Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

10650333Nonfiction – eBook. HarperCollins, 2011. 432 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II”, Mitchell’s book recounts the 1945 effort to rescue an Army officer, a Women’s Army Corps officer, and an enlisted soldier after their plane crashed in present-day Papua, the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea. The two men and one woman were on board the C-47 plane along with 21 others for a sightseeing excursion, hoping to see the fabled giant cannibals of the newly discovered Hidden Valley (now known as Baliem Valley).

Despite the non-combat nature of the flight and its remote location, the military launched an all-out search to locate any and all survivors. As Mitchell explains, the Army was particularly eager to locate the WAC service members on board, seeing the mass casualty of women as particularly bad press. Given the rough terrain, though, search and later rescue required both unique thinking and the service of men who had been maligned and ostracized due to their race.

As much as I’ve read about World War II, books recounting military operations have never quite reached ‘must read’ status for me. I put off reading this one for years because I assumed it would be matter of fact, dry, and devoid of emotion. Which it certainly was when it comes to that first adjective.

But it turned out to be a captivating read, one where the history and reactions of the indigenous population of the valley, the Dani people, and the military’s rescue mission were given equal attention. The three survivors carried prejudices towards the indigenous people of Papua with them when they’re plane went down, and the snippets from Margaret Hastings’ diary document how their understandings evolved over time as they interacted with the Dani people.

Even so, Zuckoff’s research and interviews with those who remember the crash show how many misunderstandings still occurred. I really appreciated the additional context his book provided. It would be easy to read a Wikipedia entry on this crash and think you know the whole story.

Zuckoff’s writing style is rather basic and non-descriptive, and I felt the pictures (small as they were) were necessary in order to set the scene. But he did a great job maintaining a level of suspense throughout the book. I found myself wondering what happened and itching to Google the crash when I was forced to put the book down.

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