This 1945 New Guinea Plane Crash Survivor Became Known As The ‘Queen of Shangri-La’

In 1945 Girls’s Military Corps Cpl. Margaret Hastings went down aboard a C-47 in a distant New Guinea valley, launching an inconceivable story of survival

By way of most of World Conflict II nobody outdoors Margaret Hastings’ household and small circle of fellow troopers knew her title, not to mention the small print of her life or service in uniform. All that modified dramatically after Might 13, 1945, when a sightseeing flight aboard a U.S. Military Air Forces C-47 transport went horribly unsuitable, catapulting the diminutive corporal into stateside headlines amid a struggle for survival within the jungles of New Guinea.

Born in northeastern Pennsylvania on Sept. 19, 1914, Margaret Julia “Maggie” Hastings grew up in Owego, N.Y., on the banks of the Susquehanna River south of the Finger Lakes. By all accounts she was a feisty tomboy with a rebellious streak that might get an in any other case “good woman” into bother. On the time of the 1941 Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and america’ subsequent entry into World Conflict II she was 27 years outdated, single and dealing as an workplace secretary. In January 1944 she enlisted within the Girls’s Military Corps (WAC) and spent a lot of the 12 months in primary coaching, incomes promotion to corporal.

That December Hastings shipped out with fellow WACs to New Guinea. She was 30, stood 5 toes 2 inches, weighed 100 kilos soaking moist and was fairly in a pouty form of means that attracted suitors like honey attracts bees. She was posted to the USAAF base within the port metropolis of Hollandia, a former Japanese stronghold backed by jungle roughly halfway alongside the north coast of the 1,560-mile-long island. She was amongst some 20 WACs doing secretarial work on the base. Although by that time within the struggle Hollandia was a backwater, the rating WAC officer reportedly had been issued a pistol and instructed, within the occasion the Japanese overran them, to kill her sisters and herself quite than be captured.

The greater than 350,000 American ladies who served within the U.S. navy throughout the struggle had been volunteers, as solely males had been topic to the draft. Over the course of the battle ladies served within the WAC, within the Navy WAVES (Girls Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and within the Marine Corps and Coast Guard ladies’s reserves. WACs, WAVES and their sisters within the different branches served in such noncombat roles as nurses, secretaries, cooks, mail sorters, translators and drivers. They wore uniforms and held common navy ranks.

Girls who entered the nation’s navy providers needed to struggle prejudice and the mushy bigotry of Victorian beliefs. When the WAC invoice was being debated in Congress, one consultant against placing ladies in hurt’s means lamented, “What has turn into of the manhood of America?” One other argument towards permitting ladies to serve was a lingering aversion to ladies sporting male clothes. Not too a few years had handed since a girl could possibly be arrested for such an alleged affront to public decency. Girls becoming a member of males on the entrance additionally needed to struggle scurrilous rumors they had been sexually promiscuous, having enlisted solely as a “geisha corps” to spice up male morale.

Exhibit A within the case for girls in uniform was U.S. Military Nurse Corps Capt. Maude C. Davidson, chief nurse of the Philippine Division on the outset of the struggle, who remained along with her fellow caregivers and sufferers amid the Japanese invasion, even within the face of imminent seize. When Corregidor fell on Might 6, 1942, the nurses had been taken prisoner and spent the subsequent three years in captivity. Practically a half century after the struggle Davidson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her management. Such ladies had been why Gen. of the Military Douglas MacArthur known as WACs “my finest troopers,” whom he insisted labored tougher and complained lower than males. MacArthur had loads of alternatives to see ladies in motion, as greater than 5,000 of them served within the South Pacific. Solely Margaret Hastings made headlines.

On Sunday, Might 13, 1945, Col. Peter J. Prossen—upkeep chief of the USAAF’s Far East Air Service Command, headquartered in Hollandia—organized for a bunch of personnel to take a Douglas C-47 Skytrain on a sightseeing flight southward over the island’s inside. Their turnaround level that Mom’s Day was a verdant vale (the present-day Baliem Valley) excessive within the Oranje Mountains (present-day Jayawijaya Mountains), which kind the spine of central New Guinea. A pilot on a reconnaissance flight in Might 1944 had stumbled throughout the dale and dubbed it “Hidden Valley.” Surrounded by tall peaks, it’s greater than 30 miles lengthy and 10 miles huge with a river meandering from finish to finish. Although it lay inside 150 miles of Hollandia, no path into or out of the valley was seen from the air. However there have been ample indicators of human exercise, because the valley was dwelling to tens of 1000’s of Dani, spear-wielding hunter-gatherers dwelling a Stone Age existence.

