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27 March 2013

Lost in Shagri-La

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff is true story of a plane crash and rescue at the end of World War II in one of the most remote locations on the planet - the interior of the island of New Guinea.

During World War II there was a United States Army base at Hollandia on the North coast of what was, at the time, Dutch New Guinea. The base was used as a stop along the supply route to the fighting in the Pacific between the Allies and Japanese. Planes flew regularly from there to Australia and the Philippines. The island was so mountainous and full of impassable jungle that there were frequent plane crashes - and those planes were never found or recovered. Even a large cargo plane would only make a slight cut into the green of the jungle within thousands of miles of jungle. It was thought by map makers and pilots alike the the entire inland of the country was rocky mountains until on day, a pilot taking a shortcut to a date in Australia discovered a large valley high in the range.

What was named Shangri-La by fans of the book Lost Horizon, was a valley approximately 8 miles by 30 miles. Natives who lived within the valley grew sweet potatoes and lived in grass houses. According to the author, it was not a land that time forgot, but a land that time never even knew existed. Once the valley was discovered, pilots, soldiers and WACs (Women's Army Corp) from Hollandia who were lucky, got to do a flyover and see a place never before discovered by outsiders.

On May 13, 1945, as the war was ending in Europe, in order to raise spirits in the stifling heat and humidity of New Guinea, the base commander arranged for a sight seeing trip for some of the Americans stationed there. Twenty-four people made up of officers, WACs and a couple of enlisted men took what they thought would be a few hour flight to see Shangri-La.

Through a series of events in the plane, added to the maze of mountain passed required to fly through to reach the valley the Gremlin Special, a C-47, crashed into the side of a mountain above a side valley - they had not only crashed, but were 20 miles from where rescue efforts would be focused. The media immediately started following the story, partly due to the fact that unlike other planes that had disappeared in the jungle, this one carried women - a twist for the readers back home.

What follows is a harrowing story of survival, friendly natives, a rescue attempt that first adds 14 people (including two medics) to the stranded, and finally one of the most sensational rescues of WWII. Zuckoff interviewed the last remaining survivor and friends and family of others, plus collected letters, journals and newspaper articles of the time. What he created is nothing short of riveting.

Zuckoff, Mitchell. (2011). Lost in Shangri-La. New York: Harper.

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