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August 11, 2011

Book Notes: Rescued from Shangri-La

— One of the great legacies of World War II was the sheer volume of human interest stories that conflict bestowed upon us. Whether it was a soldier performing valiantly in battle or a woman entering the workforce on the home front, it’s hard to find anyone who lived through that era that doesn’t have an intriguing story to tell.

But despite the thousands of books written on just about every aspect of WWII there will always seems to be a new enticing nugget popping up that flew under the radar. A recently published title examines one such tale.

Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor at Boston University, has just published a fascinating tome, “Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and The Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.” Zuckoff stumbled on to this narrative while researching another book. He decided he had to come back to it, and the result is a mindboggling story that reads like a “can’t put down” novel.

“Shangri-La” is a hidden canyon (now called Baliem Valley) located high in the mountains of New Guinea. New Guinea is just northeast of Australia and is known for its thick jungle terrain. What many people (like me) did not realize is that it has mountain peaks rising to more than 14,000 feet above sea level.

In this jungle morass that sometimes evokes images of a South Seas paradise sits a valley that has been separated from civilization for presumably thousands of years. A society exists there that has remained essentially unchanged since the stone-age.

Tabbed “Shangri-La” when it was spotted from the air in 1938 it remained unknown to most of the world until late in the war.

It was re-discovered in 1944 by a U.S. air corps pilot stationed at Highlandia (now Jayapura) on the north coast of New Guinea. It eventually led to regular sight-seeing flights for the military personnel at Highlandia in an effort to break the boredom of life there.

These pleasure trips provide the basis of “Rescue from Shangri-La.” On one of theseexcursions the pilot lost control of the plane and crashed into the side of a mountain.

Of the 24 people on board only three survived, and two of them suffered severe burns and other life-threatening injuries.

The dilemmas the three survivors faced seemed impossible to overcome. Not only did they have to deal with their post-crash maladies but the thick jungle terrain made it almost impossible to gain proper footing.

They were also 150 miles from “civilization” with the duel prospects of either running into cannibals or rogue Japanese troops.

What followed is a tale of resilience, determination, and heroism. Zuckoff does a terrific job of describing the situation and personalities involved in this odyssey in a straightforward manner. He understands that there is no need to hype a story that can stand on its own merits.

The narrative has the added benefit of having a local spin to it. One of the survivors was Margaret Hastings, who hails from Owego. Her sense of adventure led her to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps during the war and volunteer for duty overseas. Her part in the whole affair was elevated by the national press (who jumped at the story when made aware of it) since she was the only female among the survivors and team of rescuers.

In addition to offering an incredible story of survival and rescue, “Lost in Shangri- La” provides a great geography lesson, an introduction to primitive cultures, and numerous biographies of “ordinary” people who served their country during World War II. It’s one of the most intriguing books about the conflict and certainly one of the most fascinating. I highly recommend it.