lost on shangri-la; a review

Lost in Shangri-La, By Mitchell Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-La, By Mitchell Zuckoff

Book 41/50

I’m not typically a historical non-fiction fan, but when I read the inside sleeve of Lost In Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff, I was immediately intrigued.

Maybe I should start over. Usually, I’m not very interested in the genre of historical non-fiction, unless it takes place in World War II. And while this story takes place during the war, most of it was so removed. Why, you ask? Well, this account is about one of the greatest rescue missions in history, in a little place called Shangri-La, New Guinea, now referred to as Bailem Valley.

The story focuses on military who boarded a plane on May 13, 1945 to see an aerial view of the stunning Shangri-La Valley. Tales and urban myths formed about this untouched land. From an airplane, passengers could spot the valley’s Stone Age native communities, who were believed to be cannibalistic tribes untouched by the outer world. But no airplane had ever landed in Shangri-La before, and it was much too dangerous to try.

The airplane carrying those military personnel crashed into the jungle that day, and nineteen of the passengers were killed. Three surviving passengers, Corporal Margaret Hastings and Sergeant Kenneth Decker who were mortally wounded, and Lieutenant John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash, all stumbled through the jungle where more injuries awaited them.

Once the survivors made it to a clearing in the jungle, wounded, emotional and hungry, they began to realize the reality of the situation. Not only were they grieving the loss of the nineteen who passed away, but they now realized how difficult a rescue mission would be. And one top of it all, the local tribesmen were eager to meet the three white people who arrived in their territory.

The Three Survivors: Decker, Hastings and McCollom. (Photograph from C. Earl Walter Jr. and B.B. McCollom)

The Three Survivors: Decker, Hastings and McCollom. (Photograph from C. Earl Walter Jr. and B.B. McCollom)

Thanks to journal entries by Hastings and Paratrooper Captain C. Earl Walter Jr., in addition to accounts from John McCollom, the following several weeks in Shangri-La were well documented. The book provides an in-depth summary of what it was like to meet the native tribesmen for the first time, what the survivor’s encounters with the natives entailed, the process of treating head trauma and burn wounds in the middle of a jungle, and how the greatest rescue mission of World War II took place.

This book kept me compelled and on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was so interesting to read about how the Shangri-La natives took to the American military (the natives thought the white men and woman were spirits), and to think about how this story could have ended completely differently if it weren’t for some key interactions between the groups. There were so many heroes in this story, some with quiet, controlled bravery, others with overt leadership qualities. The fear the soldiers on Shangri-La contained and the courage they displayed really made me think about how I would have handled a situation as frightening is theirs. I obviously can’t put myself in their shoes, but I will say one thing: the three survivors, so many of the natives, and everyone involved with the Shangri-La rescue, inspired me to be a braver person in my daily life.

I can’t tell you any more than what I already have though; you’ll have to read Lost in Shangri-La to find out what happened.

Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La

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