The lady portrayed here by the side is Corporal Margaret Hastings, WAC.
She was one of the survivors of the Gremlin Special1, a C-47 Skytrain that, on the 15th of May 1945 crashed in unexplored Shangri-La valley, New Guinea.
Margaret Hastings, described as a woman that “liked her liquor, in moderation, and her men, also in moderation”, had apparently joined the service to escape a life of spinsterhood in her hometown.
She was thirty, and beautiful – spinsterhood?
This seems to have turned into a women & airplanes sort of week, so, why not take a look at the adventure of the Gremlin Special?
The flight, out of Hollandia air base, was carrying 24 people , between crew and passengers – a group of officers and WACs on a sightseeing flight – when it crashed due to the sort of problems that had given it its nickname.
Of the twenty-five men and women on the Gremlin Special, only five crawled out of the wreckage and of these only three survived: Corporal Margaret Hastings, Sergeant Kenneth Decker and Lieutenant John McCollom.
Corporal Hastings sort of took charge and kept her companions going until their rescuers arrived.
When the loss of the plane was registered, and a rescue mission set up, the press had a field day: US citizens, crashed in an unexplored valley inhabited by headhunters… it was almost too good to be true.
There was a lost, unexplored valley, the headhunters that had never met the white man, the presence in the area of Japanese forces, the thrill of the air adventure…
In fact the valley that was dubbed “Shangri-La” was called Baliem Valley, and had been explored in 1938 by Richard Archbold, flying a Catalina seaplane. Archbold had sighted human settlements, and got a few arrows in his plane’s body as a sign of goodwill from the Dani people down there.
The rescue op for the Gremlin survivors involved dropping two paramedics and later a ten-men team and a journalist. Later, as backup forces entered the area, gliders were used to extract the survivors and the rescuers.
The operation involved a gliders expert, a two-fisted Colonel and a film director that had left Hollywood because he was also a jewel thief.
As usual, history beats pulp, without even trying.
The full chronicle of the crash and the rescue was published as Lost in Shangri-La, in 2011 – the whole action was so well documented, the book reads like an hour-by-hour chronicle of the events.
I bought it by mistake – I kid you not – falling for the Himalayan reference in the title.
It was 2011, and a cracking read it was. A great real life adventure yarn, certainly, but also a portrait of a world in which there were still blank spaces on the map – despite the Archbold expedition’s efforts.
The meeting between the US forces (mostly Filipinos) and the Dani is hilarious scene inside the drama, in all its naivety – the headhunters perplexed at the westerner’s clothes, the Americans surprised at the Dani’s penis sheaths2.
As usual, thinking about these real-life adventures, one wonders whatever happened when the blank spaces disappeared from the map.
But did they?
Or did they simply contract and hide out of sight?
It’s a matter worth exploring further.