Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (2011) — a Brief Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


08 April 2015



Outstanding from my perspective, but apparently not to everyone’s taste


Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (2011) justifies its title.


The story is about the May 1945 crash of an Army C-47 Skytrain that was attempting a morale boosting joyride over a Dutch New Guinea (now Papua, Indonesia) valley named Shangri-La (now Baliem Valley).


Twenty-one troops were killed in the crash. Three miraculously survived it, despite falling into the hands of tribespeople, who considered warring on other people — even those almost literally next door — to be the sole purpose of life. (No kidding.)


Zuckoff’s detailed account expands the obvious story crash and rescue line with historical and cross-cultural background that a minority of reader reviewers at objected to. I considered this allegedly distracting filler material to be one of the book’s impressive strengths.



The “plot”


A plane crashes into nearly impenetrable jungle. Two of the three survivors immediately develop gangrene in their extensive burns. The third, a young lieutenant with only a broken rib, is thrust into leadership by virtue of the deaths of everyone else aboard, up through the rank of Colonel.


With the plane’s wreckage concealed under vegetation, Lieutenant John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash, has to get his two gravely injured companions out from under the jungle canopy to a human-made clearing that that he spies from a treetop. Upon getting to the clearing, an extended cross-cultural interaction ensues.


Meanwhile, back in Hollandia (now Jayapura City) — where the flight had originated — Army leaders were trying to figure out how to rescue the three, who had been spotted during a flyover search. Their location is at too high an altitude for helicopters of that era to reach.


A wildly improbable rescue plan is implemented. Had I been commander, I am not sure that I would have had the irrepressible optimism necessary to approve such an obviously risk-filled endeavor. This is one instance in which reality outstripped even imaginative fiction.


If these story elements are not enough to interest you, don’t read the book.



Enriching detail


Negative reviews at Amazon hammered Zuckoff for family, historical, and cultural asides that actually strengthened the book for me. For example:



More than six hundred American planes had crashed on the island since the start of the war, some in combat but many from rough weather, mechanical failures, pilot error, uncharted mountains hiding in clouds, or some combination. Hundreds of planes from Japan, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the Netherlands had crashed on New Guinea, as well. Some were located after they went down, but many were concealed by the emerald green rain forests. By 1945, New Guinea was home to more missing airplanes than any country on earth.


© 2011 Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (HarperCollins, 2011) (at page 72)


A few pages later, Zuckoff takes a chapter to explain that Major Myron Grimes — and in a subsequent flight, Colonel Ray T. Elsmore — were wrong in thinking they were the first to spot Shangri-La Valley. Wealthy biological explorer, Richard Archbold, had overflown it in June 1938. Zuckoff gives readers a synopsis of Archbold’s August 1938 ground exploration of the valley, including the unnecessary (and covered up) homicide of one of the local people.


Similarly, while discussing the Army’s C-47 crash rescue plans, the author explains how paratrooper Captain C. Earl Walter Jr got involved in implementing the attempt. Zuckoff explains how Walter Jr had very been circuitously assigned to a Filipino paratrooper training command in New Guinea. And how he yearned for combat action, so as to impress his Pacific Theater-involved Army dad.


Zuckoff’s digression further introduces us to the Filipino paratroopers that Captain Walter Jr commands. This, in turn, leads to a brief explanation of the Spanish-American War and how Filipino troops eventually made it into the US Army.


I found these digressions from the strict storyline interesting. Unlike many of the negative Amazon reader reviews, I appreciated Zuckoff’s attention to family ties and family history. When someone dies in this book, you feel it.



WACs, WASPs and WAFs


Much of Lost in Shangri-La revolves around crash survivor Corporal Margaret Hastings of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).




Zuckoff conscientiously mentions the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFs), as well. He is not one to discriminate based on gender, race, or acculturation.


During a discussion of the press’s interest in the rescue process — which included military overflights with reporters aboard — Zuckoff notes the press’s refusal to mention the critically important Filipino paratroopers, including their two medics. Walter found the press’s bigoted attitude infuriating.


Corporal Hastings, with gangrene in both legs, was a key member of the survivors’ team, right down to her unequaled ability to relate to the local people in the valley. Her honestly recorded, shorthand-written journal provided a key source for the book.


Zuckoff’s account clearly shows how men of that period did not exactly know how to relate to women in combat theaters. What somewhat surprised me, however, was how reportedly “gentlemanly” these men were, even under circumstances in which one might have expected violent sexuality to emerge. One incident reveals the importance of leadership integrity and an intact chain of command. Military leaders take note.



Zuckoff even went to Papua to interview the Dani people who remembered the crash survivors


He records the names that the Dani gave each of the trio and the names the latter gave them. For example Wimayuk Wandie became Chief Pete.


He also explains, in a series of interspersed vignettes, how each group understandably (and sometimes embarrassingly) misinterpreted the other’s actions. I came away thinking that it was improbable that no one was killed during these grossly errant communications.



The larger picture


Zuckoff explains what happened to the surviving participants after the war, right up through their deaths. Here, one cannot escape the frequent lack of congruity between accorded fame and rank and (arguably) soulful merit. We temporarily remember the famous and/or the documented, but not the overwhelmingly many more, who arguably do the most to keep humanity on track.


For example, eight of the ten Filipino paratroopers who volunteered for this extremely hazardous rescue mission evidently left virtually no records from which to source details specifically about them.


When one considers that:


(i) three of the ten Filipino volunteers — Sergeants Sandy Abrenica, Alfred Bayon, and Roque Velasco — were left on their own,


(ii) at a base camp in hostile territory




(iii) located very far away from the people being rescued (by the larger paratroop group that Captain Walter took with him) —


we see that the left-behind three define the idea of committed courage.


We know a little more about the two Filipino paratroop medics


Sergeant Benjamin “Doc” Bulatao and Bataan Death March escapee, Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez, undertook a hair-raising paratroop jump into an unfavorable site that was much closer to where the trio had been spotted. The idea was that the two severely injured crash survivors needed immediate medical attention:


Adding to [Captain Walter’s] concern was the unpredictability of the mountain winds.


Already he’d dropped five wind dummies . . . .


“every one of them changed direction, so I had no idea which way the winds would blow the medics.”


Walter’s biggest worry was the drop zone itself, an area of four-foot-high brush, jagged rocks, and sharp-topped tree stumps . . . .


“And it looked like hell . . . there’d been fires, there were rock formations, stumps, trees that had been broken or whatever. I don’t remember ever hearing about a drop zone like that.”


© 2011 Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (HarperCollins, 2011) (at pages 173-174) (extracts)


These intrepid medics’ daily ministrations and cheerful demeanor saved both gangrenous survivors’ lives.



The moral? — Lost in Shangri-La is not just an epic story, excellently told . . .


Among other things, this superb book illustrates how we inextricably we depend on each other. It highlights how quiet courage leaves an evanescent, but emulatable mark in time’s flow.


You will not (for example) forget grievously injured Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker’s uncomplaining, superhuman endurance and determined team contribution.


Mitchell Zuckoff did an outstanding job in researching and writing this account. To a scholar’s delight, there is a section of source-citing footnotes at the end, as well as cast of characters.


Lost in Shagri-La is a treasure.