Return to Shangri-La
Research for his book about a plane crash that killed 21 people at the end of World War II leads a writer to an isolated New Guinea valley where three survivors had awaited a next-to-impossible rescue.
Halfway up the jungle-covered mountain, we came to a ravine spanned by a single log. The log was slick with rain-soaked moss, and a misstep would mean a plunge into jagged rocks 15 feet below. My barefoot guide scampered across and beckoned me forward.
Several thousand feet higher on the mountain was the wreck of the Gremlin Special, a US military transport plane piloted by a junior high school teacher from Medford that crashed in May 1945. Turning back would mean I wouldn’t see where 21 passengers and crew died and where two airmen and a member of the Women’s Army Corps began a quest for survival. I stood transfixed, my jaw clenched, the ripe smells of the rain forest reminding me of an overheated funeral parlor.
My journey from my home near Boston to this mountain on the island of New Guinea in early 2010 was the climax of my research into what, these days, might be the rarest find for a writer: an untold story from World War II.
In 1944, a pilot with the US Army Air Forces found a huge, verdant valley in the center of New Guinea where military maps said there were only mountains. Living there in complete isolation were tens of thousands of tribespeople who knew nothing of the outside world; they had yet to discover the wheel or pottery or clothing. They raised pigs and sweet potatoes, and they fought among themselves with spears and bows and arrows. When two war correspondents flew over the valley, they called it “Shangri-La,” a name borrowed from the peaceful Tibetan paradise in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon.
No planes could land safely in the valley, and helicopters couldn’t clear the surrounding mountains. A trek on foot from the military bases on the New Guinea coastline would pass through some 150 miles of territory occupied by headhunters and hiding Japanese troops. Flying overhead was the only way an outsider could see the place, and Allied personnel stationed throughout the Southwest Pacific clamored for spots on aerial sightseeing trips. Those who went received comically ornate certificates inducting them into the “Shangri-La Society.”
The flight of the Gremlin Special was supposed to be one such trip, a three-hour Sunday jaunt less than a week after the celebration of V-E Day. At the controls was Major George H. Nicholson Jr. of Medford, who’d received degrees from Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard. Before the war, Nicholson, 34, taught classics at Roberts Junior High School in Medford. When Nicholson couldn’t steer the plane through the treacherous mountain passes en route to the valley, the trip ended in tragedy for all but three of those aboard: a stoic lieutenant whose twin brother was killed in the crash, a wry sergeant who developed amnesia after a terrible head wound, and a free-spirited corporal who suffered awful burns and the loss of one of her close friends.
The book I was writing – called Lost in Shangri-La – would recount their adventure. It would include what happened when the three survivors met the natives, how a brave squad of paratroopers volunteered to protect them, how a Hollywood actor turned jewel thief turned filmmaker parachuted in to record the events, and how a cowboy colonel designed a half-mad rescue plan that called for gliders to be dropped to the valley floor then snatched back into the air by low-flying planes.
But I wouldn’t be able to write any of it if I took a swan dive off the slippery log. I’m in decent shape, but let’s face it: I’m a middle-aged writer with flat feet, not a mountain goat. My rubber-soled hiking boots were only making matters worse, preventing me from gaining traction on the curved, slimy wood. I thought about my wife back home, not only because I was frightened, but also because she’s a former gymnast with perfect balance. Never before had the phrase “Wish you were here” seemed so apt.
Abandoning my pride before a fall, I crouched down, intending to slide across on my belly. My guide, Tomas Wandik, who’d spent his entire life in this rain forest, had seen enough. He danced back across the log – my involuntary, ungenerous thought: Let’s see him navigate a traffic circle in Boston at rush hour – took both my hands, and, walking backward, led me across.
I found the story of the crash pretty much the same way the US Army found the valley: by stumbling across it while looking for something else. Rummaging through newspaper archives for another project, I came across a short item in the Chicago Tribune from June 1945. It explained that bad weather had delayed a plan to use gliders to rescue three plane crash survivors from an isolated New Guinea valley dubbed Shangri-La. I followed this lead to more articles in the Tribune and other newspapers recounting dramatic stories of the tribespeople, the paratroopers, the filmmaker, the rescue plan, and more.
