Rescue From Shangri La
Dit artikel is een extract van het interview met Earl Walter gepubliceerd
An interview with Earl Walter
In the spring of 1945, Earl Walter, an officer in
the 5217 Reconnaissance Battalion, led one of the most interesting parachute
jumps and glider rescues of the war. The 5217 was a unique unit consisting
primarily of Filipino-American volunteers that were designated for covert
operations. The 5217 operated in enemy-occupied areas such as Palawan, Mindanao
and Leyte in the Philippines. Earl's interview covers a forgotten rescue mission
to save a downed C-47 crew trapped in an uncharted valley in New Guinea dubbed
Medics Cpl. Ramirez and Sgt. Bulatao with
WAC Cpl. Margaret Hastings near the crash site.
What was the unit being trained for?
We were put aside for special missions. Outside of Manila there is a range of
mountains. They (McArthur's staff) were hoping they would force the Japanese into this area from
San Fernando, down the valley from Lingayen, and the Japanese would be forced to go through this
mountain pass. One of the ideas was we would jump in there to reinforce the guerillas and force the
Japanese to retreat. But, as it turned out, the Japanese retreated a lot faster [than expected] and
there wasn't any resistance. Our mission was cancelled. So, the only excitement I ever saw was with a
small group that I took into Shangri La.
How did the mission to rescue survivors from the plane crash at Shangri La develop?
Out of the clear blue sky, I had a call from Lt. Colonel Babcock, who, it turned out, was my
biology teacher from high school (I went to a military school for two years in Los Angeles). Anyway,
we had lunch and I told him what I'd been doing and he told me that he was an officer in Far Eastern
Air Service Command (FEASC)[,] and that's how we got involved in the mission. It turned out that
Babcock was on the general staff, and when the plane crashed he told them he knew where he could find
qualified paratroopers. At the time, the 503rd and the 511th were both committed to combat.
One of FEASC's aircraft went down on the north side of the mountain range. The valley was found by
a pilot flying from Hollandia, which was called Base G in those days, to Australia, to MacArthur's
headquarters. This Major, from my understanding, had a date in Sidney or Melbourne and he wanted to
get there so he said, "the Hell with it!" disobeyed standing orders to fly around the east tip of New
Guinea, and he flew over the main part of the island. This valley is about 120 miles south of Hollandia,
just about in the middle of New Guinea. Maps marked the area all Unknown. People began to get excited
and interested in it; it became kind of a tourist attraction. Soon, FEASC was running tours to this
valley. A plane would go out on either Saturday or Sunday, with people who had signed up, and fly low
to look at the villages and natives and look at the scenic beauty of the valley. This is where this
plane came from; it was on one of those Saturday or Sunday flights and it crashed into the mountain.
They called this place Hidden Valley. When we got involved in the rescue, the media guys and war
correspondents called it Shangri La.
There were 24 people in the plane when it went down. It took them about four days before they found
the wreck. I got a call from Colonel Lynch who asked me if I'd come talk to him. He told me that Lt.
Colonel Babcock told him that I was a paratrooper and had some parachute qualified men. I said, "Oh
yes, I have quite a few of them." He told me that they needed some men to go in and find these people,
get them into the main valley and somehow get them out of there. They didn't know at that time how
they were going to get us out; that was the interesting part of it. When I look back on it, I now know
why they want 19 and 20 year old's to fight wars; because they know you don't have any sense and you
are full of vinegar and vitality. Lynch asked me if I'd be willing to undertake the mission of going
in there and setting up a base camp and preparing a landing strip. The only thing they could think of
to extract us was to land gliders in the main valley and then air snatch us out. But we didn't even
know where to get gliders. At this point, there were no gliders available and the only outfit who had
gliders was the 11th Airborne. I went back to the unit and asked what men wanted to go Everybody
wanted to go! I picked my most senior non-coms and some medics.
I went back to Lynch and said I had 4 medics and 7 men, counting myself, for a total of 11 of us
that would be going on the mission. Lynch reminded me that they weren't sure they could get us out of
there. We had only two routes out. One was through the jungle to the north, but it was through
Headhunter country. There would be periods of 4 –5 days where we would not have been visible from the
air. We would have taken 4-5 days, but we wouldn't have been visible to aircraft in the dense jungle.
The other option was to turn south. But the problem there was 10,000-15,000 Japs who had retreated
into that part of New Guinea. I wasn't particularly looking forward to that option if the gliders
didn't work. My contingency plan was to bring in a dozen or so extra men if we had to come out on foot.
