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Lost in Shangri-La: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age    by Mitchell Zuckoff order for
Lost in Shangri-La
by Mitchell Zuckoff
Order:  USA  Can
Harper, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though it's based on historical fact, Mitchell Zuckoff's Lost in Shangri-La: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age reads like fiction, an exciting adventure/survival story that would make an excellent movie. What makes it especially fascinating is the author's thorough research and his ability to show both sides of the story - that of the American military survivors, as well as the viewpoint of the natives. Black and white photos enhance the story throughout.

Towards the end of World War II, American servicemen and WACs were based in Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. A year earlier, a pilot had discovered what he called Hidden Valley, 'a large, uncharted tabletop valley' inhabited by 'tens of thousands of people for whom the Stone Age was the present day.' Warfare was a regular way of life amongst these tribes. The valley became known as Shangri-La and pilots began to fly over it. One such sightseeing tour took twenty-four American servicemen and WACs in a transport plane on May 13, 1945. It crashed into 'the jungle-covered mountainside.'

Zuckoff introduces all aboard with particular attention to the three who survived - 'beautiful, headstrong' WAC corporal Margaret Hastings whose legs were badly burned; 'brave lieutenant' John McCollom whose twin brother Robert died on the plane; and Sergeant Kenneth Decker who was celebrating his birthday and suffered a terrible head wound (Margaret's friend Laura Besley and another WAC made it off the plane but soon succumbed to their burns). The survivors made their way painfully down the mountainside. Fortunately the Dani tribesmen they met at the bottom believed them to be sky spirits whose 'return would herald the End of Days.'

It was an enormous challenge to mount a rescue effort once the survivors were spotted. There was no way to land a plane and an overland trek would have to 'defend against hostile tribes and thousands of Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles'. The colorful collection of rescuers who finally emerged included 'a team of Filipino-American' paratroopers (especially two very courageous medics, Camilo Ramirez and Benjamin Bulatao, who parachuted in to treat the survivors' gangrene); their 'strapping, hell-bent' Captain Earl Walter; 'rogue filmmaker' Alexander Cann; and Henry Palmer, a 'smart-aleck pilot who flew best when his plane had no engine'.

Though Lost in Shangri-La is a gripping read all the way through (rare in non-fiction), I was most intrigued by the regular misunderstandings between the military and natives and also by the discussion of the use of military gliders in World Wars I and II - and in the Shangri-La rescue. It's a remarkable book, an unusual combination of WW II history, anthropology and travel literature, absolutely not to be missed!

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