Friday, May 20, 2011
Just when you think you’ve heard every WWII story there is to hear a new one comes along. First there was Unbroken the inspirational life story of Louis Zamperini and now we have Lost in Shangri-la a story of survival in the remote jungles of Dutch New Guinea.
In spring of 1945, when the war in Europe was won and the invasion of Japan was looming a group of 24 Army personnel including 9 WACS were on a sightseeing over flight of an impenetrable valley in the highlands of New Guinea. The valley had a great allure to the Americans because it was thought to be populated with primitive people perhaps cannibals whose lives were untouched by modern society. The plane nicknamed the “Gremlin Special” crashes into the side of a mountain within the confines of the valley. Six people survive the crash although three die within the first 24 hours. A young lieutenant, John McCollom who was relatively unhurt and two badly burned survivors, sergeant Kenneth Decker and an Army stenographer Margaret Hastings. The survivors almost immediately come in contact with the native people and develop an uneasy relationship. The army locates the survivors quickly but does not have a clue how to extract them from these jungles. Enter the real heroes of the story – Captain Earl Walter and the Filipino members of the First Recon Battalion (special). Two members of this group – medics Doc Bulatao and Rammy Ramirez parachute into the jungle and begin to treat the burn victims whose wounds have worsened. Capt. Walter and other paratroopers establish a base camp miles away. The groups connect and so begins a long wait as the army ponders how to get them out. The interactions with the native population advance from hostility to a developing mutual respect. There is a lot of humor and misunderstanding in these encounters and an underlying tension that never quite leaves the narrative. I won’t reveal how the army rescued this group because I think the actions were so thrilling you’d swear they were fictional.
Mitchell Zuckoff has nailed this story. He was aided by army records, a diary kept by Margaret, WWII home front interviews with families of the lost and missing, interviews with the few surviving participants, interviews with relatives of deceased personnel, and lastly interviews 50+ years later with some of the New Guinea peoples who were there. The native interviews enhance this story greatly; hearing their interpretations of the events was fascinating. The story is enriched with all of this detail. I really enjoy the book; my father spent a goodly portion of the war in Dutch New Guinea so I was pleased to learn so much about the Army Air Corps experience there.
I listened to an audio of the story read by the author which was a real plus in this case (not always true!); I did miss seeing the pictures of the people involved but if you go to the Amazon website they are posted there. If you like a good adventure tale this one is for you no two ways about it!
I listened to an audio of this story provided by Harper Audio