Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
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Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

3.8 409
by Mitchell Zuckoff

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On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La,” a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying

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On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La,” a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.

But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend’s shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.

Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside—a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man—or woman.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio—dehydrated, sick, and in pain—traversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.

By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives’ remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Zuckoff (Ponzi's Scheme) skillfully narrates the story of a plane crash and rescue mission in an uncharted region of New Guinea near the end of WWII. Of the 24 American soldiers who flew from their base on a sightseeing tour to a remote valley, only three survived the disaster, including one WAC. As the three waited for help, they faced death from untreated injuries and warlike local tribesmen who had never seen white people before and believed them to be dangerous spirits. Even after a company of paratroopers arrived, the survivors still faced a dangerous escape from the valley via "glider snatch." Zuckoff transforms impressive research into a deft narrative that brings the saga of the survivors to life. His access to journal accounts, letters, photos, military records, and interviews with the eyewitnesses allows for an almost hour-by-hour account of the crash and rescue, along with vivid portraits of his main subjects. Zuckoff also delves into the Stone Age culture of the New Guinea tribesmen and the often humorous misapprehensions the Americans and natives have about each other. In our contemporary world of eco-tourism and rain-forest destruction, Zuckoff's book gives a window on a more romantic, and naïve, era. (May)
LOST IN SHANGRI-LA has all the hallmarks of a classic jungle adventure story. Three survivors of a tragic plane crash—an attractive Women's Army Corps corporal; a square-jawed, handsome lieutenant; and a gravely wounded, stoic sergeant with a cynical sense of humor—are lost in an uncharted and inaccessible valley in New Guinea, where the only inhabitants are primitive natives constantly at war with one another…the book revives the story and fills in the gaps with personal interviews, declassified army documents, a daily journal kept by one of the survivors, and original film footage shot by one of the rescuers….Lost in Shangri-La reads like an adventure novel, except that there are no bad guys and more than the usual number of heroes.
Entertainment Weekly
“[A] gripplingly cinematic account. . . . A remarkable cast of characters. . . . A.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“This is an absorbing adventure right out of the Saturday-morning serials. . . . Lost in Shangri-La deserves a spot on the shelf of Greatest Generation nonfiction. It puts the reader smack into the jungle. ”
Seattle Times
“A riveting tale in the hands of a good storyteller. . . . LOST IN SHANGRI-LA is the most thrilling book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read since I can’t remember when.”
Library Journal
Zuckoff (journalism, Boston Univ.; Robert Altman: The Oral Biography) presents an engaging story about the survival and ultimate rescue of three American service people who crashed in the dense jungles of New Guinea toward the end of World War II. While that is exciting enough in its own right, what makes Zuckoff's story an essential read is the interaction between these survivors and the indigenous tribe they encountered after crashing. Humorous and at times dangerous misunderstandings arose between the Americans and the indigenous people during the 46-day ordeal in the jungle. The tribe had never encountered white people before and assumed their "guests," including a young female WAC corporal, were spirits whose arrival fulfilled a prophecy of the end of the world. In a sense, this prophecy was true as after the rescue and the war, the Americans, Europeans, and Indonesians returned and changed the way of life that these tribes had followed for centuries. VERDICT This excellent book will be enjoyed by anyone who loves true adventure stories of disaster and rescue such as Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage.—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theological Seminary Lib., Oviedo, FL
Michael Washburn
Lost in Shangri-La delivers a feast of failures—of planning, of technology, of communication—that are resolved in a truly incredible adventure. Truly incredible? A cliché, yes, but Zuckoff's tale is something a drunk stitches together from forgotten B movies and daydreams while clutching the bar. Zuckoff is no fabulist, though, and in this brisk book he narrates the tense yet peaceful five weeks during 1945 that three plane crash survivors spent immersed "in a world that time didn't forget. Time never knew it existed." Even at the level of exposition, the book is breathless.
—The New York Times
David Grann
…compelling…and vividly reconstructed…As with many suspense stories, the build-up of Lost in Shangri-La is a bit more enthralling than the denouement. Yet overall Zuckoff has pulled off a remarkable feat—and held the reader firmly in the grip.
—The Washington Post
New York Times Book Review
“A truly incredible adventure.”

