Divided down the middle by the cloud-piercing Owen Stanley mountain range, and with dense jungles capable of swallowing entire army divisions, New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, measuring 1500 miles in length and 500 miles in breadth. Aimed at the heart of Australia, it became obvious to the World War II Allies in the Pacific that its early occupation by invading Japanese forces made it a key obstacle to that continent’s defense. Beginning with elements of the U.S. 1st Marine Division in which my foster brother served, Americans fought a bitter campaign there from 1942 to War’s end, suffering 24,000 battle casualties, with large numbers of enemy soldiers refusing to surrender even then. With temperatures and humidity both reaching the number 100 and average annual rainfall of up to 300 inches, it was home to malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, dysentery and a dozen other take-no-prisoner enemies. Altogether, it was one of the most unfriendly fighting environments faced by WW II G.I.s anywhere in the world. And our troops serving there enjoyed neither respite nor disengagement for the duration of the war.
With that background, it should not be surprising that more than 600 airplane crashes dotted that deadly piece of geography during that three-year period, many of them non combat-related and most of them never uncovered. (There are more uncharted crash sites in New Guinea than any other place on earth!)
One of those aviation mishaps occurred on May 13, 1945 when a USAAF C-47 transport with 24 Army passengers aboard flew into a cloud-covered mountainside nearly two hours’ flying time away from its base at Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. Its’ mission name – Gremlin Flight – was about to go into the history books.
Aboard the Gremlin Special, commanded by Colonel Peter J. Prossen with Major George Nicholson in the co-pilot’s seat, were a total of nine male officers, six enlisted men and nine female members of the Women’s Army Corps (or WACs). Their intention was to fly into a newly-discovered “mystery valley” christened Shangri La by the flyers who first laid eyes on it. Nestled between 13,000-foot peaks and surrounded by dense alpine jungle growth spiked by steep rocky waterfalls, the valley – known today as the Baliem – was also home to thousands of stone-age natives suspected (quite correctly) of being fierce, warlike, and cannibalistic.
Unable to gain sufficient altitude when penetrating a cloud bank at the valley’s far end, the C-47, - the military version of the famous DC-3 - slammed into the steep rocky escarpment, bursting into flames and incinerating most of its human cargo. All, that is except for three: Capt. John McCollum (whose identical twin Robert perished in the crash), Tech. Sergeant Kenneth Decker and Corporal Margaret Hastings. For the three, two of whom were severely injured and burned, the most difficult part of the story was just beginning.
While tolerating the pain of dangerously gangrenous burn damage and physical exhaustion, “Maggie” Hastings and Sgt. Decker were led by Lt. McCollum through the nearly-impenetrable jungle-clad mountainside to the valley below, where “stone-age savages” who had never seen white people in their long history provided unexpected succor, with sweet potatoes, pork and safe harbor, as Army leaders at Hollandia planned a complex and never-tried-before high altitude rescue mission.
Two brave Philippine Scout medics parachuted into “Shangri La” and began the long process of treating the victims; dealing with gangrene that already made amputation likely in the case of the 30-year old WAC Corporal. As needed supplies were sent by daily air drop, the remaining 15 parachutists of the 1st. Recon Group jumped into the jungle, buried the deceased crash victims and rendezvoused with the survivors to provide further support and security. (At that point, planners at Hollandia had every reason to believe the natives were a danger).
Landing any kind of rescue aircraft in the jungle-and-rock-strewn valley was as impossible as the alternative of hiking the injured out through 150 miles of the world’s most dangerous terrain where enemy forces were still a presence. In the end, a troop-carrying Waco glider was towed and released over the valley after much trial-and-error practice, and in three successive and seldom-used “snatch” techniques, pulled aloft by the hook of a low-flying C-47 tow plane.
After seventy days in the Jungles of “Shangri La”, Maggie Hastings, Ken Decker and John McCollum, got to go home and to heal from their ordeal. They had all lost good friends, and the McCollum twins would never again be the inseparables they had been, but the story of the brave and dedicated men who had saved them, and the warm and friendly natives of the Dani Tribe who had befriended them would always be theirs’.
Much has changed in New Guinea’s Baliem Valley, but a member of the Dani Tribe today looks very much like those of his people who gave aid and affection to the Shangri La crash victims 67 years ago.
The C-47, the military version of the famed Douglas DC-3 transport, often known fondly as the “Gooney Bird”, was one of the most ubiquitous aircraft of WWII in every theater. Many are still flying today.