This Month’s Travel Book of the Month is Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. Set in 1945 New Guinea the war is drawing to a close and a contingent of Army air corps in a remote base is becoming bored and restless. In an attempt to raise morale the commanding officer starts offering aeronautical joy rides to the newly discovered valley Shangri-La, a name inspired by Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Despite requiring a proficient level of skill to fly into the high mountain valley, the sightseeing trips became routine until May 13th 1945 when a combination of inexperience and over-confidence led to the crash of the C-47 plane with 16 soldiers and 8 female WACs (Women’s Army Corps) onboard. The crash resulted in the death of 21 and left the remaining 3 survivors badly wounded and stuck in an inaccessible valley.
The valley, now called the Baliem Valley, had no air fields, lakes or rivers large enough to land a sea plane and the high altitude mountain air was too thin for helicopters. The option of walking to the sea involved over 150 miles of near impenetrable jungle, harsh mountain terrain, warring prehistoric tribes believed to be cannibalistic head hunters and large pockets of heavily armed Japanese soldiers. The journey would have been a several week hardship for a healthy well-equipped group, but suicide for this small group of ill-equipped and injured soldiers. The valley was not going to relinquish the survivors easily so a plan more in line with a Hollywood block buster script than a military operation, was born out of desperation. An under appreciated group of Filipino- American paratroopers was given the go ahead to parachute medical personnel and security forces in to insure the health and safety of a pretty young WAC and two Army air corpsmen and to help with the most daring rescue in military history. All to be documented by a former Hollywood actor/ jewel-thief turned war photographer who drunkenly parachuted into the valley independent of the on-going rescue.
All of the action takes place against the backdrop of a primitive tribe armed with stone age tools. The natives who’d lived their lives unchanged and unaware of the world war raging around them, are suddenly thrust into the modern age. Tribal politics threaten the lives of the survivors and their rescuers as the strangers are seen as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy which states that white spirits shall climb down out of the sky on vines and will usher in the end of time.
Lost in Shangri-La is an enjoyable adventure tale of survival filled with danger, excitement and humor. It contains all of the elements of an adventure blockbuster, primitive lands, cannibals, “damsels” in distress, and a daring military rescue that would make for great fiction, but all the better because it is a true story.
Happy reading and safe travels,
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