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

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

3.8 407
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

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
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)
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.”
Entertainment Weekly
“[A] gripplingly cinematic account. . . . A remarkable cast of characters. . . . A.
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.
New York Times Book Review
“A truly incredible adventure.”
Library Journal
On May 13, 1945, 24 military personnel, including officers and male/female enlisted persons, took off for a leisurely sightseeing trip over the uncharted regions of Dutch New Guinea. Their trip to Shangri-La to see the remote native communities from the sky ended in disaster. The plane crashed, leaving three survivors to fend for themselves in one of the world's most remote areas. Zuckoff tells this story brilliantly—the survivors' bravery, the courage of the paratroopers dropped in to protect them, and the ingenuity of those who devised and executed the daring rescue. Zuckoff also reveals the amazing record of first contact between the Americans and local natives and how they interacted peacefully despite extreme language and cultural barriers. This title is accessible to a wide audience beyond patrons who enjoy military history and biography. ["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," read the also starred review of the New York Times best-selling Harper: HarperCollins's hc, LJ 2/1/11.—Ed.]—Emma Duncan, Brampton Lib., Ont.

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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.”

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Lost in Shangri-la 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 407 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received an ARC of this book and thought that the summary sounded intriguing. A group of soldiers and WAC's take a scenic plane tour of New Guinea's Hidden Valley, but the plane crashes leaving 3 survivors. They then realize they are not alone in the valley when they meet Stone Age tribesmen who have never before seen white people. The story is crafted from journal entries, photographs, and interviews with the author as we follow the heroic rescue of the survivors and the harrowing details of their survival in a new world. I thought the book was fantastic and very interesting. To think all of this really happened and I'd never heard of the story before, it's one of those secret treasures you never know existed. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good non-fiction read.
Man_Of_La_Book_Dot_Com More than 1 year ago
"Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff is a non-fiction book about a plane crash in Dutch New Guinea during World War II. This book is narrative history at its best. Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea was a strategic area during World War II, General McArthur made it his headquarters before the Philippines invasion. However, life was rough in Hollandia and the soldiers worked hard. To raise moral Colonel Peter Prossen gave the soldiers a treat - a sightseeing tour, from the air, of a lost valley unknown to cartographers complete with natives. The valley was nicknamed Shangri-La During one trip the transport plane crashed, killing almost everyone on board. The others had to fend for themselves in a hostile environment hoping rescue is on its way. "Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff is a gripping book which takes a hold of you from page one, and doesn't let go until the very end. Mr. Zuckoff makes history comes alive by introducing the reader to the survivors, those who died, the rescuers, friends and family. I was so engrossed in the book I felt almost as if my friends were the ones on the ground. Mr. Zuckoff relies on personal diaries, interviews, declassified documents, film footage and more to bring this mesmerizing tale to life. This book is not a glorification of the US Army or World War II, after all - a military plane crashed during a joy ride. But the book is about the human spirit. Focusing on the survivors, WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings, Lieutenant John McCollom, and Sergeant Kenneth Decker, the author pays particular attention not to tell the story solely from their point of view, but also gives much do credit to the unsung heroes, the paratroopers, medics, support personnel and the natives. The natives play a huge part in the book, one could say that the rescue wouldn't have been successful without their involvement. Mr. Zuckoff does a fantastic job researching and trying to understand their complex culture. I don't know if anyone involved realized how fragile the rescue was due to the terrain and the permanent state of war between the natives. The real strength of the book is the characterization of the real-life figures, not only of the soldiers involved, but also of the natives whose lives have been forever changed. Each one is written about in a very personal way which makes you want to jump in the pages and shake their hands. After letting the readers know how each member of the huge cast faired off, the book ends on a very thought provoking note. The natives' lives were disrupted, even though their way of living seemed primitive to us, it worked for them. In a few short decades their way of life barely exists, proud warriors now pose for photos and their land destroyed for minerals.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book in two days-it was such a compelling story. The author vividly portrayed the the main characters and geographic setting. This was one of those books that leaves one wishing it hadn't ended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow, looking at all those stars. This had to be a good book. This should be a book of about 100 pages or so. Even then it's an over-hyped story of "danger" and "drama" that just doesn't deliver on the facts. THe first 75 pages or so, and the last chapter are worth reading (but not by much), while the middle half of the book is just laborious detail about inconsequential detail. "We woke up, ate potatoes for breakfast, looked into the air for the next air drop, and tried to stay dry." Over and over again. OK. We got that. You know there is a problem when you're skipping paragraph after paragraph of mind-numbing filler info that has little or no relationship to the fundamental story. Every possible detail about each character's past is included (family life as a child, civilian business ventures starts and fails, previous marriages etc etc etc. The writing itself is fine (actually good). The problem with this book is the story itself and all the filler info. Not all that interesting, and definitely not as dramatic an event in history as portrayed.
