Toward the end of WWII , a U.S. military plane crashed in a remote valley of Dutch New Guinea, killing all but three of the 24 people on board. One survivor lost his twin brother in the crash. Another had a gaping head wound and severe burns. The third was Cpl. Margaret Hastings, a 30-year-old native of Owego, N.Y., who had enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps to see a bit of the world. Did she ever. As related by Mitchell Zuckoff in his grippingly cinematic account Lost in Shangri-La, the three GIs found themselves in a lush, inaccessible region populated by hostile tribes stuck in the Stone Age, spear-carrying warriors who lived communally, supposedly practiced cannibalism (particularly on their enemies), and were strangers to money and alcohol.
Zuckoff introduces us to a remarkable cast of characters, from the Dani clansmen to the Filipino-American paratrooper team who led the survivors’ rescue to the former Hollywood actor and Humphrey Bogart drinking buddy who parachuted in to film the escape and landed ”drunker than a hoot owl.” Thanks to the author’s thorough research, we also have a fuller sense of the culture clash in play. When the Dani seemed to grope the paratrooper squad, Capt. C. Earl Walter Jr. was convinced that the natives had mistaken his team for women and ordered his men to strip naked (”First time I ever had to do that to prove I was a man,” he said). But Zuckoff discovers that the natives, dressed more modestly with gourds covering their genitalia, had simply never seen clothing before. As one later recalled, ”We came close and felt the clothes and said, ‘That’s not mud!”’ A