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

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

On May 13, 1945, 24 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 best-selling 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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

Lost In Shangri- La by Mitchell Zuckoff is a blockbuster tale Hollywood couldn’t better. An American military plane crashes in an uncharted and barely accessible part of New Guinea leaving only three survivors, one of them a brave and fetching blonde member of the Women’s Army Corps. The survivors and natives share a fascinating rapprochement, despite the tribe’s propensity to war.

Zuckoff tells the tale with an unusual focus on the personalities randomly thrust together and the collision of stunningly different worlds. His writing and delivery let the drama speak for itself: his mellow voice and almost conversational style avoids histrionics at the climactic moments, yet still conveys the characters’ emotional journeys.

Events take off, literally in 1945 in Dutch New Guinea, where Americans still at war with the Japanese were stationed. Twenty-four soldiers and members of the Women’s Army Corps are treated by their boss to a recreational flight over “Shangri-La”, a storied part of the island recently discovered.

Flying over a narrow valley on the mountainous island (which had already foundered 600 planes during the war), treacherous terrain and human error result in the crash, killing all but three on board: Corporal Margaret Hastings, a 30-year-old WAC enlistee from upstate New York, who sustained leg burns; Sergeant Kenneth Decker, whose stoicism wasn’t fully realized until the severity of his wounds were discovered days later, and, finally, Lieutenant John McCollom who, while physically the heartiest, was arguably the most wounded, having left the remains of his twin brother in the wreckage.

Zuckoff sensitively narrates the travails of the immediate aftermath when the trio, living on scant water and hard candies, drag themselves through the jungle to a clearing where they will be more visible to search planes.

But they are first spotted by natives, fierce-looking and, for all the survivors know, cannibals. Drawing heavily on Margaret’s diary, Zuckoff seems to share the sense of wonder, as well as the initial condescension, curiosity, and fear shared by the survivors. And, through his research with the tribesmen and their progeny about the long-ago event, he helps us grasp the culture and reactions of the tribe, who believed the survivors to be gods or spirits of death to be honored. The tribe’s almost religious commitment to making war makes the relationships that grew between the two groups that much more remarkable. Margaret and a regal, gracious tribeswoman find a deep bond, with nary a comprehensible word between them.

After five weeks together, the rescue operation is ready. Zuckoff sets it up with all the challenges of logistics and aeronautic risks, telling a heart-stopping narrative from the arrival of paratroopers through the seemingly doomed attempts to “snatch” the survivors to safety.

For all the swashbuckling, exotic appeal of this historic episode, the most moving sections were the intimacies Zuckoff sought out from the survivors and shares here like secret, treasured knowledge — the snippets of letters sent home; details of families’ idiosyncrasies, and especially, the fascinatingly ordinary lives the survivors lived out, after the event Zuckoff reveals in all its extraordinariness. —Elly Schull Meeks

Publisher's Summary

On May 13, 1945, 24 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 best-selling 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.

©2011 Mitchell Zuckoff (P)2011 HarperCollins Publishers

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Beth Sterling, VA, United States 12-02-11
    Beth Sterling, VA, United States 12-02-11 Member Since 2010
    HELPFUL VOTES
    17
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    "Very interesting"

    The author narrates and does an excellent job. There are quite a few unpronounceable names in the book of the natives of New Guinea, and either the author did an excellent job pronouncing them, or he was very consistent and self-assured in his mis-pronunciation, because it sounded flawless.

    Good story of survival in the jungle and a "failure is not an option" type of rescue that had never been done before.

    Very well done.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tim Laguna Beach, CA, United States 12-01-11
    Tim Laguna Beach, CA, United States 12-01-11
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    "Riveting !!!"

    I have read many books on WWII. I would have to put this one right at the top. The author Mitchell Zuckoff has taken the time to do the research necessary to bring this forgotten true story back to life. If you like history, human courage, and survival stories, you will love this book!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Linda mendocino, california, United States 11-13-11
    Linda mendocino, california, United States 11-13-11 Member Since 2008
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    10
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    "don't recommend"

    As a pilot and WWII buff my husband chose this book to listen to on a recent road trip. We both were dissatisfied. A better writer could have made this story more concise and interesting but it just droned on and on. The narrator also added to the lack luster quality of the listen, as his voice was monotone and draggy. We had to force ourselves to the finish. We've just begun Unbroken and already find it more interesting. Save your money on this one.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    History Princeton Junction, NJ, United States 11-10-11
    History Princeton Junction, NJ, United States 11-10-11
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Racist and inconsequential"

    The material is consistently racist. This is the kind of racism that people display when they are convinced that they are liberals, then wonder what it is they said wrong. It is likely unconscious on the part of the author. Nonetheless, Zuckoff's constant references to the blackness of the skin of the natives when there is no legitimate need to mention skin color at all IS racist and is something that anyone who isn't white will notice very quickly.