RickerM More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this. I was slight reluctant to read it after finishing Unbroken a few months ago but this is not painful to read like that was. The few photos slipped in literally bring the characters to life and drives home how amazing a true story can be.
mamamia More than 1 year ago
I liked the book for what the author intended. I love reading some of these posts who are so critical of the book. I don't recognize any of them as authors. This is a true story that was painstakingly put together without the added flourishes that some readers want. I recommend they read fiction and don't look to finding their thrills in a writing that IS more a documentary as not.
TropicalHouston More than 1 year ago
Wow, this is one of the most exciting books I've ever read. The author, Mitchell Zuckoff, kept me hanging on every word. This is a very well written book. It is based on a true story and what a story it is. Also, check out the author's website to see the original film footage of this remarkable story of survival and rescue. The other reviewers go into more detail but all I have to say it, buy the book!
RicFNJ More than 1 year ago
With such an exciting title andsummary, I was expecting a bit more. An interesting story but the actual writing style was not great reading. I began to lose interest about half to two rhirds through the book. I think this is an ok purchase at a reduced price but not full price that I paid.
Johanna197 More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book and I am filled with the memory and spirit of all those heroes. What an amazing story of determination and dedication. Though initially tragic, the survivors go on to exhibit such determination and their rescuers were so strong willed and generous, you can't help but be uplifted by this amazing story. I feel filled with pride for all of them and I am so happy that I read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A bit drawn out and repetitive. Writing wasn't very exciting. Irony of the story was that they were all out for a joy ride during the war! The natives were far more interesting then the survivors. Doesn't compare w/ "Unbound"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I expected more of an exiting tale of headhunters and drama, but instead this read more like a documentary about life on an island during WWII. Although historically interesting, it really didn't have the drama I was expecting with friendly natives, not savage headhunters as anticipated for this area. I should have passed on this one, not a cliff hanger by any stretch.
Nathan Marie Burt More than 1 year ago
This is so well written and impeccably researched. I felt like I knew many of people by the end of the book. And it gives insight not only into a completely foreign culture but also into American culture during World War II.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having grown up hearing stories about the jungles of New Guinea from my beloved hero, my dad, a WWII AAF radioman on a C47 in Hollandia, Lae, & Port Moresby, I really looked forward to reading this book. I was NOT disappointed!! Not only did I feel like I was there with the survivors, but I could see all of the things my dad had told me about, & for a little while he was right here with me again. Thank you Mitchell Zuckoff for a fantastic glimpse back into an incredible story that was at times terrifying, sad, entertaining, and uplifting!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story of Shangri-la is great. But it is mired in copious backstory. Every character you meet is fleshed out documentary style based on the author's interviews. Then you are plopped right back at the point in the journey you left off, and reminded of the back story when it becomes relevant. It's a 125 page story buried in a 350 page archive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To the author, I heard you on the John Batchelor show and was intrigued with the teasers you gave. It took a while before I found it on my nook color, but once I did I was not disappointed! I am a geek and am more likely to read a manual or just the news - this was riveting and a true gift to readers. Thank you!
dslradvocate More than 1 year ago
Simply written story of a little known event in World War 2, it is a fun read. However, it doesn't give an honest portrayal of the enormous errors made nor what happened to the men who made them.I also feel that the life of the natives could have been developed in greater depth and a greater exploration of the effects on them could have been made.
usmc_brat More than 1 year ago
After seeing Mitchell Zuckoff on Jon Stewart's show, I had to buy this book. It's a great story of survival during WWII. If you are a WWII history buff, I recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.
ttpratt More than 1 year ago
An excellent book recounting the rescue of American servicemen and women in a secluded New Guinea valley towards the end of the Second World War. Contact with stone age tribesmen only adds to this amazing true story.
RobbiJane More than 1 year ago
From the description when I ordered it, I was looking for it to be very exciting and heart-wrenching. I'm not one for reading non-fiction books. This one grabbed my interest from the beginning until I'd reached the point of no return. I had to see it through to the conclusion, but the excitement was lacking. One thing I really enjoyed was seeing the photos of actual people from the story; that's probably how I got through the entire book. Did it make me want to find other non-fiction books in regard to the same era? No.
WriteReason More than 1 year ago
The details of the events, and the people involved bring this non-fiction story to life.  Well written, with insight into the people who were involved in the horrible plane crash in a remote part of the world over sixty years ago, and those who took part in the rescue attempts.  A true story of tragedy, heroism, survival, and triumph against tremendous odds.  Mr. Zuckoff brings it back to life, and you find new friends in those he writes about.
sewcat More than 1 year ago
Almost reads as "non-fiction". An excellent written story of survival during WWII.
WhoseHE More than 1 year ago
Don't know that I would claim it is the most incredible rescue story of World War II, I think Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides takes that honor. Nevertheless, an interesting and untold tale of WWII survivors of a plane crash involving very real people who we get to know through this well researched book. A historical page turner and how many times do you find that. Recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Maybe a wee bit slow at times but still a very interesting story and was well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was of particular enterest to me since the WAC was a lady from a town afew miles from home. Also, my brother was a Marine in area at the time. The book was not really of much historical value.
kwazywabbit More than 1 year ago
A little slow, but interesting historical story.