Thursday, September 06, 2012

2012 Book 21: Lost in Shangri-la

Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff is an account of a rescue mission during World War II to save 3 survivors who were stranded in the mountains of New Guinea during a sight seeing trip. At the time, this area was unchartered territory full of war-oriented tribes who had lived untouched by the outside world. It was an area full of dangers like cannibals and enemy Japanese troops. The plane that crashed lost 21 people, one of the survivors, John McCollum, lost his twin brother.

This was an interesting story for me since I have a personal connection to New Guinea: my parents {and much of my extended family} were missionaries there in the 70s and 80s. I lived in the Mount Hagen {which is referenced in the book, but the area the plane crashed was more remote} until I was six. My family returned for a visit when I was 13 and then my husband and I visited again in 2004.

The book was intriguing. The only way to reach the survivors was to parachute in. The rescue team was a group of Filipino Americans who had little experience actually jumping. To get the survivors out, they had to wait until wounds healed and then they used a technique of landing a glider in the mountainous terrain and then the plane that "dropped" the glider off had to come back to "catch" the glider using a rope hung across a sling attached to the glider and a hook attached to the plane in order to pull it out. The alternative would have been to actually march out through a completely unknown area.

Definitely an interesting story. Especially considering that two of the survivors had extensive injuries.

I think I probably read too many true accounts of adventure or maybe it is because I have traveled to and stayed in remote villages in PNG, but I didn't feel like the telling of the story was as interesting as it could have been. Over the years I have heard some pretty crazy stories from various family member's wild experiences in PNG. I even have a couple of my own stories. Odds are if you have visited this country you have a good story to tell... 

This book felt like it was mostly fact telling, which is a shame because in New Guinea, to tell your story is a very important part of the culture and I don't know that this book did justice to the story.

Excerpts from the book:
The island was a gift-box assortment of inhospitable environments... The New Guinea terrain was so forbidding that the most common experience for its inhabitants was isolation. Pockets of humanity carved out small places to survive, fighting with anyone who came near and often among themselves...

"Probably after the war the Dutch government will send an expedition into the valley or missionaries may penetrate it, so until then the natives... will know nothing of the white man except that he flies a big bird that makes lots of noise. Who knows, maybe they are much better off the way they are. At any rate, I am sure if they knew of the turmoil in which we are now engaged (WWII), they would be happier to stay ignorant of the 'civilized' world."  – letter home from William J. Gatling Jr.

New Guinea's jungles were boundless cemeteries of unmarked military graves...The weather and terrain account more more [downed] airplanes than combat flying.

Margaret, McCollum, and Decker had crashed-landed in a world that time didn't forget. Time never knew it existed.

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