Toronto: Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalist, came upon an article about a World War II plane crash in New Guinea a few years ago that had all the makings of an outstanding story: Three survivors, a secret world with a Stone Age existence, and a brave rescue effort were all involved in a horrible catastrophe in a hostile setting. Lost in Shangri-La, a new novel by Zuckoff, describes the epic story.
New Guinea’s towering highlands, lush rain forests, and thick clouds provide an unpleasant setting for the drama. Much of the island was undiscovered during World War II, and hundreds of planes crashed there, but only a few were ever found. “New Guinea was like an aircraft cemetery,” Zuckoff adds.
His book tells the story of one of the few plane disasters in New Guinea that resulted in survivors. The journey began on May 13, 1945, when 24 men and women stationed in New Guinea boarded the Gremlin Special for a sightseeing flight over a secluded valley known as “Shangri-La.”
“It’s a huge valley,” Zuckoff explains. ”Between 100,000 and 120,000 Stone Age tribesmen live in this 40-mile-long, 8-mile-wide region.”
The plane flew low between the mountains, allowing passengers to glimpse the valley as well as the native communities and farmland. Although the reason of the incident is unknown, low-lying clouds impeded the pilot’s vision, causing the jet to crash into a mountain. John McCollom, an Army officer, was one of the few survivors.
“The plane’s tail was chopped,” he continues, “and the fuselage was crushed.”
When McCollom noticed the fuselage was on fire, he jumped out of the plane and into the isolated valley. ”This is a heck of a place to be alone on a Sunday afternoon, 165 miles from civilization,’ I added, gazing at my watch.”
However, McCollom was not alone; four other passengers had made it to safety, albeit two of them died subsequently. Lieutenant McCollom was the lone passenger and highest-ranking officer to escape the disaster. Even though his twin brother was among the dead, McCollum promptly took command and made all the proper decisions, according to Zuckoff.
While his brother’s body burned in the Gremlin Special next to him, Zuckoff realized he had to put that aside and make judgments about what to do next.
McCollom led the two other injured survivors, Women’s Army Corp Cpl. Margaret Hastings and Sgt. Kenneth Decker, on an exhausting journey in search of an area where they may be more easily spotted by the guards. They eventually reached an open area where they were seen by rescue planes after a trip through dense jungle and down a steep, perilous gulley.
It was then that they met the valley’s population for the first time. Because the local tribes were rumored to be cannibals and headhunters, McCollom approached their leader with caution.
He and I “walked out on the log and we got closer together,” McCollom recalls, “and there was this small gulley that we crossed.” McCollom told the group to grin, and the tribe leader, thankfully, returned the smile. “As he drew closer, I stretched out and grasped his hand… and he took mine… and we were all pals from then on.”
Rescue arrangements were in the works while the survivors made friends with the men and women of the valley. Filipino-American paratroopers led by Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr. volunteered to parachute into the valley and rescue the survivors — but there was a catch: once they were put into the valley, there was no way out.
The paratroopers, on the other hand, were adamant on assisting. “They stated their gung-ho mantra was bahala na,” which Zuckoff translates as “come what may.”
The news of the disaster and the survivors had piqued the interest of the media by that time, and journalists were particularly drawn to Hastings, the attractive young corporal. Reporters were among the passengers on the flights that dropped supplies on the survivors and rescuers on the ground. Finally, one day, documentary filmmaker Alexander McCann arrived, armed with a few cocktails.
With a little liquid bravery, he gets his courage together and jumps out of the aero plane. “Zuckoff concurs that he swings like a metronome on the way down due to his intoxication.” In the valley, he nearly lays flat on his back and begins recording almost as soon as he can open his eyes.”
McCann was able to record the last rescue while on the ground with the survivors. After great deliberation, it was decided that gliders would be the only aircraft capable of entering and exiting the valley. According to Zuckoff, it appeared like an improbable decision at first. Which of our group members used the phrase, “OK, we have no choice except to drop gliders into this valley a mile above the ground?”
It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best option they had at the time. Survivors and paratroopers were strapped into many gliders that were sent down into the valley. The rescue team then dispatched tow planes with hooks on their bellies to yank the gliders up into the air and transport the injured survivors to safety.
It was a fantastic conclusion to a fantastic narrative. Hastings would later tell an audience that when you don’t have a choice, you don’t have any fear – you just do what needs to be done. In many respects, that is the very meaning of survival.