"Give me your hand!" he ordered.
A moment later, Margaret watched as McCollom led out her friend Laura Besley. McCollom placed the WAC sergeant on the fire-seared ground, turned around, and headed back inside the burning fuselage.
He fought his way through the smoke toward Private Eleanor Hanna, who'd sat next to Laura Besley, directly across from him and Margaret. Eleanor had been badly burned, far worse than Margaret or Laura. Her hair still crackled with burning embers when he carried her out.
By now, McCollom's hands were scorched and his hair was singed from rescuing the two WACs. Otherwise, remarkably, he remained unhurt. Still, he couldn't go back for a third rescue mission - the fire raged higher and hotter, and one explosion after another echoed from inside the wreckage. He doubted anyone inside could still be alive.
Startled by a movement, McCollom looked up and saw a man walk woozily toward him from around the right side of the plane. Any hope that it was his twin brother quickly faded. He recognized Sergeant Kenneth Decker - McCollom supervised Decker's work in the drafting room of the Fee-Ask maintenance department. Decker was on his feet, but dazed and badly hurt. Margaret saw a bloody gash several inches long on the right side of Decker's forehead, deep enough to expose the gray bone of his skull. Another cut leaked blood on the left side of his forehead. Burns seared both legs and his backside. His right arm was cocked stiffly from a broken elbow. Yet somehow Decker was on his feet and moving zombielike toward them.
"My God, Decker, where did you come from?" McCollom asked.
Decker couldn't answer. He would never regain any memory of what happened between takeoff at the Sentani Airstrip and his deliverance into the jungle. Later, McCollom would find a hole on the side of the fuselage and conclude that Decker had escaped through it, though he also thought it possible that the sergeant had been catapulted through the cockpit and out through the windshield.
As he walked unsteadily toward McCollom and Margaret, Decker repeatedly muttered, "Helluva way to spend your birthday."
Margaret thought he was talking gibberish from the blows he'd taken to the head. Only later would she learn that Decker was born on May 13, 1911, and this really was his thirty-fourth birthday.
Turning back to the three surviving WACs, McCollom saw Margaret standing fixed in place, apparently in shock. He set aside his hollowness, his feelings of unspeakable grief at being alone for the first time in his life. The situation was clear. McCollom was the least injured among the five survivors, and though he was only a first lieutenant, he outranked Decker and the three WACs. McCollom steeled himself and assumed command.
He snapped: "Hastings, can't you do something for these girls?"
Laura Besley and Eleanor Hanna were lying next to each other on the ground where McCollom had placed them. Margaret knelt by Eleanor. The bubbly young WAC private from rural Pennsylvania didn't seem to be in pain, but Margaret knew it was too late to help her. The fire had seared off all her clothes, leaving Eleanor with vicious burns over her entire body. Only her cherubic, fair-skinned face was unscarred.
Eleanor looked up with pleading eyes and offered Margaret a weak smile.
"Let's sing," she said. They tried, but neither could make a sound.
Laura Besley was crying uncontrollably, but Margaret and McCollom couldn't understand why. She seemed to have suffered only superficial burns.
McCollom heard someone yell. He scrambled around the right side of the plane to a spot where he could see Captain Herbert Good lying on the ground. McCollom knew that he was the reason that Good was aboard the Gremlin Special. That morning, McCollom had bumped into Good at the base in Hollandia. Affable as always, McCollom asked Good, a member of General MacArthur's staff, whether he had afternoon plans. Good was free, so McCollom invited him to join in the fun on a trip to Shangri-La.
Excerpted from Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff. Copyright 2011 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of Harper, a division of HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved.
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