There were several noted military attacks that took place as part of World War II combat on May 13, 1945. However, on that very same day, there also occurred a more anonymous incident of devastation that has, until now, slipped by many historians and the world at large.
Author and journalist Mitchell Zuckoff has plucked a diamond of a story out of the rubble of World War II history with his vivid account of the crash of the Gremlin Special, a C-47 transport plane. Lost in Shangri-La draws on remarkable interviews, journal entries, diaries, and photographs to recount the astonishing tale of three plane crash survivors and their unlikely jungle rescue.
The story literally takes off in Dutch New Guinea where two dozen officers, soldiers, and Women's Army Corp members (WAC's) board the Gremlin Special. The flight isn't a tactical military mission, but rather a morale-boosting joy ride into the lush, untouched hidden valley known as Shangri-La.
The reader knows what's coming, but Zuckoff maintains a holding pattern of suspense as he lays out the tropical tangle of mountainous land below. Anticipation builds as the Gremlin's passengers unwittingly jockey for prime seating and optimal views of the very gorge into which the plane will soon disappear - and disappear it does.
"The distance between the C-47 and the unforgiving terrain closed to zero. To the ear-splitting din of metal twisting, glass shattering, engines groaning, branches snapping, fuel igniting, bodies tumbling, lives ending, the Gremlin Special plunged through the trees and slammed into the jungle-covered mountainside."
At this point in the narrative, Zuckoff wastes no time honing in on the smoking crash site. As the flames of the wreckage and the flesh of its passengers burn, the stunned survivors, and readers, slowly take in the devastation and inhospitable surroundings. "Their plane was a demolished, camouflage-painted speck in a dense swath of trees and vines."
The author does an excellent job transitioning from the crash site, to the military base, to the families back home, as a rescue plan of action is drawn. Armed with scanty supplies such as flavored candies (see "Beyond the Book" feature) and small tins of water, each step of the remaining passengers - Margaret Hastings, John McCollum and Kenneth Decker - is deftly reported as they brave the dense jungle in hopes of rescue.
There are wonderful, albeit graphic, descriptions of the dazed and injured trio and their desperation to stay alive. "New Guinea teemed with bacteria, and the microscopic organisms were feasting on the stagnant blood in her [Margaret's] poorly dressed wounds. The combination of burned flesh, unsanitary conditions, and swarming bacteria was a recipe for gangrene."
To live through a disaster of such magnitude is nothing short of legendary and, as they step away from the crash site and into the prophecy of the Uwambo people, that is precisely where they find themselves - in a legend. The Uwambo tribe believed that a vine used to hang from the sky, allowing spirits to come down to earth. One day the people of the valley cut the vine, severing the link between the two worlds. The prophecy foretold that the spirits would return from the sky once again for the End of Days.
Zuckoff presents this ancient tribal clan with complete equanimity and, though at first the Gremlin survivors regard the Uwambo people as uncivilized, they ultimately come to respect them, their deep reverence for culture and history, their political structures, and their trade systems. "Margaret's outlook took an evolutionary leap. Any remaining hint of superiority vanished. In its place came respect."
Meanwhile, improving the odds for the crash survivors meant increasing the risks for those trying to save them. Zuckoff does a fantastic job portraying the loyalty of the forces and the deep sense of purpose in serving the United States in any capacity. It is here that Zuckoff dips into relatively untouched military history, and properly puts Filipino forces on the historical map.
Lost in Shangri-La is a remarkably readable account of the demise of the Gremlin Special, of inner-tribal warfare, and of World War II military history. Zuckoff doesn't cease to fascinate as he touches on topics such as the WAC, Filipino forces, tactical rescue, and indigenous peoples. Shangri-La doesn't bog down with overdone detail, but rather, offers the opportunity for insight and tender reflection long after you close the cover.
To see photos of the passengers of the Gremlin Special, or to get a timeline of the key events of the rescue, please visit Mitchell Zuckoff's website. You can also click on the video below to watch the 1945 film that inspired Zuckoff's book; it was created by Alexander Cann after he parachuted (drunk) into the Shangri-La valley, where the crash survivors awaited rescue.
This review was originally published in September 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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