Pacific plane crash leaves survivors back in time
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
by Mitchell Zuckoff
In May 1945, as World War II neared its end, a U.S. military plane crashed high in the mountains of the island then known as Dutch New Guinea. The 24 servicemen and -women aboard the plane had been on a pleasure jaunt, surveying a huge, unmapped valley that was home to a tribe that had first encountered people from the outside world only in 1938.
Most of the passengers died on impact or shortly after. Of the three who survived, John McCollom was unhurt, while Margaret Hastings and Kenneth Decker were badly injured. McCollom – whose twin brother had also been on the plane – tended to the other two and tried to figure out not only how they all would survive, but how they would be rescued. Separating them from their base in Hollandia, on the northern coast of the island, was 150 miles of impenetrable mountain terrain.
The story of the crash and rescue forms the basis of Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (Harper, 2011). While the suspense alone is enough to carry the book, which is equal parts thriller, period piece, and war story, at its core is the collision of two worlds.
The Dani people, on whose land the plane crashed, had a legend about spirits returning to earth, and they thought Hastings, Decker, and McCollom were those spirits. Zuckoff traveled to the crash site and interviewed people who remembered when these strange creatures had fallen out of the sky. Because the U.S. soldiers and the Dani warriors had no common language, the Dani side of the story had rarely, if ever, been heard outside the valley. Many mysteries on both sides remained unsolved – until now.
For those involved, the event was one of the most important of their lives. Much of the world of the Dani has since disappeared. But thanks to Zuckoff, their version of that fateful encounter has not.