A trip to Hidden Valley


Margaret Hastings with souvenir spears as she prepared to leave the valley.

The commanding officer at Hollandia, New Guinea understood that from the beginning of the war one of the greatest problems affecting air operations in the Pacific area was that of morale and fatigue and that the highest rates of low morale and highest levels of fatigue occurred at base area sections where boredom, unrelieved by the stimulus of combat, was predominant. Medical staff used the term “morale” interchangeably to describe all manner of fatigue: environmental, operational, and tropical.

The tropics with the heat and humidity, mud, rain, dust, insects, the surrounding jungles and primitive natives, all contributed to deadly monotony. Illness from diseases, malaria, dengue, scrub typhus, bacillary dysentery, ulcers, fungus infections, boils and abscesses were common and the constant hammering at personnel—“take your atabrine,” “use repellent” “dress properly,” “dry out your clothes, blankets and shoes,” “drink only chlorinated water,” “stay out of the brush,” “stay away from native villages,” “don’t walk here”—aggravated the hell out of everyone and were contributing factors to the bottom dwelling morale of his unit.

The base commander had arranged for sight-seeing flights along the coastline of the island as a weapon against the calamitous enemy of his staff, boredom. Perhaps as a distant celebration of the end of the war in Europe or to take their minds off another Mother’s Day away from home, he arranged for members of his command on this Sunday the best joy ride available, a trip to Hidden Valley, an area of mystery about who or what lived there.

The flight would allow passengers to look down from the windows of a C-47 at the place that had been the subject of wild speculation since it was discovered the previous summer by Col. Ray T. Elsmore, a command pilot who was making a survey flight of a proposed north-south route over the island of New Guinea. Maps of area in which the valley lay were left blank with notes of, “UNEXPLORED” and “Estimated 14,000 foot peak.”

Col. Elsmore was curious about the fertile valley he found and sent photo squadrons to take pictures of it. The valley, about 20 miles long, and four miles wide, lay beyond the hump of the Oranje Range at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. But reconnaissance photos revealed something more intriguing than the valley’s geographical features—clusters of native huts and cultivated irrigated land. “According to Dutch and Australian authorities, no white man had ever penetrated that far into the Dutch New Guinea jungles.” It didn’t take long for stories to be told by some of the persons who had flown over the valley and romanticized about it that it was a land whose inhabitants were completely out of contact with the rest of the world, a real-life Shangri La.

It was intended as a joy ride, a sight-seeing trip, an attempt to boost the morale of a commander’s troops. It would become an incident in the war that received wide news coverage from both the civilian and military press. A Yank magazine staff correspondent, Sgt. Ozzie St. George, recorded the news-making story for his military readers.

It was Sunday, May 13, 1945, at 2:15 in the afternoon when the C-47 took off from the Sentani Strip at Hollandia for a flight over the 14,000-foot hump of the Oranje Range, about 130 air-miles away. Counting the crew members there were 24 persons aboard, including eight WACs of the Far East Air Service Command, eight enlisted men and eight officers.

The plane got over the hump and began its descent into the valley for a closer look at Elsmore’s Shangri La. It crashed, nose on, 300 feet below the top of a ridge line, mowing through the jungle of New Guinea, fire breaking out, the tail section snapping off.

Five managed to survive the crash and fire, one of the officers, 1st Lt. John McCollom, who was uninjured, an enlisted man, T/Sgt Kenneth Decker, a gash in his head, and three WACs, one of whom was able to make her way out of the crash despite having burns on her legs and having had her shoes burned off. The other two WACs were pulled from the wreckage, and administered morphine by Lt. McCollom for the pain from their burns, however their wounds were so grievous that they both died within two days of the crash.

When the C-47 did not return to its base from the sight-seeing trip to Hidden Valley, base personnel at Hollandia checked other nearby airstrips but none reported that the plane had landed there. A search plane was sent out with no sightings of a downed C-47. Other planes joined the search on the following day.

The three survivors, their only food hard candies from the crash and water from on-board canteens and a nearby creek could see search planes circling overhead. The native inhabitants of the area could be heard moving closer to their tiny encampment, the three survivors not knowing if they were head-hunters or cannibals. After spending two days at the crash site and seeing the search planes overhead they realized that if they were to have any chance of being seen by those looking for them from the air they would have to move to open ground. They started out for a clearing lower down the ridge, going slowly and eating the candies. It took a day and a half to make the two and a half mile journey. An hour after their arrival they were spotted by a B-17.

Two life rafts were dropped as markers by the 17, whose crew charted the location before flying back to Hollandia. There they reported they had seen three people dressed in khakis waving from a small clearing on the uphill side of a ridge about 10 air miles northeast of the valley proper. But the weather closed in solidly over the hump and a return flight that day was impossible.

