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LOST IN SHANGRI-LA:
A True Tale of Survival, Adventure, and
the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
432 pp. HarperCollins
Reviewed by David E. Hoekenga, MD
Sixty years after the Second World War, remarkable books continue to pour out about this most deadly of all human conflicts that claimed as many as seventy-two million lives. In this genre, Lost in Shangri-La deserves a prominent place. It is full of grit, surprising bravery, cultural clash, and good old Yankee ingenuity.
It begins in New Guinea, as a Sunday afternoon joyride for 24 Army Air Forces and Women's Army Corps personnel. The island, second largest in the world, was little known to Americans at the time and resembles “a prehistoric bird taking off from Australia,” according to the author. They planned to visit a storied valley 150 miles inland where “handsome models of sinewy manhood standing seven feet tall...headhunters and cannibals...pigs the size of ponies (and)...bare-breasted native women that resembled...curvaceous pinup girls” reside in a tropical paradise of perpetual summer.
A little after 2 p.m. their C-47, inauspiciously named the Gremlin Special, took off along a palm tree-lined runaway into a clear blue sky. The plane held five crewmen, nine WACs and ten servicemen. The passengers knew each other as members of a maintenance division, and some had dated each other. As the plane gathered altitude some sang, others talked and then in “a fateful decision” the pilot, Colonel Prossen unbuckled his seat beat and walked into the cabin.
After all, the whole purpose of this trip was to build morale and let his staff know that he cared about them. Tragically, only three of the occupants of the Gremlin Special would ever return to their base in Hollandia.
After buzzing a small village, the co-pilot was in a narrow valley with a tree-covered ridge at its end. He struggled to gain altitude, but couldn't gain enough.
The author writes:
The distance between the C-47 and the unforgiving terrain closed to zero. To the ear-splitting din of metal twisting, glass shattering, engines groaning, branches snapping, fuel igniting, bodies tumbling, lives ending, the Gremlin Special plunged through the trees and slammed into the jungle-covered mountainside.
While the plane burned, only three passengers, two seriously injured, walked away and struggled down into the valley.
There they encountered a bizarre group of cannibals, the Uwambo, that waged war on their neighbors when it wasn't raining. After all, that would smear their war paint. They knew details about their enemies' lives so that “a nasty remark about an enemy's wife might reduce both sides to belly laughs,” again resulting in a break in the fighting. On an island inhabited by 29 species of the incredibly colorful birds of paradise, they had only two words for colors--mili for black, maroon, dark brown, green and blue and mola for white, reds, oranges, yellows, light brown and reddish purples. When a warrior was killed, a medicine man cut off a maiden;s finger, so many young women reached adulthood equipped only with two thumbs.
The three survivors of the plane crash were spared because of a legend that sky spirits would come someday that had long hair and light skin and eyes. They spread a bright yellow tarpaulin in the clearing near the cannibal's yam patch, and on the third day a B-17 crew discovered them. Two Filipino medics parachuted into the area on the sixth day to aggressively treat two of the survivors' gangrene. Eight other paratroopers marched to the clearing from a landing nearby to establish a tented and well-supplied camp.
As the survivors got stronger, a harebrained scheme was hatched to get them the 150 miles through mountains and jungle back to their base on the coast. A Waco glider (named the Fanless Faggot)was released into the valley. It was attached to a nylon cable supported twenty feet in the air by a pair of poles. The glider was loaded with several hapless survivors and soldiers and then snatched by a C-47 flying low and slow. As Zuckoff writes, “In practice, several dozen potential malfunctions or miscalculations could turn the glider into a free-falling kite, the tow plane into a fireball and their passengers into casualties...an attempted snatch in Shangri-La carried a host of added perils.”
Despite the many risks, three successful trips to Shangri-La were made ferrying out fifteen survivors and paratroopers.
The author is a graceful, talented, and understandable writer and this is a crackerjack of a tale. I recommend it to you highly!