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Lost in Shangri-la — a deep jungle rescue mission

13 December 2013

Lost in Shangri-la — a deep jungle rescue mission

Lost in Shangri-la: a true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II, Mitchell Zuckoff, 2011, ISBN 978-0-06-198835-6, 384 pp.

Lost in Shangri-la: a true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff with cover design by Richard Ljoenes

Lost in Shangri-la: a true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff with cover design by Richard Ljoenes

Zuckhoff writes well of this nearly forgotten footnote of World War II’s history which took place in New Guinea. He tells the tale of three aircraft crash survivors and their fantastic rescue, as expected from the title, but weaves into the telling of the tale with the backstory as well as the lapsed understandings of the time. Zuckhoff gives a complete narrative, not a recitation of facts, giving his readers the sort of complete understanding like those who lived the time – not the immediate awareness like that of a temporary visitor.

Lost in Shangri-la is about the late World War II excursion flight of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain named “Gremlin Special” which crashed into a rising valley. Three of the twenty-one souls aboard survived to ultimately walk out into the unmapped valley known to local Allied service personnel as “Shangri-la” but not without heroic and inventive efforts by their rescuers.

Zuckhoff’s writing easily teaches much about this little known area of operations in World War II and surprises with earthshaking new understandings such as the United States lost over 600 aircraft in New Guinea during World War II with most being noncombat related — with hundreds more lost by allied as well as enemy forces. Paradoxically, though New Guinea was not as well known in the media as other operational areas it experienced more aircraft loses than any other country during the war.

The valley, largely unknown to the western world, was inhabited by tens of thousands of natives living in several alliances and hundreds of groups for untold thousands of years. Richard Archbold first mapped the valley several years prior to the crash but his knowledge was not on Allied maps which simply did not have the significantly vast valley charted. Zuckoff wonderfully illustrates the society of these natives which was both complex and simple in its ways – a window into how non primitive our primitive ancestors likely were.

After a brave and strenuous trek the three wounded survivors reached a clearing where they were spotted by search aircraft and move was salient to their survival. Volunteer members of a Filipino-American paratrooper unit then parachuted in with two medics landing near the survivors as the rest landing several miles away at a large clearing to set up a base camp where all would live until an extraction plan was devised (these brave men knew an extraction plan was yet to be found). These men of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion went into unknown territory, massively outnumbered and with no chance of reinforcement or extraction. They should have been treated as heroes back in the day but were not and Zuckoff details their story as well as the casual disregard of them by the day’s media. Incredibly, as well as shamefully (as well researched by Zuckhoff), they were not recognized properly though all other individuals (and non Filipino-American) were done so individually and repetitively through the course of the multi-week rescue.

Gliders played the ultimate role of rescue vehicle and Zuckhoff continues to shine writing about this phase. Though 500 gliders had been snatched from the ground by C-47 and C-46 aircraft during World War II these had all been empty and at a near sea level altitude (with its greater lift due to higher air density). The glider snatches, there would be three required, in Shangri-la would be at altitude (8000 feet/2400m) and weighted down with people. The development and use of the rescue technique is worth the cost of the book on its own.

Zuckhoff has given the world a book which tells the story of a fantastic rescue operation done by people who simply proceeding knowing the faith they had in each other would somehow see them through the trial. His research is so thorough and deep that we also know the people involved, not only the three survivors, as who they were or are – not statistics in a report. Zuckhoff also gives us insight – much of it through conversations with the native tribal people and their relatives — so that we can understand the way life was lived in more primitive times – ironical in that this event occurred when “civilized” people were killing on an industrial scale.

This book is also well indexed and footnoted with a full bibliography — which is most welcome but hardly surprising since the author was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in investigative reporting!

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