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
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. ?