Saturday, September 3, 2011

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

"Near the end of World War II, a U.S. Army place flying over the island of New Guinea crashed in an uncharted region inhabited by a prehistoric tribe."  - Mitchell Zuckoff, the preface of Lost in Shangri-La

In May of 1945, as the war was winding down, a small US compound on Dutch New Guinea sent out a plane full of WACs and soldiers on a pleasure viewing trip of a valley that had been dubbed "Shangri-La."  The three-hour morale-boosting excursion turned into a tragic nightmare as the plane crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all but three of the twenty-five inhabitants of the plane.  The next seven weeks proved to be a tale worthy of the movies, including life-threatening injuries, encounters with natives that had never seen people with light skin, treacherous jungle hikes, heroic paratroopers, and an incredibly wild, death-defying scheme by a cowboy colonel to get everyone home.

I had never heard of this story.  At the time the events occurred, it was a story followed with the same kind of breathlessness as the Chilean mine workers of our era.  Journalists treated it as one of the most dramatic tales of the war.  However, within months of the rescue, the atomic bomb was dropped, the war came to an end, and this amazing tale was lost among a sea of WWII stories.  It lay forgotten by the public until a journalist, author Mitchell Zuckoff, came across a random article on the crash.  The story, as he put it, "nagged at" him until he couldn't help but investigate.  The result is Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.

The story reads like a work of adventure fiction...but it's all true.  I kept having to remind myself that he wasn't making any of this up.  Zuckoff goes to great lengths to be as accurate and detailed as possible, and yet he captures the readers' interest and keeps our attention.  It's an incredible story - why on earth is this the first time I have ever heard of it?  I would be absolutely shocked if this didn't become a movie sometime in the next couple of years.  The script writes itself.  Using first-hand accounts, diaries, photos, Army reports, and finally the results of a personal visit to New Guinea, Zuckoff brings us back to 1945 and plops us right down in this island, surrounded Stone Age natives and jungle.  You feel the pain in Margaret Hastings legs and the fear and confusion of the native tribes.  You wait with baited breath to see if everyone gets out alive...and the final rescue plan is something so fantastic there is no way anyone could make it up.

One of my favorite features of the book was the explanation of the natives' reactions to the soldiers.  Zuckoff uses a back-and-forth method to bring a unique perspective to the reader.  First he describes a scene from the point of view of one of the Army personnel, like the captain who led the paratrooper expedition that cared for the survivors until the rescue could happen.  Then, using interviews of the tribal members he obtained with the help of a translator, he explained what they had really thought and had really been doing.  The comparison is both hilarious and eye-opening, and it's a fascinating look at what happens when two completely different cultures find themselves face-to-face.  The US Army landing in the middle of Shangri-La was about as foreign to the natives of the island as space aliens landing in the middle of Kansas.  From a sociological and anthropological standpoint, the comparison of perspectives is a priceless look at humanity.

If you are interested in history, adventure, sociology, anthropology, military technique, or just plain like a good story, this book is for you! 

Scale of 1-5: 3.5
What's up next: To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwick
Top Five TBR:
1. The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
2. Hearing God by Dallas Willard
3. Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert
4. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
5. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan 

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