The Navy even volunteered to get a PT boat or two to make a run up the river which goes up through the
center of British New Guinea, but we would have to hike southeast. We would have had to hike many
miles to pretty close to the headwaters of the Fly River.
The flight over was pretty uneventful. I flew over first on a recon. and then I took the two medics
to as close to the site of the wreck and the survivors as we could, and we dropped the medics up by
the wreck. That was probably the most harrowing part of the mission. To this day, I still marvel at
Bulatao and Ramirez. They didn't even question the jump. They said, "if you want us to go Captain, we
will go." It was important to get medical help to the survivors as soon as possible because we found
that the WAC Corporal, Margaret Hastings and Sergeant Decker had developed bad cases of gangrene.
Their burns had become filled with gangrene and they needed medical help as quickly as possible.
So the only way to get them medical attention was to drop the two medics up there.
The plane was on a heavily wooded side of the mountain. I like to use the analogy of a saddle. We
set up the landing strip in the main valley that was South of where the plane crashed.
I wanted the jump to be as close to the ground as possible. I told the pilot, who retired as a
major, Ed Imparato, that I didn't want to go in at more than 400 feet. I want to be as close to the
ground as possible so that the least number of natives will be aware of our coming in. Well, I think
we jumped at 360+, and Imparato is not quite sure what we jumped at, but he thinks it was somewhere
around there. We had an idea that the floor was at 5,100 feet and we came in around 5,450 feet.
We hit the ground all together; it was a pretty good jump. We formed the men up on a little knoll
almost as soon as we gathered our equipment. There were a couple hundred natives yelling and hollering;
sort of encircling us. My First Sergeant, who was a hell of a fine soldier, looked at me and said,
"I kind of think I know what Custer felt," which made us all laugh.
Without really thinking, we thought we'd try to shoot down a couple of ducks. Of course, we didn't
have any shotguns; all we had were carbines and pistols. Luckily, we winged one and brought the thing
back into camp. I forgot how it happened, but one of the men fired a carbine into the air trying to
keep the natives from coming to close into us since their odor was just terrible. Literally, it was
the worst thing that I have ever smelled. They smeared their bodies with pig grease and charcoal. Once
we got out of the valley, my men and I had to get rid of all of our web equipment. We washed it and
washed it with GI soap and water, but the smell never came out so we just had to get rid of it.
The indigenous people of Shangri La.
The one round that was fired sent these poor people, pardon the expression, "ass over tea kettle."
So I told the men there would be no more of that because the little native children were getting run
over. They had never heard a rifle or a gun, so we put a stop to that immediately. After that, we
became very friendly with the natives. One of my tech sergeants was able to glean a vocabulary of
about 360 words, which he sort of thought was right, and tried to communicate with them. The dialect
of these natives was just something nobody had ever heard before.
The natives were obviously not headhunting types; they fought amongst themselves. We felt pretty
comfortable around them. Within a matter of hours, we realized we had no problem. In fact, I posted
night watch for, I think, three nights and at the end of the third night I spoke to the non-coms and
we all agreed that, "hell we don't need people staying up all night," so we stopped the watch. While
we were down there, they did have tribal skirmishes with other tribes, but nothing within our
As it turned out, this was a very easy mission except for the problems of getting the people down
from the mountaintop. There were no trails. We thought, if we had to carry them out we'd lose a person
or two in one of the gorges, so we decided to wait. It extended the duration of the mission for almost
four weeks before Decker and the WAC were able to recover enough to be able to hike out from the wreck.
About the third or fourth day after we landed, four men and myself hiked up to where the survivors
were. From the valley to the wreck took us about four days. There were no maps so we spent a lot of
time making trail. A couple of times we went the wrong direction. At first, we followed the direction
of the natives, but that was really bad. We thought they knew where we wanted to go. We thought they
understood we were looking for the plane wreck, but what they did was take us in a large circle that
led us back to the base camp. So we lost a whole day following them in that little dumb maneuver
(laugh). Using a compass, we (five men and myself) pretty much proceeded in the general direction of
the crash. We knew that the survivors were on the other side of a saddle (ridgeline). The jungle was
very dense, very heavy, a lot of vines, a lot of places where we literally had to cut our way through
because there were no paths. We tried following some of the natives' trails but that didn't lead us to
where we wanted to go. Sometimes we followed pig trails. We finally met up with the survivors and the
two medics after four days of hiking. It was a thrilling experience. We were also really thrilled to
find them because there were a couple days where we couldn't get aerial supplies. They couldn't drop
supplies to us since we were hidden by the jungle so we were pretty hungry (laugh).