Explorers had made first contact with the Dani seven years earlier. Nonetheless, rumors continued they had been headhunters who practiced cannibalism and human sacrifice. The sweetness and isolation of the valley fascinated each American who got here to Hollandia, a lot in order that Military Air Forces pilots offered common sightseeing excursions. A few reporters who took a type of excursions dubbed the valley “Shangri-la,” and the title caught.

On the afternoon of Might 13 two dozen Military personnel—together with 5 crewmen and 9 WACs—boarded the C-47. Nicknamed Gremlin Particular and piloted by Prossen himself, the Skytrain took off in clear climate for what was formally termed “navigational coaching.” The plane was scheduled to return in time for Hastings to maintain a date—a moonlight swim with Workers Sgt. Walter L. “Wally” Fleming of Lanse, Penn. They by no means received that swim.

By the point the C-47 reached the valley, clouds had closed in. Unable to find out his actual place, Prossen circled for a couple of minutes after which opted to descend. Given the climate and the encircling terrain, it was a poor choice. Inside moments of starting the descent Gremlin Particular slammed into the aspect of a mountain overlooking the valley flooring. Nineteen of these aboard—together with Prossen and his copilot, Maj. George H. Nicholson—died immediately. Regardless of burns and cuts on her legs Hastings was capable of stroll away from the wreckage, as had been Lt. John S. McCollom and Workers Sgt. Kenneth W. Decker. McCollom had minor cuts and bruises, whereas Decker had an unsightly head wound, a damaged proper arm and extreme burns. From the wreckage the trio pulled two critically wounded WACs, Workers Sgt. Laura E. Besley and Pfc. Eleanor P. Hanna. Each died quickly afterward from their accidents.

On his flight plan Prossen had listed his vacation spot as Shangri-la however included no different particulars, which isn’t shocking for a sightseeing flight. Thus, although the Skytrain was reported lacking that very same day, searchers didn’t spot the wreckage till noon on Might 16, practically 72 hours after the crash. The Military initially embargoed information of the accident, which didn’t make it into stateside newspapers for practically a month. Even then early reviews had been sketchy and laden with errors. As an example, some accounts referred to Decker as “Beckham,” and the extent of the survivors’ accidents was unknown. The B-17 search airplane that discovered the wreckage reported there was no place to land, so follow-up planes dropped medical provides, subject rations, beer and a walkie-talkie. “We’re all proper,” mentioned the trio of their first message. “Simply hold sending us provides.” In the meantime, the Military labored to arrange a rescue.

However first the pilots carried out funeral rites from 11,000 toes above the crash website, the survivors listening in over their walkie-talkie. The circling planes then dropped 20 picket crosses and one Star of David with which to mark the resting locations of the useless.

When phrase of the crash leaked out, the principal information providers of the period, the Related Press and the Worldwide Information Service, respectively dispatched reporters Ralph Morton and Walter Simmons to the scene. They instantly latched onto the “Shangri-la” angle, and newspapers again within the States ran with it. People had been conversant in the eponymous legendary hidden valley of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Misplaced Horizon and the 1937 Frank Capra movie of the identical title. This Shangri-la, nonetheless, was no utopian paradise within the Himalayas however an remoted valley amid inaccessible jungle, as distant from civilization as Mars. That left a clean slate for newspapermen to create their very own mythology, equal elements Misplaced Horizon, Robinson Crusoe and Tarzan of the Apes.

They spun the story as an inspirational story of heroism and human survival. Weary of reviews of demise and destruction on distant battlefields, People embraced the brand new Shangri-la. Dramatic reviews from the scene described a valley populated by savage headhunters who, when not making struggle on one another, raised boars “as huge as donkeys.” Reporters performed up the human-interest angle, resembling the truth that WAC crash sufferer Sgt. Belle G. Naimer’s fiancé, an USAAF lieutenant, had died in an earlier airplane crash in Europe, and that John McCollom’s twin brother, Robert, was amongst these killed within the C-47 crash. The small print didn’t matter as a lot because the story. Wire reviews differed on whether or not it was cloud cowl or a sudden downdraft that precipitated the crash, and whether or not the mountain was 17,000 or 13,000 toes excessive. However who was counting when there have been supposed headhunters and a damsel in misery? In reality, the Dani had been extra curious than hostile and finally introduced the survivors pork and candy potatoes to complement their C-rations. The rescue planes later dropped seashells for commerce with the natives.

