May 2011

Plane crash in paradise

By Mitchell Zuckoff
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It started as a Sunday afternoon lark and developed into one of the strangest survival stories of WWII. On May 13, 1945, a group of American soldiers—among them several members of the Women’s Army Corps—boarded a twin-engine C-47 in Hollandia, New Guinea, intending to do a brief flyover of a remote valley located high in the island’s central mountains. With luck, they’d be back in time for dinner.

A year earlier, an American pilot had spotted the lush valley and the tribes that inhabited it. The natives were so visibly excited when his plane swept in low above them that he concluded they had never seen an aircraft before. He also surmised that they might be headhunters or cannibals. News of his discovery spread quickly, and soon others were lining up to take the tour. To some, the valley’s beauty and inaccessibility brought to mind the mountain-fringed paradise James Hilton described in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Hilton called his valley “Shangri-La.”

Less than an hour into the flight, the pilot miscalculated the C-47’s altitude and flew it into the side of a mountain. Three of the 24 on board survived: Lieutenant John McCollom, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker and Corporal Margaret Hastings. Drawing on a wealth of documents and personal recollections, author Mitchell Zuckoff has reconstructed an almost hour-by-hour narrative of how the survivors, two of whom are seriously wounded, descend the mountain into the mythical valley, deal with the suspicious but generally friendly natives and eventually aid in their own perilous escape from Shangri-La.

A lot of readers are going to fall in love with Hastings. Thirty years old at the time of the crash, she is smart, flirtatious, fearless and gorgeous, a thoroughly modern woman even by today’s standards. It is a joy witnessing how adroitly she holds her own in situations normally controlled by men. Zuckoff’s impressive research includes dozens of photographs of the survivors and those involved in their rescue. He even makes a pilgrimage to the valley—now a much-violated Eden—to interview tribespeople who were children when the strange trio first hobbled into their midst. Lost in Shangri-La is a movie waiting to be made.

Read our interview with Mitchell Zuckoff for Lost in Shangri-La.

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Lost in Shangri-La

Lost in Shangri-La

By Mitchell Zuckoff
ISBN 9780061988349

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