Near the crash site, we set up some tents and it turned into kind of a nice little area. I knew,
after talking to the two medics that we were in for a two to three week wait because of the condition
of the survivors. So we made the area as livable as possible; we dolled it up as much as we could.
Everyday, we would get an aircraft in that would aerial resupply us. Some of the drops were good
drops; some of the drops were bad. We usually got a plane everyday, unless it was fogged in. Supplies
and radios were dropped, along with food and clothing. That was kind of funny because Decker and
McCollum wanted clothes, but all the clothes that came in were for the WAC Corporal (laugh). I have
forgotten, but I think it was three or four dozen bras, and we all howled. I finally got on the horn
and I told them this was ridiculous. Sergeant Decker needed clothing and I listed what he needed along
with things Lieutenant McCollum needed. Later, we buried the bodies of some of the other people who
were in the wreck; the ones that were identifiable. Graves and Registration came in a couple of years
later and buried the other bodies that we weren't able to find. They tried to get me to go back in but,
luckily, I was on my way to Japan. I didn't want to go back in.
The natives, near the crash site, were very friendly. There was a small village of two or three
families, up by where the plane crashed. They were very friendly with the three survivors for about
five days before the medics arrived. After four weeks up there, the survivors were strong enough to
walk out of there on their own, [and] we walked down to base camp.
Meanwhile, the press had latched on to the story and dubbed it Shangri La. The press, in fact,
insisted that one of their own join us and Alec McCann was dropped in. With hardly any training and
after downing a fifth of Boord's gin, he made the jump. He was great. Later in the mission, we were
getting mail dropped and my wife was even starting to send me clippings. After this was over, I asked
Alec why we got so much press. He said it was a dead news time since, at the time, the Philippines
were under control and Okinawa hadn't taken place, yet. He said, "You, also, had a WAC that was on
the plane, so the press thought this was unbelievable copy."
As it turned out, where we set up the base camp was really a natural fit for where the gliders
eventually landed. There were some scrub bushes and stuff like that we had to chop down and clear away,
but it was pretty much a natural landing area for gliders. Gliders don't need the fanciest field to
land; as long as you get rid of stumps and that sort of thing, you are in pretty good shape.
On July 2, 1945, after having spent forty-two days in the jungle and after we hacked out the
landing area, we were ready for a glider to land. We only used one glider at a time. The Army Air
Force was concerned because they had to get up to about 10,000 feet once they snatched the glider
from the ground. It was one of the highest recorded glider pickups; it was over 5,000 feet.
(Editor's note: It was, also, only the second Glider Landing in the PTO excluding the use of gliders
in CIB). They didn't want to take more than four or five people out at a time, so we made multiple
trips. Because of the high altitude, they did not want to risk having the tow plane stall out, which
they thought was a possibility. On the first pick up, they did experience some difficulty; the pilot
realized he didn't give it enough stuff and he readjusted; from then on we were all right. I came out
on the third glider. The survivors came out on the first glider and my men were spaced out in between.
I was kind of like the captain of the ship, the last one to get out. I had my three senior non-coms
with me. We enjoyed it and one of my men found some boar tusks. We fixed up our fatigue hats to look
like, I don't know what, but it was pretty fancy (laugh).
The more I look back on it, there could have been some bad things. As it turned out, everything
turned out great and it was a most memorable time in my life.
(Editor's note: Shortly after the rescue mission, Walter and his cadre of instructors went back to the
503rd RCT and the Battalion was deactivated.)
Interview with Earl Walter 11/25/98
Speacial thanks to Les Hughs for supplying additional information on this material.
Copyright 1998 Patrick O’Donnell
Lees ook het artikel: Suzy
Er zijn ook boeken over verschenen:
Rescue From Shangri-la by Edward Imparato
Published January 30, 1997 by Turner Publishing Company (KY)
Written in English.
The Physical Object
Number of pages: 200
Lost in Shangri-la By Mitchell Zuckoff
On Sale: 1/05/2011
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Shangri-la: The Epic True Story of a World War II Plane Crash into the Stone Age By Mitchell Zuckoff
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Mitchell Zuckoff Biography
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