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A WWII Survival Epic Unfolds Deep In 'Shangri-La'

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A WWII Survival Epic Unfolds Deep In 'Shangri-La'


A WWII Survival Epic Unfolds Deep In 'Shangri-La'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

A few years ago, journalist Mitchell Zuckoff was doing research when he came across an article about a World War II plane crash in New Guinea. It had all the elements of an unforgettable story - a terrible accident in a harsh landscape, three survivors including a beautiful young woman, a hidden world where people were still living in the Stone Age, and an daring rescue mission.

Now Zuckoff tells that story in his new book, "Lost in Shangri-La," and NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: New Guinea has an unforgiving landscape - high mountains often shrouded in clouds, surrounded by dense rainforest. In World War II, much of it was uncharted. Hundreds of planes crashed there, says Mitchell Zuckoff, and few were ever found.

Mr. MITCHELL ZUCKOFF (Author, "Lost in Shangri-La"): New Guinea was sort of a graveyard for planes.

NEARY: Mitchell's book is the story of one of the few crashes where survivors live to tell the tale. The flight began as a sightseeing tour on May 13, 1945. Twenty-four men and women stationed in New Guinea headed out to fly over a hidden valley that had been nicknamed Shangri-La.

Mr. ZUCKOFF: It's an enormous valley - 40 miles long, 8 miles wide, inhabited by anywhere near a hundred to a hundred and twenty thousand tribesman who were living basically a Stone Age existence.

NEARY: The plane flew in low between the mountains so that the passengers could see the valley and the native villages and fields. No one knows the exact cause of the crash, but low-lying clouds obstructed the pilot's view, and the plane slammed into the side of a mountain.

In an interview 15 years ago, one of the survivors, John McCollom, recalled the moments after the crash.

Mr. JOHN McCOLLOM: The tail of the airplane had been broken off. The fuselage had been flattened out to the point I could not stand up. I could see it was burning up in front. So I wasted no time getting out and jumped out on the ground. Standing around, looked at my watch and said, this is a heck of place to be, 165 miles from civilization, all by myself on a Sunday afternoon.

NEARY: But McCollom was not alone. Four more passengers had also survived, though two of them later died. McCollum's twin brother, who was also on the plane, was among the dead.

As a lieutenant, McCollum was the highest ranking officer. He was also the only survivor who was not injured. Zuckoff says McCollum quickly took charge and made all the right decisions.

Mr. ZUCKOFF: He knew his brother's body was burned inside the Gremlin Special right near him, and he knew that he had to put that aside and make decisions like - we need to move away from the plane. And then, when everyone tells you that you should stay with the wreckage, you are more likely to be found, he understood that he had to get them somehow to a clearing, to somewhere where they had a chance of being seen.

NEARY: McCollom led the two injured survivors, Corporal Margaret Hastings of the Women's Army Corps, and Sergeant Kenneth Decker, on an arduous trek through dense jungle and down a steep, treacherous gulley into an open area where they were finally spotted by rescue planes.

It was then that they first encountered the natives of the valley. Rumor had it that they were cannibals and headhunters. So, as John McCollom told an interviewer, he proceeded with caution when he met up with their leader.

Mr. McCOLLOM: There was a log kind of running across this little gulley, and he walked out on the log, and I walked out on the log. We got closer together. And I said, everybody smile. And he smiled. And finally gets real close, and I reached out and grabbed his hand like that and he grabbed my hand. From then on, we were all friends.

NEARY: While the survivors were making friends with the natives, rescue plans were getting under way. Philippine-American paratroopers under the command of Captain C. Earl Walter Jr. volunteered to parachute into the valley and bring the survivors out, but there was a catch.

Mr. ZUCKOFF: The superior officer said, well, look, if we drop you guys in there, there's just one thing, we have no idea how we are going to get you out. They said - "bahala na" was their gung-ho motto, which meant come what may.

NEARY: By then the story of the crash and the survivors began getting the attention of journalists, who were particularly intrigued by the attractive young corporal, Margaret Hastings.

Reporters joined the flights that showered provisions on the growing contingent of survivors and rescuers on the ground. And finally, one day a documentary filmmaker parachuted in.

Mr. ZUCKOFF: He screws up his courage with a little bit of liquid courage and just sort of dives out the plane, and he's swinging like a metronome because he is dead drunk on the way down. And he just - he literally lands flat on his back in the valley and starts filming almost the minute he's sober enough to open his eyes.

NEARY: It was this filmmaker who documented the final rescue. After much consideration, it was decided that the only aircraft that could get in and out of the valley were gliders. At first, says Zuckoff, it seemed an unlikely choice.

Mr. ZUCKOFF: Who among us said, okay, wait a second. We have no way out. Let's drop gliders into this valley a mile up off the ground, and then let's have these other planes come by with hooks on their bellies and snatch these gliders back into the air. And oh, yeah, and we have to do it multiple times because we can't fit everybody on each glider.

Unidentified Man #1: Everyone is strapped in. They take a deep breath and hang on. Here comes the tow plane, low and fast. Lower and lower, now full power, bang, they're on. They're hooked. There they go.

NEARY: It was a remarkable end to a remarkable story. Many years later, Margaret Hastings would tell an audience when you have no choice, you have no fear, you just do what has to be done. That is, in many ways, the very definition of survival.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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