Lost in Shangri-La. Unlike Unbroken, this really isn't a war story. True, it took place at the tail end of WWII, but the plane that took off and crashed in New Guinea wasn't poised for battle, but rather on a three hour pleasure flight over a pristine if mountainous valley nicknamed 'Shangri-La' (think of the great James Hilton novel Lost Horizon). Popular culture reminds us that the
basis for television's 'Gilligan's Island' was also a three hour tour, but believe me this part of the world has none of the serenity of Gilligan's lagoon or Mary-Ann's coconut cream pies. New Guinea's mountains are taller than those in Colorado and has dense jungles that rival those in the Amazon. Only three survivors were able to successfully crawl out of a burning plane that couldn't quite make it over a mountain pass (over 20 soldiers died). Soon after they were burned, bloodied, stranded, and then surrounded by natives who had never encountered white people, who in some cases had never
seen clothing.

This amazing story is not only about the survivors, among them a desperate but
resourceful officer, a badly wounded Tech sergeant, a beautiful but also badly wounded WAC (Women's Army Corps.), but also about the rescuers. Here we have a restless, gung-ho officer and his crack squad of Filipino-American paratroopers who leap into the unknown for a daring rescue attempt that they themselves might not survive. Not to be overlooked are the many native tribesmen and women who turn out entirely different from the preconceived notions about being 'savages' or 'cannibals.' They are anything but that.

Tom Brokaw wrote a book called
The Greatest Generation about the possibility that the plucky bunch that came of age in the 1940's were perhaps history's greatest. I don't know if that's true or not considering our enemies at the time were also of that generation.  But in New Guinea, from late May to early July 1945, a group of young Americans, Filipinos, and native tribesmen and women make a pretty strong case for their generation. With the challenges they all faced, I don't see how they could have done it any better."

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