It seemed too incredible to be true, especially because the story had been lost to history. Writers have made a cottage industry out of telling and retelling tales of World War II, but somehow this one had been almost overlooked. A pilot who dropped supplies to the survivors had published a collection of documents and his recollections, but that was it.
Over the next several years, I gathered a shelf of research materials: declassified Army documents, maps, anthropological accounts of the tribe, photos, and the original footage taken by the filmmaker, Alex Cann. I tracked down family members of the survivors and of the pilots, crew, and passengers killed in the crash. I found several amateur and community historians who had quietly collected materials on this story for years.
A lengthy diary kept by the female survivor, Corporal Margaret Hastings, turned up at a small historical society in upstate New York. Betty “B.B.” McCollom, widow of one of the male survivors, Lieutenant John McCollom, trusted me with a priceless cache of photographs. She also shared loving memories of her heroic late husband.
Along the way, I found the greatest prize of all, the sole surviving American participant in these events: Captain C. Earl Walter Jr., who, at 24, had led the paratrooper rescue team. When we met, Earl was 88 years old and living in a retirement home on the Oregon coast. His short-term memory wasn’t great. After flying cross-country to see him, I arrived to discover that he had forgotten about me and the plans we had made the previous week. He invited me inside anyway and phoned down to the kitchen to order me a lunch along with his own. It turned out to be chicken and vanilla ice cream, the same meal Margaret Hastings had wolfed down immediately before her ill-fated trip to Shangri-La. I took it as a good omen.
As soon as Earl and I began discussing the rescue mission, the white-haired man hunched in a cushioned recliner seemed to straighten into the strapping young paratrooper he’d once been. Sometimes he’d forget that he’d already told me part of the tale, but his account and his impressions were remarkably clear and consistent. Earl might tell a story twice, but he’d tell it the same way both times. After several hours, he showed me the honor he received for his efforts, the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest noncombat award, framed alongside the citation describing his bravery. I peered through dusty glass to read it aloud, then caught sight of Earl closing his eyes and nodding along with the words.
No matter how much I learned from Earl and my other sources, nothing would substitute for a trip to New Guinea. My destination was the world’s second-largest island, after Greenland, a tropical wonderland shaped like a prehistoric bird taking off from Australia. Specifically, I needed to travel inland to visit the Baliem Valley, the real name of the place I knew as Shangri-La.
During my research, I had befriended Robert Gardner, a Harvard anthropological filmmaker whose classic 1964 documentary Dead Birds focused on the inhabitants of the valley, the Dani people. On a visit to his studio in Cambridge, he told me only one man could help me.
“You need Buzz,” he said.
The son of American missionaries who had arrived in New Guinea in the 1950s, Buzz Maxey has spent much of his life in the valley and is one of only a handful of people on the planet fluent in English and Dani. At first, Buzz was skeptical. He’s highly protective of the Dani people, and he wasn’t interested in helping a writer take their stories and leave them with nothing. Rather than have me pay him for his time and his translation skills, he asked whether I’d support an AIDS education campaign he and his wife, Myrna, were launching in the valley. We had a deal.
Buzz’s mention of AIDS was my first clue as to how much the valley, though still remote, had changed since 1945. The western half of New Guinea, where the Baliem Valley is located, was controlled by the Netherlands in 1945. Today it’s a province of Indonesia called Papua. (The island’s eastern half is a separate country called, confusingly, Papua New Guinea.) The province has the highest rates of poverty and AIDS in Indonesia. Most natives have abandoned their traditional ways, along with their traditional dress of penis gourds and twine skirts, for Western castoffs. While driving around one day, Buzz and I spotted a young man wearing a T-shirt depicting Barack Obama. When we asked whether he knew the man’s identity, he smiled shyly and said no.
There’s a dust speck of an airport there now, in Wamena, the only town of any size in the valley. A garbage-strewn former Dutch government outpost, the best part about Wamena is leaving it to tour the rest of the valley. Ringed by emerald green mountains, divided by the Baliem River, dotted with hamlets of thatch-roofed huts, the valley looks much as it did when Earl and his squad of Filipino-American paratroopers dropped in to help Margaret Hastings, John McCollom, and the third survivor, Technical Sergeant Kenneth Decker.
