TRIVIA TRAIL: SHANGRI-LA

Valley with rolling green hills clipart

Question: James Hilton’s famous novel, Lost Horizon, is about an idyllic, mysterious mountain community in Tibet, where people lived in peace and harmony isolated from the rest of the world. Its name was Shangri-La. Does such a place really exist?
Answer: If it does, no one has found it, but there is a valley nicknamed Shangri-La in what was once Dutch New Guinea and seventy years ago today, three American plane crash survivors were brought to safety after being stranded for six weeks in what was then a mostly uncharted area inhabited by cannibals and head-hunters.
In May of 1945, the war in Europe was over, but the war in Pacific was still going on. American troops stationed in New Guinea remained on alert, but still could take time out for relaxation. On May 13th pilot Colonel Peter Prossen and his co-pilot, Major George Nicholson, took a group of military personnel on a sightseeing air tour of the beautiful mountain valley known as Shangri-La. Others had made such tours without incident, but a combination of low-lying cloud, sudden gusting winds, and little room in which to manoeuvre, the C-47 transport plane nicknamed the Gremlin Special, crashed into a mountainside 165 miles from modern civilization.
The only survivors were First Lieutenant John McCollom, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker, and Corporal Margaret Hastings of the Women’s Air Corp (WAC), although Captain Herbert Good and two WAC privates, Laura Besley and Eleanor Hanna, also survived for a time before succumbing to injuries. Everyone else, including John McCollum’s twin brother Robert, was killed on impact. Margaret Hastings and Kenneth Decker (who was celebrating his thirty-fourth birthday that day) were burned and wounded too but, along with John McCollum, managed to struggle through the jungle to a clearing from which they were spotted by search planes. A Filipino-American rescue team led by Captain C. Earl Walter Junior, parachuted into the area on May 19th and 20th, with medics Camilo Ramirez and Benjamin Bulatao being dropped first to tend to the injured.
Fortunately for the survivors, the natives around the clearing in which they were found and the base camp the rescue team established some distance away were inclined to be friendly. Constantly at war amongst themselves, they tolerated the newcomers and granted them maga (safe passage) as they moved between camps. Food and medical supplies were dropped to keep both survivors and rescuers going until an area could be cleared for a glider to land in. In view of the impenetrableness of the jungle, and the survivors’ injuries, this was deemed the safest way to bring them out, though it too was quite hazardous. On June 28th, the survivors and medics boarded the glider and were picked up by a C-46, which towed them to safety and then made two return trips for the remaining members of the rescue team.
Older teens might be interested in Mitchell Zuckoff’s account of this rescue in the book, Lost In Shangri-La.

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