Monday, April 27, 2015

Review of Lost in Shangri-La

I finished Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Suckoff and would recommend it. From the blurb:
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 Hiltons 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 friends 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 mountainsidea journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white manor woman.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivors diary, a rescuers 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 triodehydrated, sick, and in paintraversed 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.
Among the things I found striking was that the area in which their plane crashed was essentially unknown. There had been an explorer through part of the area just before the war but for all intents and purposes, there was a extensive valley in the mountains, home to some 50-100,000 stone age tribesmen who had had no contact with western civilization. That's what I find remarkable. Well into the modern era a large area both by geographical size and by population are unknown and untouched.

What the blurb does not address is that the three injured survivors managed to make their way through the jungle on their own to an open plain from which they were able to signal search planes. It was another few days before a stick of ten paratroopers, including a couple of medics, were parachuted in to both tend to their wounds and protect them from the elements and the unknown surroundings. It was then a further six weeks before they were able to be extracted from the Shangri-La valley. The mountains were too high, the intentions of the stone-age inhabitants unknown, there were still numerous Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles, and the three survivors were still recovering from their injuries which all precluded a march out of the valley. Ultimately the army landed a glider in the valley which could be snatched via a tow rope attached to a tow plane.

An enjoyable read about a neglected theater of the war. Reminds me to some small extent of a very good from the 1980's, Missing Plane by Susan Sheehan about the later rediscovery and recovery of the crew of a crashed bomber in New Guinea in WWII.

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