by Rebekah Benoit
Throughout recent history, stories of disasters and miraculous escapes have always captured the attention and fascination of the masses. Consider the story of the ill-fated Titanic, sunk more than 100 years ago now, which captured headlines for weeks after the tragedy, and whose survivors became worldwide celebrities, if only for a short time. Throughout World War I and II, stories of accidents and those who somehow survived them provided much-needed hope to buoy the spirits of those fighting and those left at home to wait and wonder. Today in the world of mass media and information at the touch of a button, we still thrill to these stories of miraculous escape from death’s clutches, whether it’s in a plane in the icy peaks of the Andes or in the ink-dark abyss of a coal mine.
Lost in Shangri-La details just such a miraculous escape, one which briefly dominated headlines only to be eclipsed by the close of World War II and the stories of death and bravery which came from that great cataclysm.
During World War II, the soldiers posted in New Guinea, a large jungle-covered island near Australia, might as well have been posted on the moon, such was the sense of total isolation. The largest army base and settlement, called Hollandia, was buried deep in the steamy, impenetrable jungle, home to all kinds of dangerous bugs, reptiles and bacterium. Much of the island, covering hundreds of miles, was completely inaccessible by plane, vehicle or foot, and remained unexplored. The contingent of soldiers posted there included members of the Women’s Army Corps or WACs, among the first women besides nurses to serve in the armed forces. While WACs did not serve in combat roles (their motto was “Free Up a Man to Fight”), a posting in Hollandia could be just as dangerous, with armed forces personnel frequently succumbing to disease or depression from the sheer monotony of their posting. Exploration outside their base was discouraged, as the island had been wrested from the Japanese, many of whom were believed to be hiding in the jungle.
When an army pilot named Elsmore discovers a large, fertile valley in the middle of the island, peopled by a group of stone-age natives who had never encountered a white person, the WACs and soliders at Hollandia are intrigued. The valley cannot be explored on foot but only observed on fly-overs in army planes, so the occasional sightseeing flights are always popular with the men and women of the base.
The sightseeing tour planned for May 13, 1945, is just such a lark. The plane, called the Gremlin Special because of its tendency to suffer mechanical mishaps, is full that afternoon of male soldiers and WACs eager to catch a glimpse of the valley and its exotic inhabitants. But for the happy sightseers, the pleasant afternoon quickly turns into a nightmare.
When the plane crashes and explodes into flame in the mountains surrounding the valley, there are only four survivors, one of whom quickly succumbs to burns and dies at the crash site. Corporal Margaret Hastings is a plucky WAC and the only woman to survive more than a few hours after the crush. She’ll need all of her independent spirit and gritty determination to survive as she battles terrible burns and creeping gangrene and attempts to make her way through thick jungle, filled with dangerous animals and potentially hostile natives.
Hastings is accompanied by fellow survivor Sergeant Kenneth Decker, who has suffered a terrible head injury. Despite his awful wound, the lack of medical care and basic sanitation and the brutal conditions he is forced to endure, Decker’s no-nonsense personality keeps his fellow survivors from giving up when things look most bleak.
The final survivor of the plane crash is Lieutenant John McCollom, who suffers from relatively minor injuries but is emotionally reeling from the death of his twin brother, incinerated in the fiery crash. McCollom is the backbone of the trio of survivors, leading a desperate flight through mountainous terrain where the three will encounter impenetrable jungle, hunger and thirst, and an unknown people whose way of life and view of the world dates back to the stone age, a warlike people who represent a complete unknown to the civilized world.
Author Mitchell Zuckoff’s thorough research combines with an engaging style of storytelling to create a nonfiction tale of human endurance that reads like an adventure story. Whether you’re a history buff, you love a good survival story or you like an adventure tale, Lost in Shangri-La appeals to a pretty wide audience. I really enjoyed Zuckoff’s spare prose, which doesn’t overwhelm with detail and keeps the pace of the story moving quickly. This book is a great example of nonfiction done right, with all of the captivatingly rich detail of a fictional tale and none of the dryness that is so common to this genre.