Lost in Shangri-La.

Author:Cirafici, John
Position:Book review

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, 2011. Index. Photographs. Notes. Map. 384 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-1988 34-9; hardcover; $26.99

This fascinating story comes out of World War II in the southwest Pacific. It's a story of a tragic air crash in the uncharted interior of New Guinea; about injured survivors among "stone age" tribes people; of the heroism of a squad of Philippine-American paratroopers; and the ingenuity and bravery of pilots who extracted them from an otherwise inaccessible valley.

The story begins in May 1945, at an Army airfield in Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, immediately after the war has ended in Europe. Thoughts for many are on the possibility that the Pacific war will soon end and all can go home. As a diversion to the boredom of base life the wing commander organized C-47 flights over an intriguing hidden valley he discovered during reconnaissance flights for an en route airfield site. It was nearly hidden in clouds and mist and surrounded by mountains reaching over 15,000 feet in elevation. Amazingly, the valley was inhabited by almost 100,000 people, the single largest concentration of natives in New Guinea--people who had absolutely no contact with the world beyond their immediate surroundings. The only information on the valley and its people came from aerial observations.

On May 13, 1945, twenty-two "sightseers"--nine of them WACs (Women's Army Corps)--boarded a C-47 and headed for the valley. Neither pilot had ever been there before and, consequently, lacked firsthand experience to execute the difficult valley penetration. Only one pilot was in the seat as the approach began; he was unable to properly correct for rapidly rising terrain and impacted on a slope. The impact and fire killed nineteen passengers and both pilots.

Five stories wrapped up in one follow: (1) The three survivors, Cpl. Margaret Hastings and TSgt. Kenneth Decker, who have nasty burns and other injuries; and Capt. John McCollom, a base civil engineer, injured as he escaped the burning aircraft. (2) The tribes people, who see the Americans as spirits playing a role...

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