The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

In the thick of war, there are a few legitimate war stories that nonetheless have a People magazine-ish aspect to them. Mitchell Zuckoff’s well-told tale of survival after a WWII plane crash in the New Guinea rainforest is one of them, almost entirely because one of the few survivors was a beautiful young woman member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). To make it even more interesting, while the area was referred to as “Shangri-La,” it was, in fact, populated by a fractious, constantly warring population of previously uncontacted native peoples who sometimes engaged in cannibalism.

Although this is a fascinating story that almost tells itself, I have to give Zuckoff a lot of credit – he clearly did tons of research, and yet the book does not read like a research project. Well-written, with quotes from many different sources – including some of the native people who interacted with the survivors – Lost in Shangri-La is a fascinating account of an incredible adventure.

After a large valley was discovered in central New Guinea, U.S. Army personnel stationed in Hollandia (now Jayapura) New Guinea took short recreational flights to view the valley and glimpse the Dani tribal people who populated it. There were any number of hazards involved in these joyrides, however. The valley was at altitude, and it was surrounded by steep mountain ranges in such a way that the pilots had to know what they were doing and give their full attention to the journey. For some reason, that didn’t happen the day that the gorgeous Margaret Hastings, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, Lt. John McCollom, 19 other passengers, and 2 crew members cruised over the valley. Instead, the aircraft crashed. McCollom crawled out of the wreckage largely unscathed, although his identical twin Robert, sitting in another part of the plane, did not. Hastings and Decker made it out on their own despite injuries. Three others who survived the initial disaster perished soon thereafter.

John McCollom helped Decker, suffering from a head injury and burns, and Hastings, with painful burns on her legs, struggle to a clearing where they would be visible to searchers flying overhead. Just as they were spotted, they also encountered some of the warlike Dani tribesmen. How they managed this encounter is one of the more interesting parts of the book. Let’s just say they survived. But with gangrene setting in, Hastings feared losing her legs, and Decker’s life was endangered. An unhappily idle collection of Filippino-American paratroopers, led by a young and ambitious C. Earl Walter, Jr., who’d spent much of his childhood in the Philippines, was given the opportunity to participate in the rescue.

Walter sent down medics “Doc” Bulatao and “Rammy” Ramirez to help with the survivors’ immediate needs. Although McCollom and Walter are largely the heroes of this story, Bulatao and Ramirez really were the people who kept it from being even more of a tragedy. Without them, it was entirely possible that McCollom would have been the only long-term survivor. Their lack of recognition frustrated Walter, and Zuckoff did a good job of portraying their extremely important role in the rescue.

Still, there was no clear way to get them out due to the lack of roads, the difficulties with helicopters at altitude, and other issues. Under orders to “think of something” while others “thought of something,” Walter and another 8 Filipino-American paratroopers leapt into the jungle to help stabilize the situation with the survivors, ensure their safety, and prepare a just-in-case landing strip for an aircraft. Decker and Hastings were now mobile but nowhere near capable of the estimated 150-mile trek out of the valley. Interactions with the Dani became more difficult over time, and when a means of evacuation – by glider – was decided upon, the Hollandia headquarters crew decided to spend several days testing it. In the mean time, Alexander Cann, a journalist and professional character, decided to best his fellow reporters and parachuted down to join the small group.

Eventually, there was a rescue. How well it went is something for you to read about. I can’t imagine anyone not liking this book, so I’m going to give it my strongest recommendation.

There really weren’t any animal characters to speak of. Pigs played a special role in Dani society – they were valued as quasi-pets, as sources of wealth, and as meat – but that’s about it. So there’s nothing in particular to discuss in that regard.

Enjoy!

September 18, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, nonfiction, travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment