Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Army Corps’

As World War II was coming to a close, twenty-four U.S. soldiers crashed into the New Guinea mountains while on a sightseeing excursion.  Curiously enough, the plane was on its way to fly over a recently discovered hidden valley untouched by the modern world.  The twenty-one men and women who were killed included nine Women’s Army Corps (WAC) members.  One of those, Laura Earline Besley, was a local Pennsylvania woman from Shippenville.

On May 13, 1945, Ms Besley was one of only four not to perish in the actual crash, but sadly she died the next day from what were probably internal injuries.  Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, details that experience and the ongoing story of the three survivors, who faced severe burns, the harsh conditions of a mountain jungle, and indigenous people thought to be violent and dangerous.  The book goes on to recount one of the most interesting and unusual rescue missions of World War II.

I was inspired to read Lost in Shangri-La because of the local connection to Laura Besley.  If one is looking to learn about her and her demise this book is a good place to start.  The Clarion County Historical Society has an informative display for anyone interested in the particulars of this story as they pertain to Ms Besley.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was the way the author depicted the cultural clash and misunderstandings among the soldiers, the rescuers, and the natives.  The book informs and entertains with rich anthropological details about the Dani, a supposedly war mongering people who were completely isolated from the rest of the world.

At first, the author emphasized the potential brutality of Stone Age cannibals who smear their bodies in pig grease and wear genital gourds.  As I am sensitive to the stereotypes towards native people, I found this depiction to be jarring, but over the course of the story I came to believe the author portrays the Dani in a fair and interesting way.

The author’s language can be stark, but it is meant to represent the attitudes and ideals of the times, capturing a period of transition in how we in the modern West imagine the exotic cultures in the hidden corners of the world.  On the other hand, the author’s sympathetic portrayal of the Phillipino-American soldiers who volunteered for the rescue mission is somewhat less telling about the attitudes of the times.

One should not underestimate the research behind these kinds of historical accounts, and I applaud the author for his devotion to historical accuracy.  On occasion, however, I wished for a more literary interpretation of the events.  There were times when the writing felt too much like a no-nonsense account from a field reporter.

No matter if one is a lover of history, or simply enjoys a good adventure story, Lost in Shangri-La does not disappoint.  This kind of creative non-fiction writing is an enjoyable way to access the richness of history.  Joe Occhipinti

Read Full Post »