Lost in Shangri-La July 20, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
In May 1945 an American flight over central New Guinea crashed and killed all but three of the twenty four servicemen on board. The three survivors – two men and a woman – found themselves in the midst of a dense jungle miles from home. They managed to parley with the local tribespeople – who had had no significant contact with the outside world – and then, later, by radio, with the US army who sent in ‘ten enlisted paratroopers… and one Canadian-born engineer-turned-actor-turned-jewel-thief-turned-sailor-turned-war-correspondent’ to get them out. Welcome to Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.
The author Mitchell Zuckoff has put the tale together using contemporary news reports – the Shangri-La rescue was a hit in the American press at the time, light relief from the war with Japan. He has also had access to the diaries of a survivor and a paratrooper. And, crucially, for the balance of the story he has actually visited the tribal peoples where memory of the ‘white spirits’ who fell from the sky are still remembered (as myth) sixty years on: apparently some elderly folk swear that the Americans defecated live pigs.
The story itself, which covers 400 plus sides in Beachcombing’s large print edition, has some padding: but think comfy pillows rather than polystyrene beads. And the author, by focussing, on one relatively inconsequential event has recreated a world and a time in a way that grand narratives of, say, WAR IN THE PACIFIC can never do: including sanitary towels, hot chocolate and blanket parties… If Beachcombing was the snotty academic he sometimes pretends to be he would talk about ‘an incisive microhistory’.
Instead, as a bizarrist, he feels duty bound to concentrate on the peculiar and there was plenty to sate his appetite: from the mechanics of glider take off, to the origin of gremlins, to funeral services in planes several thousand feet above jungle graves held simultaneously by Catholic and Protestant priests – the Protestant doubling as a rabbi.
But if you want truly bizarre the very best material is the inevitable cultural misunderstandings between New Guineans luxuriating in the Stone Age and the twentieth-century Americans who have come blundering into these small tribal worlds. How, after all, could survivors from a plane crash hope to get to grips with a people who greeted close friends and relations with Hal-loak-nak [‘Let me eat your feces’]? It was always going to be an uphill struggle.
And the single greatest achievement of the author has been, by returning to the site of this unlikely encounter between peoples to fill in a lot of the misunderstandings fifty years on. For example, the Americans were convinced that the one female survivor was about to be sexually assaulted by indigenous Romeos: the natives were convinced, instead, that the Americans were trying to marry the WAC off to their chief, who was terrified at the prospect. The natives began ‘to make love’ to the American paratroopers by caressing them thus causing the Americans to demonstrate that they were not women by stripping naked. The natives were actually fascinated by the paratroopers’ clothes and were stunned that the white strangers would expose themselves to complete strangers… The lone WAC almost had her fingers chopped off by an axe-wielding local: actually the locals were trying to help the WAC mourn in ritual fashion.
And so it goes painfully on… The complete inability of well-meaning humans to understand each other.
Any other strange books? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
26 July 2011: Chris Hale an old friend of the blog writes in ‘I wondered if you knew the story of the Noone Bros – two British anthropologists in British Malaya? The elder Pat Noone became fascinated if not obsessed by the Temiah ‘Orang Asli’ people and eventually married into the tribe. He investigated what he took to be ‘directed’ dreams (the tribe appeared to recount dreams with specific wished for content) – and called the the Temiar the ‘Dream People’. Shortly after the Japanese invasion of Malaya, 70 years ago this December – Pat vanished. He was never seen again… In the early ’50s, his brother Richard Noone (who later served in Vietnam) was despatched into the jungle by the High Commissioner/Director of Ops Sir Gerald Templar (the man who once sacked Konrad Adenauer) to sort out the Orang Asli – they were being exploited by communist insurgents. Richard also wished to find out what had happened to Pat… His expedition is recounted in an out of print book called ‘Noone of the Ulu’/Holman that unfolds this jungle detective story.’ Thanks Chris, unfortunately this book is very rare!
23 August 2011: Invisible writes in with a review and memory. Thanks Invisible!