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"Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff

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NONFICTION REVIEW: "Lost in Shangri-La"

  • Article by: JANICE HARAYDA
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 19, 2011 - 7:42 PM

Less than a week after Germany surrendered in World War II, a military plane crashed into a mountainous rain forest in New Guinea where pythons grew to 15 feet and natives were believed to practice cannibalism. On board were 24 servicemen and members of the Women's Army Corps. Twenty-one passengers died on impact or soon afterward.

The survivors included John McCollom, whose twin brother, Robert, had perished in the crash. The two had joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps together as aerospace engineering students in the Class of 1942 at the University of Minnesota, where they managed the hockey team.

"They could only afford one set of books, so they'd shared them," Mitchell Zuckoff, a former Boston Globe reporter, writes in his new book, "Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II" (Harper, 384 pages, $26.99).

John McCollom, a lieutenant, had to assume command after the crash because he outranked the other two survivors, Tech. Sgt. Ken Decker and Cpl. Margaret Hastings of the WACs. On the evidence of "Lost in Shangri-la," he rose superbly to his task, which included leading his injured companions to a clearing in the jungle where rescue planes might see them more easily.

McCollom's strategy paid off when he and the others were spotted a few days later. But their joy gave way to more complex emotions when they learned from the medics and others who parachuted into the area that nobody knew how to get them out. Military officials considered many ways of extracting the group -- blimp, helicopter, seaplane, trek to the coast -- but rejected all as too risky.

In this exciting and fast-paced book, Zuckoff tells the parallel stories of the Army's attempt to bring everyone home safely and the survivors' efforts to live with gangrene, spear-wielding natives and the knowledge that thousands of armed Japanese were hiding on the island. He adds layers of interest by piecing together facts from letters, scrapbooks, film footage, declassified Army documents and other sources.

No one can know what McCollom felt when paratroopers hiked to the wreckage and buried the victims while chaplains in a plane circling overhead read prayers broadcast by walkie-talkie to the survivors' campsite. When asked about the crash years later, McCollom often said simply, "I was lucky." His companions were similarly fortunate to have as their leader a man about whom survivor Margaret Hastings said, after recovering from a bout of nerves: "It shames me to the core to think that even in hysteria, I doubted him for a moment."

Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, runs the One-Minute Book Reviews blog.

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