Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff was researching a story about World War II when he came across an article in the Chicago Tribune from June 1945. He was stunned.

"The article explained that a military plane had crashed in an impossibly remote valley of New Guinea that had been nicknamed Shangri-La," he says.

"Twenty-one people had been killed, but three survivors - two soldiers and a beautiful member of the Women's Army Corps - were awaiting rescue by giant gliders that were supposed to be dropped to the valley floor, then snatched back into the air by passing planes.

"I wouldn't be much of a reporter if I hadn't stopped everything to read that article! I was shocked that I had never heard about this, and apparently no one else had, either."


Here, Zuckoff explains how he brought the story to life in his book Lost in Shangri-La: Escape from the Hidden Valley.

Q: Where did the research trail lead you?

A: I knew immediately [upon reading the article] that this story was worth pursuing, but I didn't know - and I wouldn't know for more than a year - whether I'd be able to collect enough documentary material and human sources to turn it into a book.

The trail took me to the West Coast of the United States to find the sole surviving participant in these events, to New Guinea to find tribespeople who were children when this happened, and to too many libraries and historical societies to count.

Q: You visited the scene of the crash in the New Guinean jungle, more than 60 years later. Describe that experience.

A: It was probably the most powerful emotional experience of this project. After spending years thinking about and writing about this plane crash, here I was amid the wreckage - which is still there on the mountain.

I was able to look through what was left of a window opening in the fuselage and think, "One of the crash victims probably looked through this window moments before the crash." While I was digging through the wreckage, my guide and I found a small piece of human bone.

We held a brief service then buried it with a marker nearby. I already felt a great responsibility to tell the story of those who died and those who lived, but that discovery drove it home with me even more.


Q: Was there a breakthrough moment during your research that really brought the book to life?

A: To a large extent, it was being there atop the mountain with the wreckage. Another breakthrough moment, the first during early phases of the research, was finding Earl Walter, who led the paratrooper team into the valley.

Earl was able to give me a firsthand account of these events, and he generously shared not only his memories but also his scrapbooks, the journal he kept during the mission, and dozens of photographs he took that now appear in the book.

In 1945, Earl was a dashing young paratrooper captain eager to get into the action of the war. His father was leading a group of Filipino guerrillas in the jungles of the Philippines, and Earl wanted to prove that he was his father's equal.

Earl was 88 when we met, and there was still a bit of that gung-ho young man in him. Although his short-term memory wasn't strong, he remembered every detail of the Shangri-La rescue mission. In fact, he described the people, places and events in rich detail, in ways that no documents could match.

Q: It's an incredible story - did you doubt the authenticity of any of the accounts?

A: Not really, in part because everyone I spoke with and all the documents I obtained - including the diary kept in the Shangri-La valley by the female survivor, Margaret Hastings - fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

In addition, the documentary evidence - declassified military documents, letters, journals, photographs, the film made in the valley by [Army filmmaker]Alex Cann, etc. - came not from memory but from 1945, at the time of the actual events.

All of this material was original and completely authentic. Also, importantly, there was a great deal of press coverage at the time, so I was able to use those news stories as a kind of backstop to create a timeline and check the memories of folks like Earl and the natives I spoke with.

Q: Have you made any more discoveries about the story since the book went to press?

A: A great joy of this experience has been the number of people who've called or emailed me to tell me about their grandfather's or their uncle's or some other family member's involvement in the rescue.

I've discovered an entire community of people who were quietly telling this story, passing it down from one generation to the next, and now they've embraced me and this book for sharing it with the world.

Q: Got a call from Hollywood yet?

A: I've gotten a few, yes, and I'd love to see Lost in Shangri-La made into a movie. I'm hopeful it will happen, but there's nothing official yet.

Q: What are your favourite books?

A: Pretty much anything and everything by John McPhee and David McCullough. I'm also a big fan of The Lost City of Z, by David Grann.

Like most authors, I could probably fill a page with books that have influenced me in one way or another at various times in my life.

For instance, Hiroshima, by John Hersey and Reporting, by Lillian Ross, both read when I was a journalism student, opened my eyes to what was possible; later, Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas, became a guiding light for immersive journalism. If I had to pick one novelist, it would be Richard Russo.