Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

2011. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 384 pages.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

Author Mitchell Zuckoff recounts the story of three survivors of a 1945 plane crash in a remote area of New Guinea. The passengers of the doomed flight had been planning to see a legendary valley, nicknamed “Shangri-La” by some, which was inhabited by native people cut off from the wider world.  It was a sightseeing trip intended to give members of the Hollandia base some rest and relaxation. Many of the passengers were members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

After the crash, Margaret Hastings, John McCollum and Kenneth Decker are the only survivors. Zuckoff recounts their experiences, as well as the risky rescue actions taken by a small group of mostly Filipino-American paratroopers, and a couple of glider pilots.

In addition, Zuckoff chronicles the Americans’ encounters with the native people of New Guinea, and how each group of people’s worldviews shape their interactions.


World War II is a seemingly inexhaustible source of incredible stories. Every few years I will read a book that reveals another new facet to that era, as with Nechama Tec’s Defiance, which was about the Bielski Partisans in Belarus.

What makes Lost in Shangri-La stand-out are a number of elements. First, it’s set in New Guinea, an island with a reputation for remote regions and native people “untouched by time”. Then, there are all the elements I mentioned in the synopsis: WAC’s, cross-cultural interaction, gliders, paratroopers, and so on.

Zuckoff is able to tell a lot of the story based on primary sources. Margaret Hastings, one of the survivors, kept a diary of the time. Others involved gave interviews before they died or wrote letters. Zuckoff was able to interview one of the Americans that was there on the ground during the rescue. He was also able to interview, via translator, several of the native people of New Guinea who were children at the time of the plane crash.

I think the story greatly benefits from being written in today’s era. Whereas the media of the time barely acknowledged the heroic actions of the Filipino-American paratroopers, Zuckoff highlights their contribution to World War II, and to this rescue mission in particular. Where the media and the military of that time were often condescending and ignorant regarding the native people, Zuckoff is able to illuminate the native people’s culture and worldview.

Indeed, my favorite aspect of the novel is how I got to see both sides of the cultural interaction, and the weird ideas both groups of people had about the other. It’s very refreshing to know both sides of an encounter, and amazing to get both sides in a story over 60 years old.

I have little criticism for the writing which I thought was organized and well-balanced between the big-picture and meaningful, vivid details. I did think the beginning was a bit artificially theatrical as Zuckoff tried to build the reader’s suspense. Even after the crash event, Zuckoff sometimes had the tendency to spell out the significance the moment, when it didn’t seem necessary for me. But for some readers, this very same tendency might be the kind of flair they need or want, so it really comes down to one’s taste.

Overall, however, I found Lost in Shangri-La was a really engaging nonfiction read and worthy of its popularity. It also made me want to read more books set in New Guinea and other books about the Pacific front of World War II, which I often feel gets overlooked by the more well-trod ground of the European theater.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bookfoolery and Babble – “While I would not say Lost in Shangri-La is the most exciting survival book I’ve ever read, nor a favorite, I enjoyed the reading and would say it’s above average as far as the research and detail.”

Man of La Book – “The real strength of the book is the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the real-life fig­ures . . . Each one is writ­ten about in a very per­sonal way which makes you want to jump in the pages and shake their hands.

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Lost in Shangri-La perfectly exemplifies everything that I love about narrative nonfiction . . . a story full of the dramatic ups and downs of the best adventure fiction.”


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6 responses to “Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

  1. i love books with a WWII setting and i’m surprised this one completely missed me! i haven’t read too many nonfiction books that are set in WWII, but this one sounds really fascinating! I’m glad the book wasn’t over hyped and I’m definitely adding this one to my wishlist now.

  2. I really enjoyed the way he was able to tell the stories of the islanders and the crash victims too. I thought that was fascinating. Glad you enjoyed the book!

  3. Thanks so much for your review. I came across your blog as I was doing a Google search on Filipino Americans KIA (killed in action) World War II for research I’m conducting.

    As a historian on the Filipino American experience in the U.S. (and being Filipino American myself), I’m completely amazed at the lack of awareness by the general public on the Filipino/Filipino American involvement during WWII. My grandfather served with the U.S. Army’s Philippine Scouts during WWII, was a Bataan Death March survivor, imprisoned in a camp by the Japanese and eventually was released and fought with the guerrillas until the end of the war. I’m in the process of researching his military career.

    As a result of your review, I’m now going to pick up “Lost in Shangri-La” to read, but most importantly, do research on the Filipino American paratroopers who were involved in this mission. Thanks so much!


  4. >>>World War II is a seemingly inexhaustible source of incredible stories.

    Oh my God, this is so true. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this thought said before, but it’s so, so true. There are so many perspectives to tell stories from in this era, and many of them are unrelentingly fascinating.

  5. Nice review. I just finished this book yesterday and loved it! The meticulous research Zuckoff did definitely came through in the narrative. Your observation that the book benefited from being written present day is spot-on. So many fascinating insights from all the different sides would have been completely overlooked.

  6. toothy – This is a good pick if you haven’t read a lot of WWII nonfiction, I think.

    Kim – Thanks for recommending the book in your review. 🙂

    Ron – Thanks so much for stopping by! Glad I could point you to this book. Best to you in your research – your grandfather’s story sounds incredible.

    Jenny – When I stop and think about it, I realize how much what I know about WWII is concentrated on the events of just a few countries, when events were happening in so many places of the world, but are lesser known to us.

    Jenna – Glad you enjoyed the book too!

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