Buzz had long been fascinated by the story of the Gremlin Special, and he knew the villages that had had the most contact with the crash survivors and the paratroopers. We headed in that direction, stopping along the way whenever we came across an old man or woman walking along the road. We showed them copies of the photos that Earl Walter and B.B. McCollom had given me; one after another, they identified the Dani people in the pictures by name, number of wives and children, and reputation in battle. (The photos showed few women, who mostly kept out of sight when the outsiders were around.) Their eyes went wide when they saw a photo of Yali Logo, a regional “big man” who commanded hundreds of warriors and hatched a plot to kill the intruders.
Eventually we came to an isolated village that was home to an old man Buzz was certain could help us. We crawled through the small entrance to a ramshackle hut and found Helenma Wandik, the Dani version of Earl Walter. Helenma’s eyesight was poor and his body was weak, but he vividly remembered when the creatures he and his tribesmen thought were ghosts or spirits came into their lives. He was the first person to tell me the full story from the Dani perspective. Among other valuable insights, Helenma cleared up the question of cannibalism among his people. He explained that his clan ate only the hands of its enemies, while other clans that he considered barbarians ate the entire bodies. I tucked my hands into my pockets and thanked him for the clarification.
I showed Helenma the photographs. He stopped short at one that depicted the first tribal leader to meet the survivors, a man the trio had nicknamed “Pete.” Helenma held the photo close to his face, studying it deeply. He stroked it with his long, bony fingers. When he finally spoke, Buzz translated: “This is my father.” Helenma’s eyes filled with tears, and he clutched the photo of Wimayuk Wandik to his chest. I told him to keep it. In return, he pressed a polished black stone into my hand.
In another village, I met his cousin Yunggukwe Wandik, who sat on the ground in a dirt courtyard for nearly an hour with her back to me. When she finally spoke, she burst out with a story about how a supply crate dropped to the survivors from a passing plane had crushed her first pig. Sixty-five years had not softened her rage.
Before leaving, I reached into my wallet. “On behalf of my country,” I told her with Buzz’s help, “I offer compensation for your lost pig.” She stuffed the bills inside her shirt.
When the log bridge was behind us, the route up the mountain to the crash site was relatively smooth. Tomas made sure I avoided any wrong turns off sheer cliffs.
Buzz, who was with us on the climb, had been to the site a number of times with his sons, Ben and Dani. Months earlier, they and one of the boys’ friends had dug up a dog tag that belonged to one of the Women’s Army Corps members killed in the crash. They’d also found buttons, belt buckles, and bullets.
Buzz began digging again almost as soon as we arrived; meanwhile, I gained my bearings.
The jungle had done its best to heal the scars where the Gremlin Special had plowed through trees, vines, and shrubs, then slammed into the moist earth before bursting into flames, cremating the bodies of those trapped inside. Yet there remained unmistakable signs of what had occurred. Mangled parts of the plane, a C-47 Gooney Bird, were all around us – a twisted propeller, sections of camouflage-painted wings, a large piece of the fuselage, countless screws, bolts, wires, and bits of ruined electronics. The fact that three people had survived the crash seemed more astounding than ever.
I dug my hand into the mud and pulled up a piece of melted brass that resembled a gnarled human form. As I tucked it into my backpack, I knew I would keep it close as I completed the book. It remains on my desk, an arm’s reach away, as I write this.
I dug in again and came up with what I thought was a rock, but Tomas knew better. He brushed away the mud and rolled it back and forth in his calloused hands. Buzz translated: “It’s a piece of bone. It’s human.” In 1958, a US Army recovery team had collected all the Gremlin Special remains it could find, but inevitably some were left behind.
I took the bone from Tomas and walked to an out-of-the-way spot at the edge of the crash site. I buried it at the base of a tree, driving a metal stake from the wreck into the ground to mark the spot. We stood in silence for a few moments, thinking about the men and women, the fathers, brothers, and sons, the sisters and daughters, the friends and comrades who had sought a day off from war, only to end up here forever.
Mitchell Zuckoff’s book Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II is being published this week by HarperCollins. He is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.