In author Mitchell Zuckoff’s hands is a piece of melted metal, a fragment of 70-year-old mangled wreckage that remains in a valley in New Guinea where a C-47 Skytrain crashed into a mountain in 1945. He twirls the object he describes as “a gnarled human form,” as he considers it a symbol of loss, a miraculous rescue and the meeting of two vastly different cultures in a virtually forgotten story from World War II told in his book, “Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.”
An article in the newspaper archives diverted Zuckoff’s attention about five years ago from another book project to a remote valley in what was then Dutch New Guinea populated by primitive, cannibalistic natives. The article told about a near-impossible rescue mission of three U.S. servicemembers who had miraculously survived the crash.
Zuckoff tracked down the only surviving key player in the story at a retirement home in Oregon and got his hands on journals, photographs and scrapbooks of the adventure, but it was an interview with the son of the Dani tribesman who befriended the survivors that got the former Boston Globe reporter even more excited about the project.
During his visit to what is now the Baliem Valley in New Guinea, Zuckoff showed Helenma Wandik a photo of the village leader the survivors called “Pete,” who befriended them after the plane crash. The man turned out to be Wandik’s father, and Wandik gave the author the Dani people’s perspective of the story. Zuckoff was so enthralled by the interview that he put the transcript on a thumb drive and went to nearby Wanema and sent it to his agent, his wife and his closest friend, along with some rather urgent instructions.
“I told them, ‘This is so priceless that, God forbid, if something happens to me, somebody else has to finish this book,’” Zuckoff said. “‘And you have to include this guy’s perspective, even if you include nothing else from my trip here.’ That was how valuable I thought this was, that it was just priceless stuff.”
In 2010, Zuckoff and guide Buzz Maxey visited the mysterious valley surrounded by steep mountain peaks the 24 servicemembers on board the C-47 on May 13, 1945 knew as “Shangri-La.” It was first called that by two war correspondents, who borrowed the name from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon.”
Five days after V-E Day that celebrated the end of the war in Europe, the C-47, called the Gremlin Special, left the base in Hollandia on New Guinea’s northern coast about 2:15 p.m. on a morale flight over Shangri-La. It crashed into a mountain near the valley entrance 45 minutes later, killing all but six instantly. Three others died of their injuries, leaving only three survivors – Lt. John McCollum, whose twin brother died in the crash, Sgt. Kenneth Decker and Women’s Army Corps Cpl. Margaret Hastings. Decker hurt his head badly in the crash, and Hastings suffered blistering burns on her face, feet and legs.
Hastings’ friend, Laura Besley, was one of the three who died after the crash. Hastings’ diary proved invaluable for Zuckoff’s book, as evidenced by her expression of emotions after the death of her friend. All Hastings could think about were her friend’s shoes because of the severe burns on her feet.
“I ought to have cried,” Hastings wrote. “I just sat there in shock, and all I could think was, ‘Now the shoes belong to me.’”
“As a writer, the mistake would have been to try to bring up the violins because that’s not how she wrote it,” said Zuckoff, now a journalism professor at Boston University. “She wrote it with such simple power. She knew she should cry. She knew she should feel bad and mourn her friend’s loss. But at that moment, she needed those shoes to survive. I felt it was so real. She wasn’t trying to make herself seem like a better person than she was. That was a key moment for me. I remember thinking from my first time reading the diary that I really understood the kind of person Margaret must have been to write it that way, and that was really magical.”
Three days after the crash, the three survivors reached a clearing, where they were spotted by a search plane, and they first encountered natives from the Uwambo village. This was a pivotal moment because neither side knew what to make of the other. The natives hadn’t yet discovered the wheel and knew of no number higher than three, but they also believed in an old legend that predicted white ghosts would visit and signal the end of the world. This superstition saved the survivors’ lives.
McCollum met the village leader on a log over a small gulley and ordered Decker and Hastings to stand and smile, and they offered the only food they had – candies called Charms. Soon, they were shaking hands with the natives.
“I remember my feeling the first time I learned of that moment, like it could have gone so badly,” Zuckoff said. “Another man, a guy who just wanted to be macho, or maybe who just misread the situation could have gotten them all killed, and that would have been the end of the story. It was an incredible moment, where everybody’s got to trust. Everybody’s got to decide what am I going to do on this log? Am I going to push the other guy off the log, or am I going to meet him halfway? Am I going to reach out my hand, or am I going to reach out my weapon? For me, that was absolutely a pivotal moment in telling, for me, what was the subtext of the book – the shared humanity of this story.”
The U.S. Army Air Forces knew rescue was going to be difficult. There was no place to land an airplane in the valley, and helicopters were out because the air was too thin. Also, thousands of Japanese soldiers lay in hiding between the survivors and the sea. A group of Filipino-American paratroopers in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, led by Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr. descended on the valley to help the survivors while the Army worked a seemingly crazy rescue mission that involved Waco CG-4A gliders being towed by a C-47. The paratroopers had a simple motto: “Come what may.”
Zuckoff found Walter in Oregon, and his recollections, coupled with Hastings’ diary, form the core of “Lost in Shangri-La.”
“I feel like I know (the paratroopers) through Earl,” Zuckoff said. “When he told me about them, it was so clear that he had such love for them, the kind of love between men who served together and did something extraordinary. He had such admiration for them, and it was easy for that to rub off on me.
“These guys were committed to doing something in this war. The way young men can be, they were chomping at the bit to do their part. So this mission came up – an impossibly low jump into terrible, swirling winds, and not knowing if you would be met by a hail of arrows and spears on your way down. The story has been embraced by the Filipino-American community who love the story because they feel the bravery of the Filipino-American hasn’t been told. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have been able to make that part of the book.”
Walter, who was 88 when Zuckoff interviewed him, died in February 2014.
While the paratroopers were helping the survivors, Col. Ray T. Elsmore was directing the most unconventional rescue effort. Zuckoff describes the 322nd Troop Carrier Wing commander as “a cowboy with a can-do sense of mission,” and he eventually proved it with the rescue by glider in Shangri-La. The glider would land in the valley, then be snatched into the air by a hook attached to a C-47 flying less than 20 feet from the ground. It would take three missions to rescue the three survivors and paratroopers.
“It was completely crazy,” Zuckoff said. “There’s no way this should have worked. In several of the tests, everything was going wrong at sea level in near-perfect conditions. I’m still in awe of this decision. The craziest thing to me was they had to do it three times.”
By the time they were rescued, a legendary warrior named Yali Logo was plotting with tribesmen to kill the survivors and paratroopers.
Zuckoff treasures the relationships he’s developed with many of the people he interviewed for the book like Walter and McCollum’s widow. But nothing comes close to the emotions he felt while visiting the place where the Gremlin Special crashed in Shangri-La.
“I’ve been a reporter for a long time, and I’m not a soft touch,” he said. “I don’t believe in false emotion. But having spent as much time as I had researching these people, I could tick off each one of the names from memory and each one of their stories. Being up there, digging through that mud and coming across a piece of human remains, it really set me back and knocked me on my heels a little bit.”
The piece of metal has remained on Zuckoff’s desk since his return from Shangri-La, and he expects it will stay there for the rest of his life.