April 19, 2011

Mitchell Zuckoff

A crash landing in Shangri-La
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Shangri-La became a synonym for a remote, secluded paradise in 1933 via the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon. That name gained much wider currency in 1937 after the book was made into a movie. Little wonder, then, that in the spring of 1944, when a U.S. Army Air Force pilot on a reconnaissance flight “discovered” a wide, fertile valley high in the central mountains of New Guinea, it would be dubbed Shangri-La. Surrounded by jungles and inaccessible by road or water, the valley was dotted with cultivated fields and villages that appeared to be inhabited by tribes from the Stone Age.

During the ensuing year, the discovery generated so much curiosity that it became commonplace for military personnel to arrange for brief flyovers of the valley, even though its high altitude and sudden shifts in weather made the flights potentially hazardous. Nonetheless, on the Sunday afternoon of May 13, 1945, a group of 24 American soldiers—including nine members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs)—boarded a twin-engine C-47 at the American air base in Hollandia (now Jayapura), Dutch New Guinea to embark on the tour. Their plan was to take a quick look at this latest Eden everyone was talking about, watch the tribesmen below react to their sudden and noisy presence and then be back at base in time for dinner.

“My eyes were bulging, my jaw dropped to the floor and my tongue rolled out. By the time I pulled myself together, I knew I couldn’t pursue the other story."

Less than an hour into the flight, the pilot miscalculated the plane’s altitude and flew it into the side of a mountain. Only three of the passengers survived—Lieutenant John McCollom, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker and Corporal Margaret Hastings.  Drawing on Army records, diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper accounts and personal recollections, Mitchell Zuckoff has reconstructed what seems like hour-by-hour account of how the survivors—two of whom were seriously injured—descended from the crash site into the mythical valley, dealt with the warlike natives there and, after would-be rescuers were parachuted in, aided in their own perilous escape. It is a tale rich in adventure and comradeship.

Speaking to BookPage from Boston, where he teaches journalism at Boston University, Zuckoff says he simply stumbled onto the story that became Lost in Shangri-La. “It was about seven years ago. I was searching online newspaper databases, particularly The Chicago Tribune, [reading] a variety of different sources that would yield human stories of World War II. I thought I had one in mind, and I wanted to look around a little bit—to sort of step back from that story [idea] to see what else was happening around the same time.” That’s when he encountered a series of stories on the crash and rescue written by the Tribune’s war correspondent, Walter Simmons. “It was almost comic strip-like,” he recalls. “My eyes were bulging, my jaw dropped to the floor and my tongue rolled out. By the time I pulled myself together, I knew I couldn’t pursue the other story.”

In spite of his enthusiasm for the subject, it took a while for Zuckoff to commit to writing a book about it. “It was an evolving process,” he explains. “When I began searching for the different survivors of the crash and the paratroopers [who were dropped in to rescue them], I found that one after another had already died. It was discouraging. I wasn’t ruling it out, but I was thinking, ‘Gee, it would be great if there was somebody who was in the valley I could talk to.’ My resolution [to write the book] became unshakeable when I found that Earl Walter [who led the rescue] was still alive.”

Although Zuckoff deftly delineates the personalities of all the pivotal characters, it is the luminous and plucky Margaret Hastings from Owego, New York who steals the show. A lot of readers are going to fall in love with her. Zuckoff confesses he kept an enlarged picture of Hastings over his desk when he was writing the book. “I had to tell my wife I was just trying to keep in the moment,” he says with a laugh.

“Margaret was a woman who was 30 years old in 1945 but who could easily be a 30-year-old woman in 2011. She knew what she wanted. She did not want to be dependent upon a man. She wanted to explore her world and the larger world. She didn’t like the fact that she [had reached] the end of her 20s and had never been anywhere more foreign and exciting than Atlantic City. So she took this amazing adventure and joined the WACs when she had endless opportunities to have been married by then, to have done things that were more traditional for a woman in the ’40s. I found her enormously appealing—beyond her beauty.”

Much of the book is based on stenographic diaries Hastings kept, even as she was struggling to stay alive. With Walter as his chief source, Zuckoff also discovered and includes here dozens of black-and-white photographs that chronicled the ordeal and its aftermath.

Zuckoff’s research was so thorough that it enabled him to give vivid thumbnail sketches of even secondary and tertiary characters. “I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain individual deceased personnel records for each one of the victims of the [plane] crash,” he says. “That was a very fundamental resource for me because each IDPF record is as much as an inch thick of data on each person. I also used the Air Force historical resources in various states and at Maxwell Air Force Base. And I used the Library of Congress for some things that had already been declassified.”

The most arduous part of his research occurred early in 2010 when he took a sabbatical from teaching to trace down and interview those tribesmen in the valley who still remembered the incident from their childhood. Even now, getting into the valley is a test of patience and nerves, Zuckoff reports.

“It was hell. But it’s a little easier than it was in ’45. My flight was from Boston to L.A., from L.A. to Hong Kong, from Hong Kong to Jakarta and two stops from there to Jayapura and then a little puddle-jumper over the mountains and into the valley. So it took me two or three days just to get there. There is a little airport in Wamena [the main town in the valley], but I don’t think this book is going to result in a ton of tourism, I’m sorry to say.”

This particular Shangri-La, Zuckoff notes in his book, has gone the way of all Edens. “The province has the highest rates of poverty and AIDS in Indonesia. Health care is woeful, and aid workers say school is a sometimes thing for the valley children. . . . Elderly native men in penis [-shielding] gourds walk through Wamena begging for change and cigarettes. Some charge a small fee to pose for photos, inserting boar tusks through passages in their nasal septums to look fierce. More often, they look lost.”

Although the U.S. spent an enormous amount of money and endangered numerous lives rescuing survivors of what was essentially a Sunday-afternoon lark, Zuckoff says he found no evidence that anyone was ever reprimanded for it “because it ended happily. . . and there were these wonderful news accounts and photographs.”

Zuckoff, whose other books include Robert Altman: The Oral Biography and Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, says he worked closely with his publisher in developing Lost in Shangri-La. “I had a very clear sense of what the book was going to be. I think I wrote probably about a 30- or 40-page proposal with a few photographs and laid out exactly how I planned to tell it. They bought it from a proposal.”

At the time of this interview, the book had not yet been optioned or purchased for a movie.  “There are talks underway,” Zuckoff says, “but nothing we can announce yet.”

With a figure like Margaret Hastings at its center, how could a movie miss?

Read our review of Lost in Shangri-La.

Get the Book

Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La

By Mitchell Zuckoff
ISBN 9780061988349

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