On Might 26 two paratrooper medics from the U.S. Military’s 1st Filipino Regiment chuted in close to the crash website to look after Hastings and her companions earlier than main them on a 10-mile trek down the mountain. In the meantime, one other eight paratroopers jumped in to ascertain a base camp within the valley, whereas relays of fighter plane reportedly circled overhead “to see that the natives behave.” The Military’s press releases targeted on the alluring WAC, noting that crews of the rescue planes might hear her “clear, agency voice” over the walkie-talkie, assuring them, “I’m high quality and having fun with all of it.” For its personal causes the Military portrayed the occasion as an amazing journey quite than a mindless tragedy.

The rescue plan Military planners finally conceived was to land a Waco CG-4A glider on a touchdown strip carved out of the jungle, load survivors and paratroopers aboard, then yank the engineless plane again into the air. The latter feat could be completed by having a low-flying C-47 fitted with a dangling metal hook snatch the glider’s tow rope, which the rescuers would droop above the bottom by two poles. The transport’s grappling hook was hooked up to 1,000 toes of metal cable on a winch, which might additional scale back shock loading. Till March 1945 the system had solely been used to retrieve empty gliders, although a medevac mission carried out that month confirmed it could possibly be finished with a glider carrying human passengers. Getting wind of the operation, Canadian adventurer Alexander Cann parachuted into the valley with a movie digital camera to doc the rescue on behalf of the Netherlands Indies Data Service; his 12-minute documentary, Rescue From Shangri-la, is viewable on

McCollom, Hastings and Decker (at center from left) and members of the rescue team pose for a group photo in front of the Waco CG-4A glider. / Frank Filan, Associated Press

For apparent causes the Military didn’t plan to launch the information to the general public till after the try. The problem of carving out a touchdown strip appropriate for a glider was left to an American officer on the bottom with labor offered by the Filipino paratroopers and pleasant Dani. They accomplished that a part of the operation in report time. On June 28 Hastings, McCollum, Decker and the 2 paratrooper medics took their seats in a CG-4A piloted by Lt. Henry Palmer that had landed on the tough strip simply half-hour earlier. Moments later a low-flying C-47 of the 374th Troop Provider Group snatched the glider into the air, then climbed quickly to 12,000 toes to clear the encircling peaks. The nerve-wracking journey again to Hollandia took an hour and 20 minutes. A cheering throng was ready on the airstrip to welcome the three survivors, who had been stranded for 47 days. One of the vital daring rescue missions of World Conflict II was over. Miraculously, no casualties had been incurred.

Within the aftermath of the rescue the media targeted most their consideration on Hastings, whose story had gripped People for weeks. Preliminary information reviews mentioned she regarded “terribly match” after the ordeal. “Her hazel eyes sparkled…[and] her face was tanned,” famous one report, making it sound like Hastings had returned from a seaside trip quite than a month and a half within the jungle. “Brushing again her windblown locks,” the dispatch continued, she supplied this jaunty quote: “I’m certain glad to be again. Hollandia by no means regarded higher.” Somewhat later she appeared at a press convention with “a recent hairdo, new garments and bright-red nail polish,” seemingly none the more serious for put on. One newspaper heralded Hastings as “probably the most celebrated younger girl of the struggle.” One other turned her right into a pinup woman: “She’s blonde. She’s cute. She’s the No. 1 Journey Woman in World Conflict II.”

The Military doctored the small print of the crash to make the story much less embarrassing. A press launch dubbed the deadly joyride an “orientation” flight and emphasised the survivors had tried to nurse others solely to look at them tragically die of their wounds. Such snippets had been phrase video games at finest, flat-out lies at worst. However within the curiosity of dwelling entrance morale, the navy had no downside treating the reality as malleable. Military spokesmen who earlier than the rescue had vilified the Dani as “headhunters” turned to calling them “very joyful folks,” although they allegedly lived in “absolute filth.” They had been so pleasant and apparently conversant with Western greetings that on approaching the survivors their chief had “caught out his hand to shake.” A rumor circulated the Dani had wished to make Hastings “queen of the valley.” When one snarky reporter requested her, “Would you wish to have remained as queen of the valley?” she reportedly answered no “with a twinkle in her eye.” Lastly, an Military spokesman was compelled to guarantee the American those who “no romantic attachments had been shaped” in Shangri-la, noting that Hastings wore a college class ring on her engagement finger, and McCollom had a woman again in Dayton, Ohio.

