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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

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  •  
    Susan San Dimas, CA, United States 07-15-11
    Susan San Dimas, CA, United States 07-15-11 Member Since 2010

    I'm going from chapter to chapter in life. Some are definitely better than others!

    HELPFUL VOTES
    76
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    "Lost in a Long Tale"

    I was looking forward to hearing this story, especially after listening to Unbroken. Sad to say the story was nowhere near as captivating as Unbroken. I felt the author veered off too often into background history that did not add to the story. Usually I am sad to end a book. This time I was happy to be back from Shangri-La!

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    bebe South Carolina 07-08-11
    bebe South Carolina 07-08-11 Member Since 2009
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    Story
    "Riveting story"

    I was totally captivated by the story. An added bonus is that the author turned out to be an excellent reader - could not have been done better! I was so enthralled by the story that I did a Google search to find pictures of the survivors and other people mentioned in the book. There are some images of "Maggie", the female survivor. She was really something!

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Suzn F Fletcher, VT, US 02-06-12
    Suzn F Fletcher, VT, US 02-06-12 Member Since 2005

    I believe a reviewer should finish a book before submitting a review. What do you think?

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    Story
    "I'm Intrigued by other reviews"

    This is not they type of book I typically choose, but the description sounded interesting and I'm glad I gave it a try.
    I was really engaged by this story. I imagined what it must have been like to be a survivor of a plane crash in such a remote place. The amount of bravery and strength it took for these survivors to persevere was just miraculous.
    I too agree that there was a racist tone at least initially, but I also appreciate the growth expressed by the survivors. It can't be ignored that the survivors came to befriend the tribal members and that they came to truly respect their strength, kindness, creativity and intelligence.
    I also felt Mr. Zuckoff conveyed a great amount of sensitivity and insight towards the autonomy of the tribe. I was moved by how sadly he explained that the ways of modern world have now negatively impacted these previously self-sufficient happy peoples.
    I thought that this story was terrific on many levels.

    9 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer Otsego, MN USA 03-24-12
    Amazon Customer Otsego, MN USA 03-24-12 Member Since 2008
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    Story
    "So much potential . . ."

    I had high hopes for this book, but walked away disappointed. The story was fascinating and had a lot of potential, but . . .

    It got bogged down with details that were not pertinent to the story. The author went to excruciating lengths to tell us the most minuet details on even the most minor characters. Right when I was getting into the flow of the story, we took a rabbit trail on a particular person. When they were born, who their parents were, where they went to school, etc. Then in the next paragraph, that person is no longer apart of the story. This happened over and over. The story could have been shortened considerably and flowed much better if this was corrected.

    Overall, it had potential, but just didn't have the punch it could have.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Saman Houston, TX, United States 12-09-11
    Saman Houston, TX, United States 12-09-11 Member Since 2010

    sam_perera

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    "Magnificient"

    It is almost impossible to believe. But it is so real – as told by the author. How history passed over this wonderful adventure is hard to believe. I think someone in Hollywood is already making a deal to bring this real-life story to the silver screen. The book is wonderfully researched and written. If I have a fault, it is that the stories of the brave Pilipino paratroopers are never really explained beyond the cursory introductions. That is a shame. Otherwise this is one remarkable story that can never be forgotten. Thoroughly recommended.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David Lawrenceville, GA, United States 06-27-11
    David Lawrenceville, GA, United States 06-27-11 Member Since 2008
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    "Excellent Book and Very Well Read"

    This is a very interesting story that easily reads like a novel. It is very well written and very well read. The story has a cast of compelling characters and the author does a good job of developing their individual stories. As a 20th century history buff and particularly WWII, I was quite surprised that I had never heard of this survival story. I hated for the story to end. The author reads the book and I can say without a doubt that he is better than 90% of the professional readers I listen to on other audio books. This book would make an excellent movie. If I knew how to do it, I would contact Steven Speilberg and recommend he look into making it into a movie.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Steven PHILADELPHIA, PA, United States 06-01-11
    Steven PHILADELPHIA, PA, United States 06-01-11 Member Since 2004
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    "Great World War 2 Story"

    This is a great listen, that will hold your interest. Apparently, the author - Mitchell Zuckoff did a lot of research. Although the incidents were widely covered by the press in 1945, the story had subsequently petered out. The update on the people involved, was a nice way to end the book.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    HEINO Milton, FL, United States 07-28-11
    HEINO Milton, FL, United States 07-28-11 Member Since 2009

    Say something about yourself!

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    "There are better WWII stories"

    Read or listen to UNBROKEN it is much better than this story. "Lost in Shangri-La" is nice if you want to read about some rear echelon personnel who get stranded after a horrific aircraft crash in a non combat situation while site seeing. They have to survive in the jungle, but no cannibals try to attack or eat them, like the book reviews suggest. It is a daring rescue, but not a shot is fired. There are many better true stories about WWII that will keep you on the edge of your seat and have you marveling at the courage of those involved. For the military reader: don't waste your time with this junket trip.

    6 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Charles 01-02-14
    Charles 01-02-14
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    "Not as interesting as I would have thought"

    This is a straightforward historical account of an unusual event at the end of WWII. The facts are clearly laid out and the story is well crafted but somehow it misses the mark and fails to engage. I had to give up 2/3 of the way through due to boredom and a tendency to feel extremely sleepy whenever I listened. Sorry but it's true. Should/could have been fascinating but not for me!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Robert Houston, TX, United States 09-11-13
    Robert Houston, TX, United States 09-11-13 Member Since 2012
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    "An unbelievable story that turns out to be true"

    A very enjoyable story. The author/narrator gets both sides of the story, from the Americans and the natives, which makes it all the more interesting. Neither side really understood the other, but the misunderstandings fell neatly into place to prevent what could have been an awful end for the survivors.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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