Lost in Shangri-La

By Mitchell Zuckoff; Harper Perennial; @ 2011; 316 pages.

Almost as interesting as the story itself is that it was uprooted from the forgotten pages of history and brought back to life. While searching for something else, Mitchell Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter for the Boston Globe, came across an article about the plane crash of 24 U.S. Army servicemen and Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in an isolated valley in New Guinea. He set the story aside, but it continued to nag him. Over time, he discovered other related information, which grew and grew, until finally the story had to be written.

Based on interviews Zuckoff was able to obtain six decades after the crash, a daily journal kept during the time of the crash, and the rescue, scrapbooks, army documents, maps, radio transcripts, and details from the relatives of the three survivors, Lost in Shangri-La came alive as “a true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II.”

On May 13, 1945, Colonel Peter Prossen arranged an airplane joyride for some of his staff as a morale booster. Interest had been building about the mysterious valley untouched by civilization that they had recently discovered. Excitement and enthusiasm must have been high aboard the plane. Prossen left the cockpit to his less experienced copilot and joined the passengers to look out their windows and socialize. Clouds obscured the peaks which surrounded the valley, and the copilot discovered too late that he was flying straight into a mountain.

Zuckoff does a fantastic job telling this story. He researched all of the main players extensively and creates a lot of suspense by weaving their back stories into the progression of events that led to the rescue of the survivors. Zuckoff even traveled to New Guinea and interviewed the tribesmen and relatives of the tribesmen. The contrasting perspectives about what had happened and what it meant from the point of view of both the Americans and the tribesmen was fascinating.

It was also interesting to consider that as the outside “civilized” world was in engaged with all its technology and weaponry in World War II, the humans of this isolated valley had their own ongoing wars, just on a smaller scale. Bombs and planes were replaced here with sticks and axes.

The customs for women in this society were interesting. Whenever a male warrior died, his female relative would have one of her fingers cut off as part of her mourning ritual. Youch! By the time many women reached marriageable age, they were all thumbs.

After the war, Christian missionaries went to the valley, converted the natives, and convinced them to stop their ongoing wars. As a result, their independence diminished significantly. I thought that was interesting too, and it made me wonder in broader terms about why humans engage in war and the long-term consequences of doing so.


I recently joined a book club and this was the book that was chosen. We met last Thursday at a coffee shop (not Starbucks) to discuss it. One person had prepared questions and the rest of us sat around a table. I think there were seven of us in all. This was the first book club I had ever attended, and I didn’t know what to expect.

I’m thinking to myself: Don’t talk too much. And then: Don’t talk too little!

One of the first questions was: Who was your favorite character?

One of the women liked the female tribal woman (queen?) who befriended Maggie. The rest of the women liked John McCollom, the twin who survived unscathed and led Maggie Hastings and Ken Decker to safety. They liked that he managed his grief on loosing his brother and kept a cool head. The one man in our group said he liked Ken Decker, the man who even though tremendously beat up in the crash still drug his mangled body down the mountain. I think he really liked Maggie and was afraid to admit it in the midst of a bunch of women.

Me? The character who immediately came to my mind was the playboy soldier with the successful military father. He had wanted to participate in the war, but never got assigned, Captain Earl Walter, Jr.

The women teased me: Of course, you’d like the playboy.

Well, not of course. Yes he was 6’4″. And, yes, he was an All American Swimmer.

But this guy was willing to fly into a valley that no one knew how to fly out of—or get out of, for that matter. He knew the danger involved and motivated a team to go with him. He was the hero!!!!

Ok, so I didn’t agree with the group on that one.

Then someone says: I lost respect for Maggie when I heard that she was hitting on one of the medics.

Even if I believed that, which I don’t, I wouldn’t have lost respect for Maggie for that.

But let’s think this through. She was in a tremendously emotional situation. She had just witnessed 21 people that she knew die in a horrific fiery plane crash. She herself had climbed down a mountain with burns on her feet and legs and face. For the first several days, there was no food to eat. No one knew how they would get out of the valley. Then her wounds got infected and developed gangrene.

What girl wouldn’t feel flirtatious under such circumstances?

So the medics come along and dose Maggie and Ken with antiseptic and remove the gangrene—but cutting the infected skin away from their bodies. This took hours—of cutting.

Hmmm. Yeah. I don’t think so.

More likely is that the guy who wrote in his diary that Maggie was flirting too much was actually turned down by her. It wouldn’t be the first time a guy told a lie.

So, far, I’m not earning any points with the group.

Next question: What were they doing out there anyway? After all, there was a war going on.

—Uh, blowing off steam. Trying to have a little fun in a world full of misery!

—But people were dying!!!

—People are dying RIGHT NOW and we’re drinking coffee and eating muffins, arguing over a book!

(Maybe I’m not the book club sort.)

Next question: What did we think about the ultimate Western influence that came to the valley as a result of the plane crash?

—Yes, yes, simply terrible. We screwed up their war economy, and now they don’t cut the fingers off of little girls.

—But we can’t fault them for that. That was their culture.

—Just because it was part of their culture doesn’t mean it was right. Cultures throughout history have had practices that were not right. Like, oh, slavery. And the fingers were only cut off of the women and girls, even though they were tasked with doing all the chores and gardening around their homes.

—And they got by…

At this point, I think a blood vessel became noticeably visible on my forehead. I was O for 4, and I was starting to have flashbacks to what a former boss said to me after his retirement:

“You’ve got to go along to get along.”

I think he was trying to help me out and meant these as wise words. But I lost some respect for him the moment he said it.

Clearly, this is a skill I could cultivate.


3 thoughts on “Lost in Shangri-La

  1. I love stories in which two worlds collide. And everyone has a story – which makes an even more complex story when they’re all mixed in.

    If I ever go to a book club, I hope there’s someone there like you.


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