    Sometimes race or ethnicity is a valid point in context: this was not one of those times. Once the initial description of the native population was concluded, there is NO reason to mention blackness at every opportunity. Really, have we not advanced beyond this yet?

    It bothered me a lot and the amount it bothered me grew with each passing hour I listened. I thought maybe he'd lighten up as the book progressed, but he didn't: if anything, he got worse. The racism is there from start to finish and the condescending praise of the simple charming savage and, oh yes, black, natives does nothing to alleviate it. I do not think this is a minor point and I do not feel it should be overlooked, especially in view of the inconsequential nature of the event itself even though it got a lot of press at the time.

    As history, I just can't see where this was an event of importance to anyone but the people directly involved. They were NOT in combat; they were sight-seeing to catch a glimpse of the primitive BLACK natives of the island who were rumored to be cannibals and head-hunters and oh yes, naked and BLACK (don't forget that!). It is a point that is pounded into listeners.

    Due to pilot error, the plane crashes. A bunch of them get killed, including some women which, in WWII was a big deal because women weren't supposed to get killed in combat, or, more to the point, American women weren't supposed to get killed. Foreign women got killed all the time, but that was apparently of significantly less importance.

    The rescue is the most interesting part of the book since the location was not accessible by any ordinary means. It took a lot of planning and a good deal of cleverness. Otherwise, I was really underwhelmed.

    The author reads the material just fine. There could have been much more done with it had the narrator possessed the skill to differentiate voices, but the author's reading of his own work was more than adequate. I would not have liked it better even if it had better production values.

    I really didn't like the book. The author really needs some serious consciousness-raising.

    5 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sandra United States 01-04-13
    Sandra United States 01-04-13 Member Since 2007
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    "I am discovering that history is interesting!"

    Interesting, factual and sad (why do we feel compelled to ruin perfectly good societies just because they are not like ours?)

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ron Canada 11-30-12
    Ron Canada 11-30-12
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    "good book"

    An exciting tale from WW2, lost in a tropical valley of head hunters.
    Because its a true story it doesn't have all the violence, sex and rock and roll that you would expect, but it would have been a pretty harrowing experience. I would love to see the movie. A nice quick story and entertaining to boot!

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sintillator Flagstaff, AZ 11-06-12
    Sintillator Flagstaff, AZ 11-06-12 Member Since 2011
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    "Not Bad, But!"
    Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

    I would with the caveat that they understand what I found out. While the story is of interest on it's own I feel that the author did exactly what he sights in his recounting as a undesirable trait. That of building up a good story to a point of where it doesn't match the importance, hype or magnitude of what actually occured. "The most incredible rescue mission of WWll" hardly. Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" now that story fits and surpasses all the verbal hype you can use to describe that story.


    Would you be willing to try another book from Mitchell Zuckoff? Why or why not?

    Probably not unless I could research it better next time


    What three words best describe Mitchell Zuckoff’s voice?

    Ok but should have probably let someone with more range have this one.


    Do you think Lost in Shangri-La needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

    Absolutely not. He beat the hell out of everything the story could have possible offered.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Charles Vero Beach, FL, United States 07-09-12
    Charles Vero Beach, FL, United States 07-09-12 Member Since 2004
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    "Shangri-la Visited"

    Interesting story but it could be told in an hour, rather than 7 hours.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joan Guggemos 01-30-12 Member Since 2008
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    "It was OK"
    What did you like best about Lost in Shangri-La? What did you like least?

    Someone compared this to Unbroken. No comparison in my opinion. Unbroken was captivating and read like a novel. This was merely interesting.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Laurene New York 12-26-11
    Laurene New York 12-26-11 Member Since 2006
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    "Amazing true story"

    Late in WWII, a small plane of US troops went down in a remote part of what was then Dutch New Guinea. Only three survived the crash, including a beautiful, feisty WAC. The area was populated by Stone Age tribes who had had no contact with outsiders. They thought the Americans were spirits. Because the region was impossible to land in for any of the aircraft of the time, paratroopers were dropped in to help the survivors get out -- a group of Filipino-American soldiers who, as was often the case in those days, never got the credit they deserved.

    This is a great story, and very well-researched. The author even managed to find some of the original tribesmen who'd met the Americans and got their side of the story. (There were some comical cultural misunderstandings.) The author narrates the book, which made me hesitant, but he does a fine job. Maybe a professional actor could have done a little bit better, but a lot of times they're worse because they don't really understand the material. This is one case of author narration that works very well.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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