In 1945, a group of 24 U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Dutch New Guinea took a pleasure flight over the mountains, hoping to catch a glimpse of the native villagers who lived there in isolation from the modern world. That glimpse became something totally different when the plane crashed, killing all but three aboard. The survivors were left on their own, unable to summon help. The nearby natives could help—or kill them on sight. In Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff tells what happened.
Zuckoff writes in a straightforward, journalistic style that makes the book a quick and easy read. He assembled his narrative from interviews with the survivors, the medics and paratroopers who came to their aid, and people of the Dani tribe that they met. The account is thorough, offering background on most of the people on the plane and involved in the rescue. He writes of the history of the Dani people and how they interpreted the sudden appearances of planes in the sky and the strange white people who wandered into their area.
I accepted this book for review because I love survival stories, but as a survival story, Lost in Shangri-La is only moderately interesting. Once the plane crashes, it only takes a few days for the survivors—WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings, Lieutenant John McCollom, and Sergeant Kenneth Decker—to be seen by a search party. Those few days are harrowing, but the sense of jeopardy does not last long. Once they’re spotted, they quickly get food and medical help. The challenge of getting them home is a problem to be solved, but not a life-threatening one.
The really fascinating material involves the Dani tribe and their reaction to the survivors’ presence. The one previous encounter Europeans had with native people of this area was poorly documented and ended badly. What especially intrigued me about this whole encounter is how the experience ran counter both to what the Americans feared and to modern-day stereotypes of native cultures. The survivors expected to find savage giants; instead, they met friendly villagers. There were plenty of cultural misunderstandings, sometimes with comic results, but both groups were eager to get along. What’s interesting is that the friendliness was partly built on a larger cultural misunderstanding. The appearance of the survivors was startlingly similar to a myth of white spirits coming from the sky to bring the end of days. What’s more, the people were not necessarily as peace-loving as we sometimes imagine indigenous cultures to be. In fact, their entire culture was built on violent conflict with neighboring tribes. These wars had no clear motive; they appeased the spirits of the dead in some way.
Zuckoff describes the encounter in a clear even-handed way, not spending a lot of time on analysis. This is not an intense anthropological study, although I imagine this encounter would make great material for such a study, as would the long-term effects of this incident on Dani culture.
Another interesting side story involves the work of Filipino-American soldiers and their contributions to the rescue effort that were largely ignored in the media of the time. The person who was not ignored by the media was WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings. Newspapers do love a pretty girl, and they had one to write about, so write they did.
On the whole, this was an entertaining book about a little-known historical incident. It’s an easy, light read that I enjoyed less for the survival story and more for the meeting of cultures.