WWII rescue tale finds its way, despite melodramatic detours
In “Lost in Shangri-La,’’ Mitchell Zuckoff presents a slice of history that needs no embellishment to serve as an engrossing piece of nonfiction. In the waning days of World War II, a plane carrying US military personnel crashed into a largely unexplored swath of New Guinea jungle, leaving three survivors to grapple with their injuries, the terrain, and a native population that had little contact with the outside world.
Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism professor and former Globe reporter, excels at reconstructing the story, weaving a detailed linear narrative from diary entries, news reports, and original interviews. But as a storyteller, he too often tries to pump up the intrigue and tension in situations already brimming with both.
Most of the passengers on the ill-fated flight don’t survive past the third chapter, but Zuckoff adds enough wrenching detail to ensure that their deaths aren’t just a breezy prerequisite for the central adventure story.
Once the C-47 crashes, Zuckoff can’t resist the urge to overhype. He writes extensively about the only previous incursion by Westerners into the valley, a 1938 zoological mission that resulted in the killing of a tribesman. As the survivors huddle in the jungle, Zuckoff breathlessly implies that the native people may try to exact revenge.
It’s a curious move for a writer who criticizes the “racial and cultural condescension’’ inherent in news reports about the valley at the time, in which the native New Guineans were described as “savages’’ and assumed to be “cannibals or head hunters.’’ In reality, they provide comfort and assistance to the three Americans and the eventual rescue crews, guaranteeing their safe passage through the jungle and even offering to hold a Thanksgiving-style feast but not before Zuckoff plays directly into the stereotypes he eventually breaks.
“At the same time, the natives the paratroopers encountered either were unaware of the shooting or chose not to avenge it for reasons lost to time,’’ Zuckoff finally admits.
While distracting, the melodramatic manipulations thankfully do not completely diminish the book’s very real human emotion. Lieutenant John McCollom, the survivors’ de facto leader, loses his twin brother in the crash but forces himself to ignore his grief to take care of the others: Women’s Army Corps Corporal Margaret Hastings, who suffers severe leg burns, and Sergeant Kenneth Decker, who sustains extensive head wounds and remembers nothing of the flight.
Zuckoff meticulously recounts their struggles, juxtaposing their helplessness on the ground with the Army’s frantic rescue response. He even takes care to detail the unheralded efforts of the Filipino-American medics who parachuted into the wilderness to provide badly needed care but who were widely ignored by an American press that was obsessed with the damsel-in-distress angle of a stranded WAC.
To his credit, Zuckoff tracked down some of the native tribesmen who were involved with helping with the soldiers, and their perspective adds a fascinating layer of depth to a story where they largely play a supporting role. Their royal treatment of the survivors, Zuckoff explains, came from a traditional belief that the appearance of “sky spirits’’ signaled the end of the world.
“Lost in Shangri-La’’ truly shines in these moments, when Zuckoff lets the original actors tell a tale that can only suffer from any misguided attempts to inject a dose of Hollywood melodrama.
Alex Spanko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.