I bet you watched at least some TV coverage of the rescue of Chilean miners in 2010. The whole world did. In 1945 there was comparable interest in a remarkable rescue. People followed the search and then the rescue attempts for weeks. But a few small events, like the first use of nuclear weapons and the subsequent end of the war, pushed the story out of the public eye. While researching another project, Mitchell Zuckoff happened across this story, actually located one of the survivors, and has rescued this gripping tale from an undeserved oblivion.
In the waning days of World War II, an Army C-47 transport plane takes off from Base G in the town of Hollandia, on the north coast of New Guinea. Aboard is a collection of military personnel, male and female, flying over the island to get a look-see at a remote, newly-discovered but ancient civilization, tucked away between mist-covered mountains and guarded by hundreds of square miles of impenetrable jungle. They call this newly discovered place Shangri-La in honor of the fictional utopia of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon
. These excursions are a regular treat. Twenty-four people are on the trip flying in the ill-named Gremlin Special
. When it crashes in the jungle only three survive.
1945 New Guinea is home to a wide range of unpleasant biting creatures and a cornucopia of microscopic bad boys that would make a biologist sing, but might present a challenge to crash survivors, particularly when piled atop the burden of serious injuries. It is a huge island, second largest on Earth, and in addition to its other selling points, it is inhabited by tribes of cannibals still living with Stone Age technology, and, just for fun, thousands of well-camouflaged Japanese soldiers, recently driven inland from the coast. Have a nice day.
The personalities read like a Hollywood dream come true. The group includes a beautiful, but tough as nails, damsel-in-distress, a courageous Lieutenant who has to overcome his grief at the loss of his brother and rise to the occasion in order to keep himself and his people alive, a studly, gung-ho paratrooper eager to prove his mettle and recover the survivors, a drunken, disgraced Hollywood film-maker trying to recover his career, daring and chipper Filipino medics and paratroopers, and, of course, a tribe or two of local cannibals, who have discovered fire, but have not yet made it up to the wheel. This is just a fun, fun book to read. Zuckoff does a very good job of giving us a feel for the players here. He spoke to as many as possible, including the Stone Agers. You can feel yourself rooting for this one or that one, and controlling an urge to break out into a few bars of “Bloody Mary.” I particularly enjoyed Zuckoff’s descriptions of the Westerners’ interactions with the natives
Of course we know something about who gets out because the author quotes them to us early on, and he makes no claims to clairvoyance. But there are still plenty of details to be found out. While we know about some of the survivors, we do not know what shape they were in when they got out. There was a harrowing race underway between gangrene and time. It took daring and considerable envelope-pushing to bring ‘em back alive. How they accomplish that seems amazing, even now. There are a few fun facts here as well, such as the derivation of the term “Walkie-talkie.”
But just in case you might think this is merely an entertaining, fast, breezy read, there is sub-text that gives one poi for thought. Are the Stone-Agers any different from contemporary people? Are the perpetual wars that the ancient headhunters fight with spears and arrows really so different from the ones fought with guns and atom bombs? Is human nature so determined? Religion enters as well. The native culture tells of spirits from the sky. It sounded like time-travelers or aliens to me, but it does raise a question of people’s need for something to believe in, whether that belief is held by primitives
living in remote jungles, or sophisticates living in modern cities.
If you can find your way to the bookstore, there is no doubt that you will lose yourself in Lost in Shangri-La
. You will not want