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

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Lost in Shangri-La

A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff


Copyright © 2011 Mitchell Zuckoff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061988349

Chapter One

On a rainy day in May 1945, a Western Union messenger made
his rounds through the quiet village of Owego, in upstate New
York. Just outside downtown, he turned onto McMaster Street, a
row of modest, well-kept homes shaded by sturdy elm trees. He
slowed to a stop at a green, farm-style house with a small porch
and empty flower boxes. As he approached the door, the messenger
prepared for the hardest part of his job: delivering a telegram
from the U.S. War Department.
Directly before him, proudly displayed in a front window,
hung a small white banner with a red border and a blue star at its
center. Similar banners hung in windows all through the village,
each one to honor a young man, or in a few cases a young woman,
gone to war. American troops had been fighting in World War II
since 1941, and some blue-star banners had already been replaced
by banners with gold stars, signifying a loss for a larger gain and a
permanently empty place at a family's dinner table.
Inside the blue-star home where the messenger stood was
Patrick Hastings, a sixty-eight-year-old widower. With his wire rim
glasses, his neatly trimmed silver hair, and the serious set of his
mouth, Patrick Hastings bore a striking resemblance to the new
president, Harry S. Truman, who'd taken office a month earlier
upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A son of Irish immigrants, Patrick Hastings grew up a farm
boy across the border in Pennsylvania. After a long engagement,
he married his sweetheart, schoolteacher Julia Hickey, and they'd
moved to Owego to find work and raise a family. As the years
passed, Patrick rose through the maintenance department at a
local factory owned by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, which
churned out combat boots and officers' dress shoes for the U.S.
Army. Together with Julia, he reared three bright, lively daughters.
Now, though, Patrick Hastings lived alone. Six years earlier, a
fatal infection had struck Julia's heart. Their home's barren flower
boxes were visible signs of her absence and his solitary life.
Their two younger daughters, Catherine and Rita, had
married and moved away. Blue-star banners hung in their homes, too,
each one for a husband in the service. But the blue-star banner in
Patrick Hastings's window wasn't for either of his sons-in-law. It
honored his strong-willed eldest
daughter, Corporal Margaret
Hastings of the Women's Army
Corps, the WACs.
Sixteen months earlier, in
January 1944, Margaret Hastings
had walked into a recruiting
station in the nearby city of
Binghamton. There, she signed
her name and took her place
among the first generation of
women to serve in the U.S.
military. Margaret and thousands
of other WACs were dispatched
to war zones around the world,
mostly filling desk jobs on bases
well back from the front lines.
Still, her father worried, knowing
that Margaret was in a strange, faraway land: New Guinea,
an untamed island just north of Australia. Margaret was based
at a U.S. military compound on the island's eastern half, an area
known as Dutch New Guinea.
By the middle of 1945, the military had outsourced the delivery
of bad news, and its bearers had been busy: the combat death
toll among Americans neared 300,000. More than a 100,000 other
Americans had died noncombat deaths. More than 600,000 had
been wounded. Blue-star families had good reason to dread the
sight of a Western Union messenger approaching the door.
On this day, misery had company. As the messenger rang
Patrick Hastings's doorbell, Western Union couriers with nearly
identical telegrams were en route to twenty-three other star-banner
homes with loved ones in Dutch New Guinea. The messengers
fanned out across the country, to rural communities including
Shippenville, Pennsylvania; Trenton, Missouri; and Kelso,
Washington, and to urban centers including New York, Philadelphia,
and Los Angeles.


Excerpted from Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff Copyright © 2011 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

David Grann
“Mitchell Zuckoff has uncovered, and vividly reconstructed, such an astonishing tale. . . . Zuckoff skillfully builds narrative tension and deft character portraits. . . . . He has pulled off a remarkable feat — and held the reader firmly in the grip.”

Meet the Author

Mitchell Zuckoff's honors include the 2000 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. His book Choosing Naia: A Family's Journey was a Boston Globe bestseller and won the Christopher Award.

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