Tales of the South Pacific
COM prof pens heroic survival story from World War II| From Commonwealth | By Susan Seligson
Mitchell Zuckoff speaks about the story behind his book Lost in Shangri-La. Video courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers. Editing by Jake Shauli. Photo by Buzz Maxey
Mitchell Zuckoff knows a promising story when he sees one. But he concedes that his latest book is an embarrassment of narrative riches, a platter heaped high with heroism, history, human pathos and pluck, and nail-biting adventure.
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (HarperCollins, 2011) chronicles the May 1945 crash of the Gremlin Special, a plane carrying 13 U.S. servicemen and 11 members of the Women’s Army Corps on an R&R sightseeing flight over a valley frozen in time in the wilds of New Guinea. The wounded survivors were stranded among an isolated tribe, unable to gauge the potential dangers they faced.
Zuckoff, a College of Communication professor of journalism, former Boston Globe reporter, and author of several books, including Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, ventured deep in the equatorial rain forest to report the tale, which was widely covered at the time, but all but forgotten now.
The story is verifiable thanks to a trove of sources, from the recollections of a living survivor to a declassified U.S. Army report to a diary scrawled in secretarial shorthand.
In spite of a torrent of press accounts in the weeks following the crash, U.S. Army photos, and a crude documentary film, Zuckoff’s elegantly woven narrative is the first book about the events leading up to the ordeal, the trials faced by the two men and one woman who survived, and their fate after the story faded from the headlines.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the grueling, poignant, and ultimately redemptive story of three decent, gentle souls, and Zuckoff admits to falling in love with each of them. Lost in Shangri-La has been praised by both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.
Bostonia talked with Zuckoff about his research, his sources, and his slog through the rain forest.
Bostonia: Margaret Hastings’s diary provides much of the book’s day-to-day detail, yet you didn’t know how helpful it would be when you began your research. Where and how did you find it?
Zuckoff: A source like that, it’s what you dream about. Sadly, Margaret died in the late ’70s, but I had this 15,000- to 20,000-word diary of hers, which I found in the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego, N.Y. This wonderful historian, Emma Sedore, had transcribed it from secretarial shorthand. I knew it was there, but I didn’t know what form it existed in, and Emma couldn’t have been more helpful or kind. It was like she was waiting for someone to walk through the door in this tiny town so she could say to him, ‘Here’s the greatest gift you’ll ever find as a writer.’ It was a well-written and well-crafted narrative.
What was the trip to New Guinea like?
That was wild. I’ve traveled to a lot of strange and faraway places, and this was the most faraway. I flew from Boston to Hong Kong to Jakarta to Jayapura, then another flight on a small plane into the valley, through the same mountain pass where the plane crashed. As we headed toward the mountain, I thought, if my plane crashed, my agent would have been thrilled.
I was in the valley for almost two weeks. I went in January and February of 2010, though the crash was in May. But there really aren’t seasons in the valley; it’s an equatorial temperate zone. I climbed the mountain, a mile and a half hike, to see the wreckage. I was healthy, had not just suffered a plane crash, and I was exhausted.
One striking aspect of the story is how well the survivors behaved. Had you hoped to uncover some conflict?
You always look for conflict; it’s the nature of what we do. But I was very satisfied with how they ended up behaving, because John McCullom, one of the two male survivors, was such a thoroughly decent man. He’d just lost his inseparable twin in the plane crash and he held it all together, and that became a model for how Margaret and Ken Decker behaved—if McCullom could keep himself together, so could they. They trusted him because he was such a great leader.
You go easy on the Gremlin Special’s pilot, Colonel Peter Prossen, who showed bad judgment in leaving his seat and letting the less experienced copilot fly the plane moments before the crash.
I hope any close reading of the book will show that this was an error. I became friendly with Prossen’s son, who didn’t know that his father had left the cockpit. I got the declassified crash report very early in my research. John McCullom made clear that Prossen was standing in the radio compartment when the crash happened, that he’d left the controls to his less experienced copilot. It was a fatal mistake. One reason I didn’t feel the need to beat up on him was that he paid the ultimate price for that mistake.
Were any of the sources you contacted resistant or uncooperative?
Not one. Not a single person. I called people out of the blue and said, ‘Hi, I’d like to talk about your dead uncle or your dead aunt,’ and they sent me all this material. I kept waiting for someone to say, ‘This is a family tragedy, please leave us alone.’ But I kept getting off the phone with the feeling that they were waiting for me to call. They couldn’t have been more helpful and generous and grateful.