A WWII Survival Epic Unfolds Deep In 'Shangri-La' In May 1945, a plane carrying 24 men and women crashed into a hidden valley in New Guinea. There were only three survivors. Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff tells the remarkable story of their rescue in Lost In Shangri-La.

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

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

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Sgt. Kenneth Decker (from left), Cpl. Margaret Hastings and Lt. John McCollom were the only three survivors of the Gremlin Special crash. They are pictured above at the U.S. Army station in Hollandia, New Guinea, shortly after their rescue. B.B. McCollom hide caption

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B.B. McCollom

Sgt. Kenneth Decker (from left), Cpl. Margaret Hastings and Lt. John McCollom were the only three survivors of the Gremlin Special crash. They are pictured above at the U.S. Army station in Hollandia, New Guinea, shortly after their rescue.

B.B. McCollom

Several years ago, journalist Mitchell Zuckoff came across an article about a World War II plane crash in New Guinea that had all the elements of an unforgettable story: There was a terrible accident in a harsh landscape, three survivors, a hidden world with a Stone Age existence, and a heroic rescue mission. Zuckoff tells that epic tale in a new book, Lost in Shangri-La.

The story is set against the unforgiving backdrop of New Guinea's high mountains, dense rain forests and thick clouds. At the time of World War II, much of the island was uncharted — hundreds of planes crashed there, and few were ever found. "New Guinea was sort of a graveyard for planes," Zuckoff explains.

His book is the story of one of the few crashes in New Guinea where survivors lived to tell the tale. The flight began as a sightseeing tour on May 13, 1945, when 24 men and women stationed in New Guinea boarded the Gremlin Special to fly over a hidden valley that had been nicknamed "Shangri-La."

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

"It's an enormous valley," says Zuckoff. "Forty miles long, 8 miles wide, and inhabited by anywhere near 100,000 to 120,000 tribesmen who were living basically a Stone Age existence."

The plane flew in low between the mountains so that the passengers could see the valley and the native villages and fields. The exact cause of the crash is unknown, but low-lying clouds obstructed the pilot's view and the plane slammed into the side of a mountain. One of the few survivors, John McCollom, was an Army lieutenant.

Lost in Shangri-La
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt

"The tail of the airplane had been broken off," he recalls, and "the fuselage had been flattened out to the point I could not stand up."

Seeing that the fuselage was on fire, McCollom wasted no time in jumping out of the plane and into the remote valley. "Standing around, I 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.' "

But McCollom was not alone — four more passengers had also survived, though two of them later died. As a lieutenant, McCollom was the highest-ranking officer to survive; he was also the only passenger not to be injured. Zuckoff says that McCollum quickly took charge and made all the right decisions — even though his twin brother was among the dead.

"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," says Zuckoff.

McCollom led the two other injured survivors, Cpl. Margaret Hastings of the Women's Army Corp and Sgt. Kenneth Decker, on an arduous trek in search of a clearing, where they would have a better chance of being seen. After a journey through a dense jungle and down a steep, treacherous gulley, they finally reached an open area where they were spotted by rescue planes.

Cpl. Margaret Hastings (right), the lone female survivor, was a media favorite. At a press conference after the rescue she quipped, "I'd like a shower and a permanent." B.B. McCollom hide caption

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B.B. McCollom

Cpl. Margaret Hastings (right), the lone female survivor, was a media favorite. At a press conference after the rescue she quipped, "I'd like a shower and a permanent."

B.B. McCollom

It was then that they first encountered the residents of the valley. Rumor had it that the local tribes were cannibals and headhunters, so McCollom was initially cautious as he approached their leader.

"There was a log running across this little gulley and he walked out on the log and I walked out on the log and we got closer together," McCollom recalls. McCollom instructed the group to smile, and luckily, the tribe leader smiled back. "He finally got real close and I reached out and grabbed his hand ... and he grabbed my hand ... and from then on we were all friends."

While the survivors were making friends with the men and women of the valley, rescue plans were getting under way. Filipino-American paratroopers under the command of Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr. volunteered to parachute into the valley and bring the survivors out — but there was a catch: Once the rescue team was dropped into the valley, there was no way to get them out.

But the paratroopers were determined to help. "They said bahala na was their gung ho motto, which means, 'Come what may,' " says Zuckoff.

By then, the story of the crash and the survivors had caught the attention of the media — journalists were particularly intrigued by the attractive young corporal, Hastings. Reporters joined the flights that showered provisions on the contingent of survivors and rescuers on the ground. And finally one day, documentary filmmaker Alexander McCann parachuted in, emboldened by a few drinks.

