Former Boston Globe reporter Zuckoff (Journalism/Boston Univ.; Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, 2009, etc.) delivers a remarkable survival story.
On May 13, 1945, an American transport plane carrying 24 servicemen and women crashed into a mountain in the tropical jungles of Dutch New Guinea (now Papua), leaving three survivors. Learning about the event while researching another subject, the author recognized the ingredients of a terrific tale: a beautiful young WAC, a hidden valley reminiscent of the Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, primitive tribal people and a daring air rescue. In this well-crafted book, Zuckoff turns the long-forgotten episode into an unusually exciting narrative. Drawing on the young WAC survivor Margaret Hastings’ diary as well as journals and interviews, the author hones in on life at the U.S. military base in Hollandia, on the northern coast of uncharted New Guinea; a soldier’s chance discovery a year earlier of Baliem Valley, a verdant area about 150 miles into the interior, with its hundreds of native villages surrounded by gardens; and the doomed flight of officers and enlisted personnel out on a joy ride to view this much-talked-about land of Stone Age people from the air. Because of Zuckoff’s successful re-creation of the grueling month-long experiences of the survivors—badly burned, with gangrenous wounds, often despairing that search planes wouldn't find them under the dense jungle canopy—and their wary encounters with farmer-warrior natives (who turned out to be friendly; they thought the white visitors were spirits), readers will devour the epilogue to learn what happened in ensuing decades to the story’s principals. With candy for nutrition and lacking medicine, the survivors make their way to an open plain, where planes drop supplies and medical technicians. The dangerous rescue by glider planes has all the makings of a breathtaking movie scene. Zuckoff weaves in interesting digressions about reporters who covered the story, a filmmaker parachuted in to make a documentary and the rich boy/amateur anthropologist who visited the valley in the late ’30s to collect specimens.
Polished, fast-paced and immensely readable—ready for the big screen.