Lost in Shangri-La: Escape from a Hidden World - A True Story

Lost in Shangri-La: Escape from a Hidden World - A True Story
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An utterly gripping non-fiction adventure narrative, 'Lost in Shangri-La' is an untold true story of war, anthropology, survival, discovery, heroism, and a near-impossible rescue mission.Three months before the end of World War II, a U.S. Army plane flying over New Guinea’s Baliem Valley crashed in uncharted mountains inhabited by a Stone Age tribe. Nineteen passengers and crew were killed and two were mortally wounded. But somehow three survived: a lieutenant whose twin brother died in the crash, a sergeant who suffered terrible head wounds, and a beautiful member of the Women's Army Corps.Hurt, unarmed and afraid, they prayed for deliverance - from their wounds, from the elements, and from the spear-carrying, Dani tribesmen who roamed the mountains, men who were untouched by modernity. For seven weeks, the survivors experienced one remarkable adventure after another, until they were rescued in a truly incredible mission.Rounding out the true-life cast is a rogue filmmaker who’d left Hollywood after being exposed as a jewel-thief; a smart-alek pilot who flew best when his plane had no engine, and a cowboy colonel whose rescue plan seemed designed to increase the death toll. Using a huge range of sources, including first hand accounts from the survivors themselves, Mitchell Zukoff exposes the enlightening and terrifying adventure of three individuals lost on uncharted soil and the relationships they built not only with each other, but also with a lost civilization.

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Lost in Shangri-La

Escape from a Hidden World


For Gerry



Title Page

A Note to the Reader

A Note on the Text

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1 - Missing

Chapter 2 - Hollandia

Chapter 3 - The Hidden Valley of Shangri-La

Chapter 4 - Gremlin Special

Chapter 5 - Eureka!

Chapter 6 - Charms

Chapter 7 - Tarzan

Chapter 8 - Gentleman Explorer

Chapter 9 - Guilt and Gangrene

Chapter 10 - Earl Walter, Junior and Senior

Chapter 11 - Uwambo

Chapter 12 - ‘Chief Pete’

Chapter 13 - Come What May

Chapter 14 - Five-by-Five

Chapter 15 - No Supper Tonight

Chapter 16 - Rammy and Doc

Chapter 17 - Custer and Company

Chapter 18 - Bathtime for Yugwe

Chapter 19 - ‘Shoo, Shoo Baby’

Chapter 20 - Hold the Front Page!

Chapter 21 - Promised Land

Chapter 22 - Hollywood

Chapter 23 - Gliders?

Chapter 24 - Two Queens

Chapter 25 - Snatch

Epilogue After Shangri-La

Cast of Characters

The Filipino Regiments

Notes on Sources and Methods


Select Bibliography



About the Author

Also by Mitchell Zuckoff


About the Publisher


NEAR THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, a us Army plane flying over the island of New Guinea crashed in an uncharted region inhabited by a prehistoric tribe.

In the weeks that followed, reporters raced to cover a tale of survival, loss, anthropology, discovery, heroism, friendship, and a near-impossible rescue mission. Their stories featured a beautiful, headstrong corporal and a strapping, hell-bent paratrooper, stranded amid tribesmen reputed to be headhunters and cannibals. They told of a brave lieutenant grieving the death of his twin brother; a wry sergeant with a terrible head wound; and a team of Filipino-American soldiers who volunteered to confront the natives despite knowing they would be outnumbered more than a thousand to one. Rounding out the true-life cast were a rogue filmmaker who had left Hollywood after being exposed as a jewel thief; a smart-aleck pilot who flew best when his plane had no engine; and a cowboy colonel whose rescue plan seemed designed to increase the death toll.

Front pages blazed with headlines about the crash and its aftermath. Radio shows breathlessly reported every development en route to an astonishing conclusion.

But the world was on the brink of the Atomic Age, and a story of life and death in the Stone Age was soon eclipsed. In time, it was forgotten.

I came across an article about the crash years ago while searching newspaper archives for something else entirely. I set it aside and found what I thought I was looking for. But the story stayed with me. I began doing what reporters call ‘collecting string’ – gathering pieces of information wherever possible to see if they might tie together.

News reports and official documents can talk about the past, but they cannot carry on a conversation. I dreamed of finding someone who had been there, someone who could describe the people, places and events firsthand. More than six decades after the crash, I located the sole surviving American participant, living quietly on the Oregon coast with vivid memories and an extraordinary story.

That discovery, and the interviews that followed, led to an explosion of string that wove itself into a tapestry. Among the most valuable items was a daily journal kept during the weeks between the crash and the rescue attempt. A lengthy diary surfaced, along with a trove of priceless photographs. Three private scrapbooks followed close behind, along with boxes of declassified Army documents, affidavits, maps, personnel records, military bulletins, letters, and ground-to-air radio transcripts. Relatives of more than a dozen other participants supplied more documents, photos, letters and details. Perhaps most remarkably, the trail led to several thousand metres of original film footage of the events as they unfolded.

Next came a trip to New Guinea, to learn what had become of the place and the natives; to find old men and women who had witnessed the crash as children; and to walk to the top of a mountain where pieces of the plane still rest, along with bones and belongings of some of those who died there.

As I write this, on my desk sits a melted piece of metal from the plane that resembles a gnarled human form. It’s a tangible reminder that, as incredible as this story seems, every word of it is true.



THE EVENTS DESCRIBED IN THIS BOOK TOOK PLACE on the western half of the island of New Guinea in 1945. At that time, that portion of the island was known as Dutch New Guinea and its capital, on the northern coast, was called Hollandia. The area known at the time as Hidden Valley or Shangri-La is located approximately 240 kilometres southwest of Hollandia. Today, the former Dutch New Guinea is a province of Indonesia called Papua (not to be confused with Papua New Guinea, which is an independent country on the eastern portion of the island). Hollandia is now the city of Jayapura. Shangri-La or Hidden Valley is called the Baliem Valley.

Quoted material throughout the book has been left in its original form; in most cases, that means US spellings and units of distance and measure.

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