Rescue from Shangri-La: Glider Rescue in the Pacific Theater

Margaret Dudley

In the early afternoon of 13 May 1945, twenty-four servicemembers, including eight members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), boarded a C-47 named Gremlin Special for a ride over the mysterious Shangri-La Valley in Dutch New Guinea. In just over an hour, disaster would strike the aircraft, leading to a hazardous and widely-publicized rescue of the three survivors--Sergeant Kenneth Decker, Lieutenant John McCollom, and WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings—via cargo glider.

Shangri-La Valley was discovered by Richard Archbold in 1938. Archbold referred to it as Baliem Valley for the nearby river, but when it was found again during a flight in 1945, the pilots were unaware of Archbold’s discovery and named it after the mountain kingdom in the James Hilton novel, “Lost Horizon”. Fantastic tales of Shangri-La from the few people who flew over it began to circulate, and when Gremlin Special took off from the base for a trip over the Valley, the passengers expected a flight over the Stone-Age villages that populated the Valley. Many hoped to catch a glimpse of the “cannibals” and “giants” that were said to live there. About an hour into their flight, the C-47 was caught in a downdraft and careened into the towering mountains surrounding Shangri-La Valley.

Baliem Valley in New Guinea. From Indonesia Travel Guide.

The impact tore away the tail section of the plane and set off multiple explosions. Only five of the twenty-four passengers survived the crash. WACs Eleanor Hanna and Laura Besley died of their injuries soon after being pulled from the burning wreckage by Lt McCollom, who miraculously emerged from the wreck unscathed. Faring much worse were Sgt. Decker, who sustained burns across his back and a deep gash on his head, and Corporal Hastings, whose legs, feet, hand, and left cheek were badly cut and burned. Their injuries quickly became gangrenous, and Hastings feared she would lose both legs. As the healthiest of the three, McCollom quickly took charge of the group, despite the trauma of losing his previously-inseparable twin brother Robert in the crash.

The three survivors trekked through the jungle, making slow progress due to the severe injuries and thick vegetation. Having little water and only a handful of hard candies from an emergency kit for food, McCollom, Decker, and Hastings spent several days hiking to a clearing so they could be seen by rescue planes already flying overhead. Once in the clearing, the group was approached by natives of the valley, who had never seen anything like these outsiders before. Although initially frightened of each other, both natives and survivors quickly realized that neither side was hostile. They established what became a continuing pattern of friendship and mutual respect between the Americans and the inhabitants of Shangri-La. Once the planes spotted the survivors, the Army dropped food, clothing, and even a radio to communicate with them as they wrestled with their next issue: how to provide medical help and rescue in a place where no airplane could land. The answer came from a group of Filipino parajumpers in the US Army operating out of Australia.

Bahala na!

Motto of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion, meaning "Come what may!"

Lieutenant C. Earl Walter, Jr. operated a jump school in the South Pacific, where he and his 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion of Filipino-American parajumpers were awaiting assignment. When Walter received the orders to select ten men to jump into uncharted territory, the entire Battalion volunteered. He selected two medics and eight jumpers to accompany him into New Guinea. The medics, Sergeant “Doc” Bulatao and Corporal “Rammy” Ramirez, were dropped into the Valley close to the survivors, while the other nine jumped into an area about 45 miles away. Three men were left to establish a base as the other six met up with the medics and survivors. The Army had ideas of how to evacuate their people, but no solid plans. Walter’s team knew that they might have to make their way to the coast on foot through a jungle filled with thousands of Japanese soldiers. Eventually, lacking any other viable options, the Army decided to evacuate their people via cargo glider.

CG-4A glider used by OSS in Burma. US Army photo.

The WACO (pronounced “WAH-coh”) cargo glider, called the CG-4A, was designed and produced in response to MacArthur’s desire for a “Jeep with wings” that could be dropped behind enemy lines and resupply Allied troops. It could carry in men, supplies, and even heavy equipment such as a Jeep or artillery pieces. These motorless aircraft were towed in range of their target by an airplane, usually C-47s or C-46s, and then released, soaring down to their destination. Their approach was completely silent, an advantage when flying over enemy lines, and they could land in many places that traditional aircraft could not. Without a runway, the CG-4A was the only aircraft that could reach the Shangri-La survivors and the pararescue team. Once in the Valley, a towplane could perform a “snatch pick-up”, snagging the CG-4A’s tow line mid-flight and hauling it into the air. The high altitude and cloud-obscured mountains made the operation difficult and fraught with danger, but the gliders were still the best option.

I'll tell you straight out: If you've got to go into combat, don't go by glider. Walk, crawl, parachute, swim, float—anything. Just don't go by glider!

Walter Cronkite, on his experience riding in a glider.

The survivors received medical help and were allowed to rest to regain their strength for the miles of hiking ahead of them. The group trekked through the jungle to the temporary landing strip created by the other members of the rescue team. This team had also made friends with inhabitants of a nearby village, and the Americans once again found themselves surrounded by the “good and gentle” natives of the Valley, whom Hastings later described as the greatest miracle of the crash, aside from their initial survival. A filmmaker, Alex McCann, parachuted into the Valley (after drinking a good fifth of whiskey) to join the survivors and recorded a short movie of their experience. As they waited for the glider to arrive, the Americans traded with the natives for various souvenir items. This included a small pig the soldiers named “Peggy” after Margaret Hastings, whom the press and the rest of the rescue team began to call “The Queen of Shangri-La”. The natives refused to take items or food from the outsiders, preferring their own resources and technology, but they did accept the cowrie shells which were dropped into the valley for the rescue party to trade with.

Finally, 47 days after the initial crash, the glider arrived in Shangri-La Valley. Due to the altitude and the danger of stalling out the towplane, they were evacuated in three groups, with the survivors leaving first. Their trip out was almost as dangerous as their initial arrival. One of the parachutes that marked the makeshift “runway” got caught in the skids of the glider and tore holes through the canvas covering. McCollom, taking charge again as he had in the first days stranded in the Valley, crawled to the tail section of the glider and pulled the chute inside, stopping it from shredding the fabric further. Even after the chute was inside, the drag added by the glider at such a high altitude nearly caused the C-47 to stall out, but the pilots managed to regain control and deliver the glider and its passengers to safety. The survivors of the Gremlin Special were home at last.

Kenneth Decker, John McCollom, and Margaret Hastings pointing out Shangri-La Valley on a map after their rescue. Photo: B.B. McCollom

It was only after exiting the glider, back in the safety of familiar territory, that Hastings thought back to the 21 lives lost in Shangri-La and was able to mourn for them. During their period of rest, members of the rescue team had navigated back to the crash site and erected twenty crosses and one Star of David to mark the graves of the other passengers. Only three bodies were identifiable, and the other 18 were placed in a communal grave, including McCollom’s twin brother, Robert. In 1959, the bodies were uninterred and brought back to the United States for a final burial on home soil.

For more information, see:

"Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff

Silent Wings Museum

Oral history with C Earl Walter

Reader's Digest, November 1945, vol 47, "A WAC in Shangri-La"


Margaret Dudley, Content Creation Coordinator, National Museum of the Pacific War

Title image: WACO CG-4A cargo glider. Courtesy of the City of Lubbock, Silent Wings Museum.