Mitchell Zuckoff is the author of Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend. He is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Suzanne Kreiter hide caption

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Suzanne Kreiter

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

There, on the ground with the survivors, McCann was able to document 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, it seemed an unlikely choice, says Zuckoff. "Who among us said, 'OK, we have no way out, let's drop gliders into this valley a mile up off the ground?' "

Not ideal, but it was the best solution they had. Multiple gliders were sent down into the valley, and the survivors and paratroopers were strapped into them. The rescue mission then sent tow planes overhead, with hooks on their bellies, to snatch the gliders up into the air and bring the wounded survivors to safety.

It was a remarkable end to a remarkable story. Many years later, Hastings would tell an audience that 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.

Excerpt: 'Lost In Shangri-La'

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
Lost in Shangri-La
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Hardcover, 400 pages
List Price: $26.99

The cabin crumpled forward toward the cockpit. The walls of the fuselage collapsed as though sucked inward. Both wings ripped away. The tail section snapped off like a balsa-wood toy. Flames shot through the wreckage. Small explosions rang out like gunshots. Black smoke choked off the light. The air grew bitter with the stench of burning metal, burning leather, burning rubber, burning wires, burning oil, burning clothes, burning hair, burning flesh.

One small mercy was that Nicholson had managed to point the nose of the plane skyward in his attempt to clear the ridge, so the C-47 hit the mountain at an upward angle instead of head-on. As a result, although fire rushed through the cabin, the Gremlin Special didn't explode on impact. Anyone not immediately killed or mortally wounded might stand a chance.

When the plane burrowed through the trees, John McCollom flew across the center aisle, from the left side of the plane to the right. He lurched forward by momentum, turning somersaults as he fell. He momentarily blacked out. When he came to, he found himself on his hands and knees halfway up the cabin toward the cockpit, surrounded by flames. Driven by instinct, he searched for an escape route. He saw a flash of white light where the tail had been. The roof of the cabin had flattened down like a stepped-on tin can, so he couldn't stand. He crawled toward the light, landing on the scorched earth of the mountain jungle, disoriented but with barely a scratch.

McCollom began to comprehend the horror of what had happened. He thought about his twin brother and the twenty-two others on board — all trapped inside and dead, he believed. As he rose to his feet outside the broken plane, he told himself: "This is a heck of a place to be, 165 miles from civilization, all by myself on a Sunday afternoon."

When the Gremlin special hit the mountain, Margaret bounced through the cabin like a rubber ball. Her first impulse was to pray. But that felt like surrender, and Margaret wasn't the surrendering type. She grew angry. She knew it wasn't rational, but as she tumbled she took it personally, indignant that her dreamed-of trip to Shangri-La had been spoiled by a plane crash. And she still hadn't seen any natives.

When she stopped tumbling and regained her senses, Margaret found herself lying on top of a motionless man. Her fall had been cushioned by his body. She tried to move, but before he died the man had somehow wrapped his thick arms around her. Whether he'd tried to save her or simply grabbed on to whatever was closest to him wasn't clear. Either way, Margaret was locked in a dead man's grip. She felt flames licking at her face, feet, and legs. The air filled with the acrid scent of sizzling hair. Again Margaret thought of relaxing, giving up. Then her fury returned, and with it her strength.

She pried loose the man's hands and began to crawl. She had no idea whom she was leaving behind or which way she was heading — back toward the missing tail or ahead toward the crushed cockpit and into the inferno. As she crawled toward her hoped-for salvation, she didn't see anyone else moving or hear anyone speaking or moaning inside the burning cabin. Whether by luck or divine intervention, she chose the right direction for escape.

Margaret stumbled out the torn-open rear end of the fuselage onto the jungle floor.

"My God! Hastings!" called John McCollom, who'd come out the same way less than a minute earlier.

Before Margaret could answer, McCollom heard a WAC scream from inside the plane: "Get me out of here!"

The Gremlin Special was now fully aflame. McCollom doubted it would explode, but he wasn't sure. Without hesitating, the Eagle Scout–turned–Army lieutenant scrambled back inside, crouching beneath the smoke and fire, avoiding and ignoring the heat as best he could. He inched his way along, following the WAC's pleading voice.

"Give me your hand!" he ordered.

A moment later, Margaret watched as McCollom led out her friend Laura Besley. McCollom placed the WAC sergeant on the fire-seared ground, turned around, and headed back inside the burning fuselage.