Neither the Military nor the press wished the uplifting story to finish the minute the survivors made it dwelling. After granting them prolonged furloughs, the Military despatched the trio across the nation for seven weeks on the struggle’s final Liberty bond tour. Hastings finally grew bored with repeating her story, later admitting, “I wasn’t as good as I ought to have been to lots of people.” The Military additionally sprang for an all-expenses-paid journey to New York Metropolis, the place she was photographed attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral whereas awaiting her “boyfriend,” Workers Sgt. Wally Fleming of moonlight swim fame. The Military additionally flew him to New York and gave the couple an evening out in town. It was a romance cooked up completely by the Military; the couple had by no means been critical.

After hiking down from the crash site to the base camp prepared by paratroopers from the Army’s 1st Filipino Regiment, Hastings and fellow survivors spent the time awaiting rescue interacting with the Dani—activities captured by Canadian filmmaker Alexander Cann. / U.S. National Archives

In the summertime of 1945, as crowds in Allied nations worldwide basked within the afterglow of the victory in Europe and the Battle of Okinawa raged, the feel-good Shangri-la rescue story shared the headlines. Hastings was America’s sweetheart and the Military’s million-dollar bond child. In July consideration would shift to President Harry S. Truman’s attendance on the Potsdam Convention, in August to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in September to V-J Day. However for a couple of weeks that June readers nationwide scrambled to seek out New Guinea on their maps and re-read Hilton’s Misplaced Horizon as they thrilled to the story of the courageous little WAC who’d been marooned within the jungle and introduced dwelling safely.

After being mustered out of the Military in December 1945, Hastings returned dwelling to Owego. For months afterward strangers stopped her on the road to ask for an autograph, {a photograph} or each. By July 1946 she was nonetheless decompressing, dwelling along with her widowed father, when This Week journal got here calling. When the interviewer pressed about her marital plans, Hastings, in a stunning burst of candor, mentioned, “I’m unsure I’m going for the form of man who’s presupposed to make husband.” Simply dwelling from the struggle, she wished solely to attend Syracuse College on the G.I. Invoice and maybe be a part of a sorority.

When these plans didn’t pan out, Hastings took a job as a lodge secretary in New York Metropolis, the place she lastly met her future husband, insurance coverage salesman Robert C. Atkinson. They wed quietly on June 24, 1949. Three years later Mrs. Atkinson—who remained, if not a star, no less than an object of curiosity—was invited onto Ralph Edwards’ new NBC TV present This Is Your Life. Within the preshow rehashing of her story a inventive screenwriter had natives throwing spears on the C-47 because it got here down and the survivors spending 46 days in an “island paradise.” The precise story didn’t get the in-depth therapy it deserved for many years. In 1997 retired Military Air Forces Col. Edward T. Imparato, a former commander of the 374th Troop Provider Group, concisely associated the operation in his e book Rescue From Shangri-la, whereas Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2011 New York Instances finest vendor Misplaced in Shangri-la totally dispelled the Military propaganda and newspaper delusion that had shrouded accounts of the crash and rescue.

Hollywood by no means latched onto the story. The glut of struggle tales supplied up after 1945 doubtless dampened any enthusiasm, and when the starring heroine herself confirmed little interest in a B-movie therapy, the limelight shifted to extra prepared topics. Maybe within the period of feminine empowerment the story will lastly advantage big-screen therapy. Behind the scenes the Military didn’t overlook the incident that had introduced the corporal notoriety. In 1958 a crew from the American Graves Registration Service lastly recovered the stays of the 21 victims buried on the crash website in 1945. They had been reinterred the next summer season at Jefferson Barracks Nationwide Cemetery south of St. Louis. As for the “Queen of Shangri-la,” Margaret (née Hastings) Atkinson raised a son and daughter, later divorced, continued to work as an admin for the Air Drive and died at age 64 on Nov. 24, 1978. MH

Richard Selcer is a Texas-based creator and historical past professor who has printed 13 books and taught for greater than 40 years. He gleaned a lot of Hastings’ story from interval newspapers. For additional studying Selcer recommends Misplaced in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Journey and the Most Unbelievable Rescue Mission of World Conflict II, by Mitchell Zuckoff, and Rescue From Shangri-la, by Col. Edward T. Imparato.


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