Review | Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff

In the closing months of World War II, twenty-four serviceman and WACs climbed aboard a military transport plane for a day of sightseeing over a recently discovered “hidden valley” deep in the interior of Dutch New Guinea. Surrounded by high, jungle covered mountains and far from civilization, the valley was home to natives undiscovered by western civilization, war-like tribesman rumored to be  cannibals.

As the flight approached the valley–called “Shangri-la” after James Hilton‘s best-selling novel Lost Horizons–things went horribly wrong for the pleasure tour, and the plane crashed, killing all but three of the passengers. What followed was a tale of survival and heroism as the survivors trekked from the mountainside crash site, hidden beneath the jungle canopy, to find help.

Michael Zuckoff’s tale about the survival and rescue of Margaret Hastings, John McCollom, and Kenneth Decker from the untracked New Guinea jungle is a fascinating adventure in one of the last unmapped places on the planet. At a time when the world was at war, aviators and soldiers made a daring plan to retrieve them.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (P.S.) is one of the faster pieces of non-fiction I read in 2012, but was worth the time. Instead of contemplating the weighty and heavy issues a lot of history dwells upon, Lost in Shangri-La focuses more on the human element, profiling the participants in the crash and the rescue. Separated by some seventy years, it’s hard to imagine a time when anywhere on the planet is inaccessible, let alone unmapped. It would be decades before satellites made GPS-devices possible, and even to this day the hidden valley the tour group was intending to view is accessible only by plane.

In addition to interviews with survivors, newspaper clips, and US Army records of the event, Zuckoff draws on interviews with the natives who met the survivors after their crash, many for whom it was their first contact with anyone outside of their secluded valley.

If you’re looking for a unique and fascinating narrative historyLost in Shangri-Lais an interesting and fascinating read, thoroughly researched and well written. It’s relatively short and I thought it was an easy read.


Overall Rating3 of 5 stars false

Parent’s guide:

  • Sex: Not really. This happened in the 1940s, see?
  • Violence: A plane crashes killing nearly all the passengers. The three who survive are burned, injured. It’s a chilling scene, but not violent.
  • Language: None.
About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.

  • Byron W. Smith

    I thought this was an interesting read also….almost more of an adventure ride at times. When you remind yourself that this valley existed for thousands of years with little or no contact from the “outside”, it is an interesting view into anthropology, culture, and the basic nature of “man”.

    • No doubt. It was a closing of an age that saw the exploration of all the corners of the Earth, and I would have loved to hear more about the people who lived there. I couldn’t help but see echos of “Mysterious Island” or “King Kong” in the description of the valley.