Book Review: Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuchoff (Three Stars)

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuchoff

(Three Stars out of Five)

In Lost in Shangri-la, author Mitchell Zuchoff pieces together a story, fifty years after the fact, which captured the attention of America during the waning days of World War Two. His research is thorough and his reporting accurate (we assume), unlike the hype the story got at the time.

In the late Spring of 1945, Nazi Germany had fallen, the big push to end the war in the Pacific had not yet begun (the invasions of the Philippines and Okinawa were underway), and the idle troops in Hollandia were taking joy rides (please, “navigation training”) over the jungles of Dutch New Guinea, the second largest island in the world. One such flight discovered a mountain-ringed valley, well-populated but apparently cut off from the world. It had actually been discovered a dozen years earlier, but the egotistical Americans assumed their primacy and dubbed it “Shangri-La” borrowing from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

A subsequent sight-seeing flight crashed in the mountains, killing most of the service members on board. Zuchoff explores the flight, the plight of the seriously-injured survivors, and the extraordinary effort made to rescue them from an area so high and so report that no normal means of transportation could reach it.

Well told. It has all the makings of a great movie. Exotic locale, violent death, extreme danger (natural and from thousands of Japanese soldiers is on the island), unknown (and presumed cannibalistic) natives, courage and heroism by the Filipino paratroopers who rescued the survivors, and a damsel in distress. Honest.

Most of the players acquit themselves with honor. There’s no real villain, though Hollywood would have no trouble making the self-promoting Col. Elsmore into one. He was what that generation called a “blow hard.” (Today a different bodily orifice might be referred to.) In typical military fashion, the undeserving got medals and promotions, and the real heroes were almost forgotten.

A very good read.