An hour after being spotted by the B-17 they were approached by the local natives. The universal language of the smile signaled both from the natives and from the crash survivors that for the moment at least that neither group was hostile against the other.

Communication between the native inhabitants of the valley and the pale skinned visitors progressed through sign language. The natives built a fire by rubbing sticks together like an Eagle Scout and put bananas and a variety of sweet potatoes to roast in the coals. When it began to rain the three survivors crawled under the tarps stretched over the life rafts dropped by the B-17 and were dismayed to see the natives leave, taking the chow with them. Their fourth night in the New Guinea jungle was cold and wet and they were hungry and in pain. They were greatly cheered by the fact that they had been found, but they had no idea how their ultimate rescue from the jungle was to be achieved.

On the Thursday after they were spotted, they received the first of what would become a regular parachute drop of supplies: first aid kits, a walkie-talkie and 10-in-1 rations (US Army field rations designed so that one unit could feed ten men). Later that same day a second supply drop included enough equipment to stock a good-sized country store including lipstick and bobby-pins for the WAC, shoes and walkie-talkie batteries. Before they were rescued and brought out of the valley, they would receive tents, mosquito bars, cots, signal panels, 20 pairs of shoes, 300 pounds of medical supplies, 14 .45 caliber pistols (the standard Army issue sidearm), six Tommy guns, 3,000 rounds of .45 ammunition, coffee, bacon, tomato juice, eggs that landed unscrambled, pineapple juice, 75 10-in-1 units; knives and machetes, clothes for the survivors, lap-laps (a waist/loin cloth) for the natives, stoves, canteens, water, gasoline, 75 blankets, magazines, rice, salt, shells for trading with the natives, mail, at least three cases of beer, and for the WAC, scanties (women’s panties), although she later denied having received any intimate apparel during her stay in the survivor’s camp.

Five days after the disaster, two medics of the First Filipino Reconnaissance Battalion volunteered to parachute into the valley and provide medical support for the three survivors. Two days later their battalion jumpmaster and eight paratroopers dropped into the main valley near the mouth of the canyon where the C-47 had crashed and established a base camp where they received by air drop 21 flags, twenty crosses and one wooden Star of David, used in the burial of the victims of the crash.

Thirty-five days after the crash another person joined the rescue team by parachute, a Canadian newsreel photographer, who worked for the Netherlands East Indies Government, with the intent of making a documentary of the Hidden Valley crash, survival, and rescue. During this entire time suggestions for methods of rescuing the group, now numbering 15, were being evaluated in Hollandia, including an overland trek that was estimated to take up to a month each way and would have required the services of 150 natives.

Rescue by aircraft of various sizes and types were suggested but the terrain, distance from Hollandia, altitude and the unpredictable weather all worked against this rescue method. However, one air based rescue idea did emerge as possible, the use of gliders to snatch out the survivors and their rescuers. Work began at installing the snatch pickup equipment on a C-47 that would be used in the pick-up. Trial snatch flights began at an air base in Hollandia at the same time that a 400-yard glider landing strip was being prepared at the rescue site by burning off vegetation and marking the landing area with parachutes that had been used to drop in supplies to the Hidden Valley encampment.

A glider snatch at the altitude of Hidden Valley was a dicey operation at best—at over a mile in elevation, the lift required to bring the glider airborne was greater because of the thin air of the valley’s location. And, the unstable weather over the hump of the surrounding mountains was a factor that would always be a factor that would threaten to cancel any glider pick-up or smack one down that was being attempted.

It was decided that it would take three flights in and three snatches out to bring the team back to civilization; bringing the entire group out at once would put too much weight in the glider and the snatch would not be successful. Everybody in Hidden Valley was ready to get the hell out of their alleged Shangri La.

On June 28th, the weather cleared, and a C-46 towed a CG-4A Waco glider to the valley where it released from its tow plane and landed without incident.

The glider was turned around, and immediately prepared for the next phase of the rescue, the snatch by the C-47equipped with the special snatch winch and pickup hook. The snatch was made, the C-47 pulling the glider off the floor of the valley and over the menacing mountain walls that marked its boundaries.

During the take-off a parachute that had been used as a field marker became snagged up against and through the floor of the glider. Lt. McCollom pulled the silk up through the hole in the floor of the glider, handful by handful, until it was completely inside the Waco and stowed. A little more than an hour later, the glider landed at the Sentani Strip, the same strip where the sight-seeing flight to Hidden Valley had begun.

They had made it. After 45 days in their Shangri La, Lt. McCollom said, “I want a shave.” Sgt. Decker said, “I want a shower.” And WAC Cpl. Margaret Hastings said, “I want a permanent.”

The three survivors met one last time nearly three decades later when they were made honorary members of the National World War II Glider Pilots Association at the group’s reunion in 1974.

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