BOOK: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)

In May of 1945, a group of Army soldiers and WACs (Women’s Army Corps members) boarded a transport plane at their base in Dutch New Guinea to go sight-seeing over the jungle region they’d nicknamed “Shangri-La.”  It was a beautiful area, full of incredible wildlife and stunning scenery, but the real draw for this group of curious Westerners were the dozens of villages visible through the trees, villages full of native peoples rumored to be vicious cannibals.

The sight-seeing trip ended in horror, though, when the plane suddenly crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board except for three: Margaret Hastings, burned severely; John McCollom, completely uninjured, but for the enormous hole in his heart left when he realized his twin brother had died on impact; and Kenneth Decker, suffering from a gaping head wound and possible internal injuries.

The group spent several days at the crash site, dazed and scared.  Rescue planes flew overhead numerous times looking for them, but McCollom, who emerged quickly as the group’s leader, knew the planes would never see them unless they got out from under the jungle canopy.

So, despite their brutal injuries, McCollom got Margaret and Decker up on their feet and led them on a grueling, dangerous hike to a clearing they could see in the distance.  Just as they arrived, another rescue plane flew overhead, tipping its wings to let them know they’d been seen.

There wasn’t any time for celebration, though, as just as the plane flew off, out of the jungle came dozens of armed native men, dressed only in “penis gourds” (strange gourd contraptions they wore around their waists to cover their naughty bits) and carrying spears.  Panicked, Margaret and Decker froze.  But McCollom walked slowly up to the men and tried to communicate with them.  After a few tense moments, the two groups relaxed, each coming to realize the others meant no harm.  The rumors about the natives of Shangri-La had been grossly exaggerated — the Dani, as they eventually learned the people were called, were actually incredibly kind and generous.

Over the next several weeks, the military struggled to come up with a rescue plan to get the survivors out of the deep jungle.  But nothing they had could get them there and back again safely.  Helicopters couldn’t fly in the thin air of the region, and there wasn’t anywhere for a plane to land.  So, for the time being, they did what they could, dropping cases of supplies regularly, and eventually sending two doctors, followed by about 10 soldiers, parachuting into the jungle to help care for the survivors and keep them safe.

This group of Westerners eventually became close friends with many of the natives of the region, despite the fact they couldn’t understand each other at all.  Drawn from interviews, declassified Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, this riveting non-fiction book recounts the whole incredible story.

Zuckoff not only extensively researched the tale through these historical sources, though — he also returned to the region of Shangri-La, only recently starting to “Westernize.”  There, he miraculously found a number of Dani who had either been alive in 1945 and met the group of survivors first-hand, or who were born to some of the original natives and grew up hearing stories about the band of white spirits (as they thought they were) who appeared one day in their jungle.

Lost in Shangri-La is absolutely fascinating.  Not just because of the incredible story of survival and resilience, but because of Zuckoff’s descriptions of the culture and religion of the Dani people — both then and now.  As if that weren’t engrossing enough, though, just wait until you get to the part where the group is finally rescued.  With a harrowing, unbelievable, sure-to-fail plan, the Army somehow managed to get every last one of its people back out of the jungle.  And, years later, they were also able to go back in once more to retrieve the bodies of the dead.

I could barely put this book down while I was reading it, and it’s left me dying to read more about the native cultures of Papua and Papua New Guinea, who had some truly fascinating beliefs.  It was interesting, too, to see what happened to the Dani who were exposed to the servicemen/women.  This was a tribe that knew of fire, but not of the wheel, for example.  They had no metal tools, and no currency, and they’d never even heard of white people, let alone seen any.  After several weeks with a group of U.S. Army soldiers, though, a lot of this changed, and it changed fast.  Though Zuckoff doesn’t explore the impact of this very much — probably because the impact would be pretty difficult to determine — it was a lot of food for thought.

Well-written and an absolutely incredible story, this is a book to put on your list for sure!



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2 Responses to “BOOK: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)”

  1. Liz Says:

    I LOVE reading your reviews of this kind, that really go into detail! What an incredible situation, and fascinating subject. Even if I never get to this book, I’ve already learned something about the story – and that’s more than I knew before! If not for you, I wouldn’t know what to read!

  2. Melinda Says:

    Thanks for the awesome recommendation! As my dyslexic father’s audiobook pimp (ask him about LoTR. Or Harry Potter. I dare you.), I’m always looking for good titles, and we’ve been getting more and more into non-fiction in my desperation to find something I don’t have to vet before I give it to him. He really liked this one. 🙂 I’m looking forward to listening it myself once I get it back from him!

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