An amazing true-life story of a plane crash, survival and rescue from a hidden valley full of stone-age tribes who had had no contact with the outside world.
About: The Second World War was reaching its final stages. One of the important military bases in the Pacific theatre was on the island of New Guinea – the world’s second largest island whose inhospitable and mountainous interior was covered in dense jungle and was largely unexplored at the time. For staff on the base life was not easy. Even though they were well away from the front lines of the war, the climate was hot and extremely humid, jungle-related disease was rife, and there was constant pressure of work to support the war efforts.
To relieve the stress, local officers would try to arrange occasional leisure activities for their staff, and one of the favorites was to take sight-seeing flights around the island (as one of the main functions of the base was to provide supplies and logistical support via air, there was no shortage of planes and pilots on the island). An earlier flight had stumbled across a huge, hidden and unknown valley high up in the mountains, which was dotted with settlements of primitive people. The valley came to be nick-named Shangri-La.
On Mother’s Day, 1945, a plane took off with 24 military personnel on board, including nine WACs (Women’s Army Corps). Whatever the official paperwork may have said, this was a pleasure trip to fly over Shangri-La. But what ought to have been a relatively routine 300-mile round journey turned into a disaster. Due to pilot error, or freak winds, or some technical problem, the plane slammed into a mountain as they tried to navigate their way into the valley. Miraculously five people somehow survived the crash, though two of those did not live for long, and two more were badly injured and soon became gangrenous.
They found themselves in an awful predicament. While only some 150 miles away from the base, it felt like it could have been another planet. No-one knew where they were, the crashed plane was totally hidden from view by the dense jungle, and there were no roads or trails leading inland from the base. Indeed there weren’t even any accurate maps of the inland areas. And as the three found to their expense, it took hours of pain and enormous effort to travel hardly any distance at all through the terrible terrain of the mountainous jungle.
John’s Thoughts: What followed was an amazing story of determination, bravery, survival, first contact and ongoing interaction with feuding cannibalistic tribesmen, and an eventual remarkable rescue – carried out thanks to intrepid Filipino paratroopers and some incredible feats of flying. One of the three survivors was a beautiful young woman, and another was a man whose twin brother died in the crash. If you saw this plot in a movie you’d say it was too just fantastic to be true.
Zuckoff is an ex-journalist and it shows in the way that he has pulled the book together. With a mixture of determination and some good luck, he managed to get access to a wealth of personal journals, declassified army documents, personal photos and mementos, news reports from the time and even some original film footage – backed up by a trip to New Guinea and to the crash site, and personal interviews with families of the people involved. He then pulls it all together into a compelling narrative.
It is well done and makes for a riveting read. I suppose you might say that with a story like this he could hardly go wrong, but that would be churlish. He has clearly put a lot of work into researching the book, and the fact is that it’s taken over 65 years since the incident for the story to be told – so kudos to Zuckoff. There is an awful lot to like about the read, but my favorite parts were those dealing with the natives. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear about how they lived and their reactions to the strangers and the strange events suddenly happening in their hidden valley. Zuckoff does finish off the book by covering what has happened to the natives since their discovery, and also what happened to some of the key people in the story. If you are interested in reading about true-life adventures and primitive cultures, this book is definitely for you. I’d rate it 4 stars.
Author Bio: Mitchell Zuckoff’s honors include the 2000 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. His book Choosing Naia: A Family’s Journey was a Boston Globe bestseller and won the Christopher Award.
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