He fought his way through the smoke toward Private Eleanor Hanna, who'd sat next to Laura Besley, directly across from him and Margaret. Eleanor had been badly burned, far worse than Margaret or Laura. Her hair still crackled with burning embers when he carried her out.

By now, McCollom's hands were scorched and his hair was singed from rescuing the two WACs. Otherwise, remarkably, he remained unhurt. Still, he couldn't go back for a third rescue mission — the fire raged higher and hotter, and one explosion after another echoed from inside the wreckage. He doubted anyone inside could still be alive.

Startled by a movement, McCollom looked up and saw a man walk woozily toward him from around the right side of the plane. Any hope that it was his twin brother quickly faded. He recognized Sergeant Kenneth Decker — McCollom supervised Decker's work in the drafting room of the Fee-Ask maintenance department. Decker was on his feet, but dazed and badly hurt. Margaret saw a bloody gash several inches long on the right side of Decker's forehead, deep enough to expose the gray bone of his skull. Another cut leaked blood on the left side of his forehead. Burns seared both legs and his backside. His right arm was cocked stiffly from a broken elbow. Yet somehow Decker was on his feet and moving zombielike toward them.

"My God, Decker, where did you come from?" McCollom asked.

Decker couldn't answer. He would never regain any memory of what happened between takeoff at the Sentani Airstrip and his deliverance into the jungle. Later, McCollom would find a hole on the side of the fuselage and conclude that Decker had escaped through it, though he also thought it possible that the sergeant had been catapulted through the cockpit and out through the windshield.

As he walked unsteadily toward McCollom and Margaret, Decker repeatedly muttered, "Helluva way to spend your birthday."

Margaret thought he was talking gibberish from the blows he'd taken to the head. Only later would she learn that Decker was born on May 13, 1911, and this really was his thirty-fourth birthday.

Turning back to the three surviving WACs, McCollom saw Margaret standing fixed in place, apparently in shock. He set aside his hollowness, his feelings of unspeakable grief at being alone for the first time in his life. The situation was clear. McCollom was the least injured among the five survivors, and though he was only a first lieutenant, he outranked Decker and the three WACs. McCollom steeled himself and assumed command.

He snapped: "Hastings, can't you do something for these girls?"

Laura Besley and Eleanor Hanna were lying next to each other on the ground where McCollom had placed them. Margaret knelt by Eleanor. The bubbly young WAC private from rural Pennsylvania didn't seem to be in pain, but Margaret knew it was too late to help her. The fire had seared off all her clothes, leaving Eleanor with vicious burns over her entire body. Only her cherubic, fair-skinned face was unscarred.

Eleanor looked up with pleading eyes and offered Margaret a weak smile.

"Let's sing," she said. They tried, but neither could make a sound.

Laura Besley was crying uncontrollably, but Margaret and McCollom couldn't understand why. She seemed to have suffered only superficial burns.

McCollom heard someone yell. He scrambled around the right side of the plane to a spot where he could see Captain Herbert Good lying on the ground. McCollom knew that he was the reason that Good was aboard the Gremlin Special. That morning, McCollom had bumped into Good at the base in Hollandia. Affable as always, McCollom asked Good, a member of General MacArthur's staff, whether he had afternoon plans. Good was free, so McCollom invited him to join in the fun on a trip to Shangri-La.

Captain Good looked unhurt, so McCollom beckoned him to join the other survivors. Good didn't seem to hear him, so McCollom started fighting through the smoldering undergrowth in his direction. Decker followed, not fully alert but instinctively wanting to help or to stay close to McCollom. Maybe both.

As they edged closer to Good, flames exploded from fuel tanks in the torn-off wings, which had remained close to the fuselage. When the flames subsided, McCollom rushed to Good. But it was too late — Good was dead. McCollom never learned whether he'd been killed by the explosion or from previous injuries suffered in the crash. When McCollom reached Good's body, he learned why the captain hadn't moved when McCollom first called: his foot was tangled in the roots of a tree.

There was nothing they could do for the Ohio husband, church leader, oil salesman, and World War I survivor. They left Good's body where it fell, hunched on the ground amid brush and branches a few feet from the wrecked plane, his head tilted awkwardly to one side. Good's right arm, bent at the elbow, reached downward toward the moist ground.

No one else emerged alive from the C-47 Gremlin Special, bound for Shangri-La on a Sunday-afternoon pleasure flight.

Excerpted from Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff. Copyright 2011 by Mitchell Zuckoff. Excerpted by permission of Harper, a division of HarperCollins, Inc. All rights reserved.