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Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II - Mitchell Zuckoff NewGuineaArea

"The cabin crumbled forward toward the cockpit. The walls of the fuselage collapsed as though sucked inward. Both wings ripped away. The tail section snapped off like a balsa-wood toy. Flames shot through the wreckage. Small explosions rang out like gunshots. Black smoke choked off the light. The air grew bitter with the stench of burning metal, burning leather, burning rubber, burning wires, burning oil, burning cloths, burning hair, burning flesh."

It wasn't easy getting a seat on the Gremlin Special to fly over this mystical valley they'd heard such intriguing reports about. It was a good mix of young men and women who were excited about the prospect of joining a select group of people who have been allowed to see Shangri-La. The more experienced pilot was back in the cabin area probably answering questions and flirting with the pretty girls. One of the women had taken the pilot's seat up front to enjoy the view. When the co-pilot experiences trouble the plane hits the side of the mountain before anyone can even react.

Out of the twenty-four people on board three survive.

Thus begins a tale of survival and the search to find them. A world weary of war news starting following the news articles about the search with avid attention. The military quickly realized this was an opportunity for wonderful PR and blessed their lucky stars that one of the survivors just happened to be a beautiful young WAC named Margaret Hastings.

Margaret Hastings

To add to the poignancy of the story one of the survivors John McCollom lost his twin brother Robert in the crash. The world wanted these people brought back safely.

Little was known of the tribesmen that inhabited this valley. They had been relatively "untainted" by civilization. They still used bows and arrows and stone axes. They had not invented the wheel, but did understand and use fire. They didn't really have any organized religion, but did fear the spirits of their ancestors. To appease these spirits they would cut off the digits of a female family member. It was not unusual for a woman by the time she reached adulthood to have nubs for fingers on her right hand. Luckily for the survivors the tribes people did not see them as a threat, but merely as a curiosity. Margaret did have to keep track of her hands as the tribes people did attempt to help her grieve for her fallen companions by hacking off a few of her digits.

Tribesman sporting his penis gourd

"They are wonderful carefree people. Living in a land of perpetual summer, they never worry about their next meal."

The army sends in Filipino paratroopers lead by Captain C. Earl Walter Jr. to find the survivors. It is a tricky jump, with a thick jungle canopy, the green only broken by bone breaking rock structures. To make the jump even more hazardous they had to come out of the plane at a very low altitude with chutes deployed. If something went wrong they would have no time to deploy a reserve chute.

The survivors did not escape unscathed. Hastings has deep burns on her legs. Decker has a shattered elbow, a deep slice to his head, and badly burned buttocks. McCollom fortunately only sustained a broken rib. Gangrene has started to set into their wounds and when the Filipino medics arrived they felt some hope that they might survive their wounds.

Margaret Hastings with her Filipino Medics Corporal Camilo "Rammy" Ramirez and Sergeant Benjamin "Doc" Bulatao

I'm not going to be a spoiler. You will have to read the book to find out how the military final figures out how to bring them out of that valley. One thing about Americans we are an ingenious bunch. We sometimes put lives on the line to save the few, but for the people lost in that valley they had no doubts that their friends would be coming for them. Zuckoff loads the book with old photographs. (I love old photographs.)What I knew about Papua New Guinea wouldn't have filled up a thimble, but now I know for instance that it is the second largest island in the world after Greenland. Bring on Trivia Pursuit.

Decker, Hastings, and McCollom