High drama on the ‘Hump’
Story of WWII soldiers in ‘Lost in Tibet’ hits the mark

by Amy Maestas

Lost in Tibet: The Untold Story of Five American Airmen, a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive, by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt. The Lyons Press. 210 pages

The fundamentals of a good war story are not set in concrete. After all, war is not an everyday occasion. More so, relatively few are engaged in the ongoing battle when conflict is raging. But for sure, having high stakes and an unknown outcome always makes for a compelling tale, which is exactly the case in Lost in Tibet: The Untold Story of Five American Airmen, a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive.

From the get go, Boulder-based authors Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt set up this World War II account with straightforward explanations of those high stakes; nowhere is the book bogged down with war jargon so that it scares off anyone but war and history buffs. It's a welcome and refreshing addition to the collection of war stories.

In 1943, five American soldiers were flying supplies from Assam, India, to the Sichuan province in northern China along a treacherous route across the Himalayas, the legendary mountains along the Tibetan/Indian border. The exercise was part of a promise that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made to the Chinese government. When the U.S. entered World War II four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt decided to lend a hand to China and supply them with necessary equipment to fight Japan.

But because the Japanese destroyed the various routes that would otherwise get supplies to Kunming, Roosevelt had to commit unwaveringly to a dangerous mission - making his troops fly over the Santsung Range. The mountains in the range were so high and hazardous, they earned the moniker of the "Hump." Back and forth, the U.S. airmen would fly, making sure Roosevelt's personal commitment was fulfilled. A seemingly altruistic gesture on Roosevelt's part, though, was more about keeping the Japanese troops embroiled in a fight with China rather than with his own military.

The Hump was so frightening that pilots often claimed - with only a bit of sarcasm - that they were able to keep on route simply by following the litter of the planes that wrecked before them. But the reality of the menacing range was no laughing matter. Pilots transported 650,000 tons of war goods along the 500-kilometer aerial channel. Yet, the U.S. Air Force lost 468 planes and 1,579 pilots and crewmembers.

Not among them, however, were these five airmen. Included in that group was Richard Spencer, whose family lives in Bayfield. They had come close to death only in the moments after they hastily bailed from their plane on their return route to their base in Jorhat, India. Initially, the weather - one of the two most perilous elements on this route (the other being enemy combat) - was stable. The five men boarded the C-87 in a routine fashion. Not too long after takeoff, the weather worsened and the pilot and his passengers became enshrouded in a blinding fog. One by one, the signs of doom arose. Eventually losing their direction, the airmen had to jump from the plane before it went down on its own from empty gas tanks.

Miraculously, all five men survived the jump, with various shifts and parachute mishaps plopping them down in different places on the side of a mountain. After trekking to lower ground, all men eventually met up in a most unfamiliar place. Certain they were lost in India, they quickly learned otherwise. Instead, the men wound up in Tibet.

This is where the real adventure begins. The airmen knew more about the geography of Tibet than they did the country's politics and culture. That ignorance was a stunning blow to their ability to get back to their base. Though yet to be fully invaded by China (which took place in 1959), Tibet had its own political crises. It was a country entirely cut off from anything Western. Amenities of any sort - roads, engines, telephones - didn't exist. Because of its long-standing clashes with China and Britain, the Tibetan government was comprised of suspicious leaders.

Imagine then, the welcome the lost airmen received when they stumbled into the forgotten country. Both Americans and Tibetans turned a cold cheek to one another initially, with both holding tight to ingrained misconceptions. Indeed, the authors write this about the airmen's perceptions of Tibet: "If the five American had thought about Tibet at all, they had done so in terms of caricature as a kind of mythical Shangri-La, a country that existed more in the mind than in reality. It was a place they might enjoy reading about, but not one they would actually want to visit."

Such ideas played second fiddle, though, to the fact that the airmen wound up as the unwitting focus of Sino-British-Tibetan politics. The book adequately explains the geopolitical warfare without dousing readers in mind-numbing minutiae. This is important, because Starks and Murcutt focus more on the diplomatic sagas than they do on the mens' contest against the elements of nature. It's hard to determine if this was intentional.

Regardless, as the story of how the airmen are shipped off to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to suffer through more government antics - even some made by their own - readers learn about their trek home. Some characters are painted with more depth than others. Because of the flat character development, readers don't get wrapped up in their personalities. The authors don't make them out to be grand heroes. Still, Lost in Tibet is an intriguing story that the authors tell without dramatic prose yet enough action and adventure to keep turning pages. It does deserve to be told. ?






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