Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff
Lost in Shangri-La is book of narrative history, focusing on a single event that happened in 1945 in what was at that time called Dutch New Guinea. The Hollandia army base there was filled with soldiers, both men and women (WACs) who would be moved out periodically to other areas of fighting during the war in the Pacific. Life on the base was dull at times, and life could be difficult in the jungle. Not only were these people in the middle of a war and far from home, they also had to contend with rats, spiders, mosquitoes and five types of "jungle rot."
In 1944, an Army Air Force pilot named Grimes was on a routine reconnaissance flight over the island and discovered what he'd called "Hidden Valley," some 150 air miles from the Hollandia Base. The valley wasn't on any of the official maps used by the Army Air Force, and was as yet unexplored. A week later, another pilot, Elsmore, was assigned the task of finding a landing site for a supply stop between Hollandia and another base on the other side of the island. In the air with Grimes, Elsmore decided to explore the newly-discovered Hidden Valley along the way. They flew the plane into a canyon surrounded by mountains, made their way over a ridge and there it was. The valley was about 30 miles long, at its widest point eight miles across, surrounded on all sides by sheer mountain cliffs. The two pilots saw a river, rapids, trees, etc., but it was the discovery of several "native compounds" and the people on the ground that really held their interest. When the two returned to Hollandia, they spread the word of their discoveries, and soon, flyover visits to the Hidden Valley became a way of easing the monotony of life on the base for a while. So an occasional pilot would load up his C-47 with handfuls of people and take short jaunts over the island as a sightseeing tour, and by virtue of having taken these flights, on their return the men and women would become members of the "Shangri-La Society."
On May 13, 1945, one of these sightseeing tours was scheduled, and everyone was ready for this big adventure on "The Gremlin Special." Nine officers, nine WACs, and six enlisted men were aboard when the plane took off. But unlike previous flights, this one never made it back. Instead, the plane crashed into the side of mountain. What caused the crash can only be speculated about, but be that as it may, only six people made it out, one of whom was killed immediately when the fuel tanks burst into flames. That person might have survived, but at the time, his foot was caught and tangled in the roots of a tree near the fuselage during the explosion. Then two of the surviving WACs died, leaving Maggie Hastings as the only woman left alive along with John McCollom and Kenneth Decker. Although they all had injuries and burns, they managed to walk away from the crash. And although they had survived the crash, surviving in unknown territory was quite another thing, especially since they were wounded, with no supplies. And then, of course, there was the unknown factor about the indigenous people -- were they really headhunters and cannibals as had been rumored?
After the crash, the author proceeds to explore how the survivors made it out from under the jungle canopy, headed to a clearing, and came into contact with a search plane. While awaiting rescue, the three had to survive -- and this is the second part of this story, which includes contact with the native New Guinea people. Part three deals with trying to get the survivors back home -- they knew that rescue would happen, but their location raised some problems for getting them out of there, so the Army had to muster all of its resources, including bright minds, to come up with what would turn out to be nearly impossible. Part four deals with what happened to the survivors afterwards , their stories after the end of the war, and a return to the Hidden Valley.
Lost in Shangri-La was an interesting read, and I love finding these little nuggets of unknown historical events that someone takes the time to research and write about. The author used parts of Hastings' quickly shorthand-scribed daily journal of events, along with the stories of the other two survivors. The segment about the people and events building up to the crash was well told, and I was impressed with the author's focus on the unselfish efforts each of the three injured survivors made toward the group's survival. The rescue plans were also well related, and I did sense the frustration on the parts of both the rescuers and those they had to pull out of the jungle.
This book is, in part, a testament to courage and to determination, and the book received great acclaim and very high ratings from readers everywhere. You don't have to be a war buff to enjoy it -- it is at times an engrossing read. But far from being a "riveting work," and considering the story that's being told, much of the book was a bit on the boring side, and I found myself doing the dreaded skim. There was just so much related by the author in terms of the backstories of every single person involved in either the crash or the rescue that it totally detracted from the narrative as a whole. And somehow, the story of the survivors' predicament did not come off as being as dire as it was given to be from the dustjacket -- especially after the landing of the second group of soldiers in the area.
What was most amazing to me though, aside from the crash story, was American attitudes of the time to the people of New Guinea. I realize that I'm seeing it from a perspective from the 21st century, but still, it's a bit unsettling to read for example that some of the American soldiers thought that the natives could be easily educated in order to have a higher standard of living. I mean, they'd been there for centuries doing what they always do, living how they'd always lived -- that was their standard of living. Considering what was in store for these poor people after the crash put them on the world's map, they probably had things better as they were. And though the author did go into this aspect a bit, there could have been a lot more.
I think I expected a little more of what was promised, something more along the lines of Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers, which did in fact involve an "incredible rescue mission of World War II." I think I would recommend Lost in Shangri-La, but be ready to wade through a lot of extraneous information as you read it.