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Amazing Shangri-La rescue story

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
Mitchell Zuckoff talks about his new historical novel, a true story from World War II called "Lost in Shangri-La."
Mitchell Zuckoff talks about his new historical novel, a true story from World War II called "Lost in Shangri-La."
  • Mitchell Zuckoff talks about his new historical novel, a true story called "Lost in Shangri-La"
  • It sheds light on a largely forgotten WWII plane crash's victims on a secluded island
  • Zuckoff spoke with Earl Walter, the man who led the rescue for the crash survivors

Editor's note: Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor of journalism at Boston University. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Fortune and other national publications. He is a former special projects reporter for the Boston Globe, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting. You can find out more about him on his website.

(CNN) -- It's an amazing but largely forgotten tale from the waning days of World War II. A U.S. military plane on a sightseeing trip crashes in a remote rainforest in New Guinea, killing all but three of the 24 men and women on board.

The survivors find themselves trapped in the jungle, caught between enemy Japanese troops and a tribe of man-eating headhunters. One survivor lost his twin brother in the crash, another has a gaping head wound and severe burns.

The third is not your typical action hero. Margaret Hastings is a feisty 30-year-old corporal in the Women's Army Corps. Plans for a daring mission to rescue the trio unfold, involving gliders, a crack paratrooper squad and a heroic cowboy commander.

This is Mitchell Zuckoff's "Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II."

The new historical novel, which is a hot seller and receiving heaps of critical praise, gives Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" a run for its money as a riveting work of narrative nonfiction. Zuckoff is a journalism professor at Boston University and a former reporter at the Boston Globe.

CNN talked to the author about his book. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: "Lost in Shangri-La" is an unbelievable story. Can you tell me how you first learned of it and then decided to write a book about it?

Zuckoff: I was researching a different World War II story when I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune from June 1945 that knocked me for a loop. The article explained that a military plane had crashed in an impossibly remote valley of New Guinea that had been nicknamed Shangri-La.

Twenty-one people had been killed, but three survivors -- two soldiers and a beautiful member of the Women's Army Corps -- were awaiting rescue by giant gliders that were supposed to be dropped to the valley floor, then snatched back into the air by passing planes.

I'm only half-kidding when I tell you that I wouldn't be much of a reporter if I hadn't stopped everything to read that article! I was stunned that I had never heard about this, and apparently no one else had, either.

I knew immediately that it was worth pursuing, but I didn't know -- and I wouldn't know for more than a year -- whether I'd be able to collect enough documentary material and human sources to turn it into a book.

CNN: This is an amazing but lost chapter from WWII. Why have we never heard about this story before?

Zuckoff: I've spent a lot of time wondering about that myself. My best guess is twofold. First, the events I describe in "Lost in Shangri-La" took place only weeks before the United States dropped the atom bombs on Japan and the war ended.

Those events swept over many of the more quirky, human stories of the war, including this one. Also, the participants in this story never sought to capitalize in any way on their experiences.

All had suffered losses of friends, and in one case, a twin brother who died in the crash, so they didn't want to exploit this for fame or money.

CNN: There are a number of amazing people in your book, but tell us more about Margaret Hastings.

Zuckoff: Margaret was a remarkably independent woman, especially for 1945. She was a great beauty, with lots of suitors, but she was more interested in finding out what she was capable of doing on her own. That's why, as she neared 30, she joined the Women's Army Corps rather than marry one of the many men pursuing her in her hometown of Owego, New York.

She had never been anywhere farther from her home than Atlantic City, and she wanted to see the world and take part in the great effort and adventure of the war.

I got the sense that when she made it to New Guinea, despite the hardships of serving in a tropical war zone, she was very proud of herself and very happy that she had joined the WACs.

CNN: You found and talked to the man who led the rescue of the crash survivors?

Zuckoff: Discovering that Earl Walter was still alive made all the difference in this book. In 1945, Earl was a dashing young paratrooper captain eager to get into the action of the war. His father was leading a group of Filipino guerrillas in the jungles of the Philippines, and Earl wanted to prove that he was every bit as much the fighting man as his old man.

So getting his story -- and the journal that he kept while he was in the valley of Shangri-La, leading the rescue effort -- was crucial. Earl was 88 when we met (he turns 90 later this month, and I've been invited to the party) and he couldn't have been more gracious and more generous.

He described the people, places and events in rich detail, in ways that no documents could match. Maybe best of all, he's a lot of fun to hang around with, which made interviewing him a treat.

CNN: I understand you traveled to the real "Shangri-La" in New Guinea for the book. This is a part of the world most of us will never see -- what was it like?

Zuckoff: Nowadays, the place the survivors and rescuers knew as Shangri-La is called the Baliem Valley. It's still magnificently beautiful -- a verdant valley surrounded by soaring, jungle-covered mountains. I hiked to the top of the mountain where the plane crashed -- the wreckage is still there -- and I got a great sense of just how difficult it was for the survivors.

Unfortunately, especially in the one small town that has sprung up, called Wamena, there's a lot of poverty among the native people. The Indonesian government has helped (the eastern half of New Guinea is now a province of Indonesia), but there remain a great many needs in terms of education and health care.

CNN: This seems like a story tailor-made for Hollywood. Any plans to bring your book to the big screen?

Zuckoff: Thanks for saying so. My agent is talking with Hollywood-type folks about this, but at the moment we don't yet have a deal.

CNN: "Lost in Shangri-La" has received a slew of praise and positive reviews. You must feel very gratified.

Zuckoff: Boy, I'll say. Sending a book out into the world is a lot like sending your child to the first day of kindergarten. You hope the other kids play nice and that she makes friends. So, right now at least, I feel like a proud father as my kid plays happily in the sandbox.

CNN: What did you take away from your experience writing the book?

Zuckoff: I was tremendously impressed by what so many of the participants considered routine behavior, but I considered true heroism and great fortitude. The survivors went through so much, and lost so many people they cared about, yet they held it together and plowed ahead.

The rescuers put themselves in danger time and time again. And this might sound odd, but even the tribespeople were courageous. It was their practice to kill their enemies, yet under one leader named Wimayuk Wandik, they decided instead to care for these strange creatures who fell from the sky. I often wondered what I would have done had I been in the same situation as any of them.

CNN: What do you hope readers will get from reading "Lost in Shangri-La"?

Zuckoff: I hope readers will enjoy learning about an incredible adventure that had been lost to history. I also hope they consider the clash of cultures that I tried to point out between the modern soldiers and the prehistoric warriors, and how in some ways civilization hasn't advanced as much as we might like to think.

CNN: What's next for you?

Zuckoff: My editor and my agent keep asking that same question! I'm narrowing down a few ideas for my next book, and I hope to get back to work soon.

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