Several years ago, journalist Mitchell Zuckoff came across an article about a World War II plane crash in New Guinea that had all the elements of an unforgettable story: There was a terrible accident in a harsh landscape, three survivors, a hidden world with a Stone Age existence, and a heroic rescue mission. Zuckoff tells that epic tale in a new book, Lost in Shangri-La.
The story is set against the unforgiving backdrop of New Guinea's high mountains, dense rain forests and thick clouds. At the time of World War II, much of the island was uncharted — hundreds of planes crashed there, and few were ever found. "New Guinea was sort of a graveyard for planes," Zuckoff explains.
His book is the story of one of the few crashes in New Guinea where survivors lived to tell the tale. The flight began as a sightseeing tour on May 13, 1945, when 24 men and women stationed in New Guinea boarded the Gremlin Special to fly over a hidden valley that had been nicknamed "Shangri-La."
"It's an enormous valley," says Zuckoff. "Forty miles long, 8 miles wide, and inhabited by anywhere near 100,000 to 120,000 tribesmen who were living basically a Stone Age existence."
The plane flew in low between the mountains so that the passengers could see the valley and the native villages and fields. The exact cause of the crash is unknown, but low-lying clouds obstructed the pilot's view and the plane slammed into the side of a mountain. One of the few survivors, John McCollom, was an Army lieutenant.
"The tail of the airplane had been broken off," he recalls, and "the fuselage had been flattened out to the point I could not stand up."
Seeing that the fuselage was on fire, McCollom wasted no time in jumping out of the plane and into the remote valley. "Standing around, I looked at my watch and said, 'This is a heck of place to be, 165 miles from civilization, all by myself on a Sunday afternoon.' "
But McCollom was not alone — four more passengers had also survived, though two of them later died. As a lieutenant, McCollom was the highest-ranking officer to survive; he was also the only passenger not to be injured. Zuckoff says that McCollum quickly took charge and made all the right decisions — even though his twin brother was among the dead.
"He knew his brother's body was burned inside the Gremlin Special right near him and he knew that he had to put that aside and make decisions," says Zuckoff.
McCollom led the two other injured survivors, Cpl. Margaret Hastings of the Women's Army Corp and Sgt. Kenneth Decker, on an arduous trek in search of a clearing, where they would have a better chance of being seen. After a journey through a dense jungle and down a steep, treacherous gulley, they finally reached an open area where they were spotted by rescue planes.
It was then that they first encountered the residents of the valley. Rumor had it that the local tribes were cannibals and headhunters, so McCollom was initially cautious as he approached their leader.
"There was a log running across this little gulley and he walked out on the log and I walked out on the log and we got closer together," McCollom recalls. McCollom instructed the group to smile, and luckily, the tribe leader smiled back. "He finally got real close and I reached out and grabbed his hand ... and he grabbed my hand ... and from then on we were all friends."
While the survivors were making friends with the men and women of the valley, rescue plans were getting under way. Filipino-American paratroopers under the command of Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr. volunteered to parachute into the valley and bring the survivors out — but there was a catch: Once the rescue team was dropped into the valley, there was no way to get them out.
But the paratroopers were determined to help. "They said bahala na was their gung ho motto, which means, 'Come what may,' " says Zuckoff.
By then, the story of the crash and the survivors had caught the attention of the media — journalists were particularly intrigued by the attractive young corporal, Hastings. Reporters joined the flights that showered provisions on the contingent of survivors and rescuers on the ground. And finally one day, documentary filmmaker Alexander McCann parachuted in, emboldened by a few drinks.
"He screws up his courage with a little bit of liquid courage, [and] just dives out the plane. He's swinging like a metronome because he is dead drunk on the way down," says Zuckoff. "He literally lands flat on his back in the valley and he starts filming almost the minute he is sober enough to open his eyes."
There, on the ground with the survivors, McCann was able to document the final rescue. After much consideration, it was decided that the only aircraft that could get in and out of the valley were gliders. At first, it seemed an unlikely choice, says Zuckoff. "Who among us said, 'OK, we have no way out, let's drop gliders into this valley a mile up off the ground?' "
Not ideal, but it was the best solution they had. Multiple gliders were sent down into the valley, and the survivors and paratroopers were strapped into them. The rescue mission then sent tow planes overhead, with hooks on their bellies, to snatch the gliders up into the air and bring the wounded survivors to safety.
It was a remarkable end to a remarkable story. Many years later, Hastings would tell an audience that when you have no choice, you have no fear — you just do what has to be done. That is, in many ways, the very definition of survival.