It’s 1945. The War is winding down, but there are still bases, well, everywhere, including in New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean. Because New Guinea is not the most exciting place to be, they host occasional morale-boosting airplane tours to “Shangri-la”–an untouched, pristine, and gorgeous valley in the middle of rugged, inhospitable mountains (on a rugged, inhospitable island), just recently discovered. In May, a plane carrying 24 soldiers and members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), crashed en route to Shangri-la. Only three survived. They have to fight unknown jungles, injuries, grief, and natives who may or may not be friendly. And figure out a way to get home.
Unlike other survival books, and unlike what I expected this book to be, it actually doesn’t take very long (relatively, that is–it probably seemed like an eternity to the survivors) for the Army to find them–it’s getting them out that’s the problem. They’re in a valley with no place to land an aircraft, air too thin for a helicopter, and an impenetrable jungle. They have burns and gangrene. They don’t speak the native language, obviously. It takes dedication and plenty of gumption to save them, and for a time before the War ended, they were front page news, since it was easy enough for planes to fly near them, drop them radios and food, and stay in contact.
This is a surprising and well-written book. A full 35% of the Kindle version is sources, which should tell you something about the research. I really enjoyed the research that went into the perceptions of the white people by the natives, whose lives had been unchanged for thousands of years. I mean, what would you think if all of a sudden people with skin a completely different color landed from the sky into the no-man’s land between tribes? I’d be terrified! Zuckoff has lots of quotes from natives who remember that moment from their youth, and recount their memories and the reactions of various tribe members. There are lots of cross-cultural misunderstandings, but the relationship is generally friendly and helpful.
Rating: 4/5 This is a fascinating read. Zuckoff is a good writer who easily transitions from descriptions of aircraft to character development. He has clearly done his research by both interviewing survivors and digging through the last 60 years of news about “Shangri-la”. I admit I know nothing about New Guinea (except that it’s currently really, really not a great place to live) and this was a great primer, not to mention a great story. I’m not sure it’s the most “incredible rescue mission of WWII”–that seems like a pretty high bar, after all–but it sure is interesting. Also there are lots of photographs!