Lost in Tibet: The Untold Story of Five American Airmen, a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Dropping In Uninvited

Lost in Tibet: The Untold Story of Five American Airmen, a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive


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This is a Boy’s Own type of story, with touches of Tintin – terrifically heroic and only somewhat breathlessly told. On the last day of November 1943, five Americans parachuted from a C-87 flying over the Himalayas, ‘the Hump’ as it was called. They had no idea where they were. It turned out to be Tibet.

They had been returning from China to India to pick up another load of supplies for the Chiang Kaishek forces who were fighting the Japanese. Tossed about in a storm, the pilots lost their bearings, and just as the petrol tanks were running down to ‘vapour’ the five men bailed out. None had any parachute training – ‘There’s the door, jump out’, had been the sum total of their instruction – but all survived, and even more surprisingly they landed near each other. 

The Americans’ desperate jump into the Tibetan wilderness, their rescue and entry into Lhasa, their subsequent entanglement in a triangular tug of diplomacy between the Tibetans, British and Chinese, and their wading out of Tibet to India in the dead of winter – if all this doesn’t make a ripping yarn I don’t know what does.

Richard Starks’ and Miriam Murcutt’s story is far from ‘untold’, as the authors themselves show, but they have made it come alive. They went over some of the ground in Tibet, searched US and British archives (including a long-secret debriefing of the five Americans and a quantity of the secondary literature on Tibet), and interviewed the families of the men – now dead – who sixty-two years ago leaped into Tibet.

The five parachutists, only four of whom could be described as ‘airmen’, were very young (the chief pilot was twenty-three), and from the America now remembered only in Norman Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post. Two were pilots, one was a mechanic, another the radio operator, and the fifth, a private, had hitched a ride from India to see what it felt like to fly over the Hump.

After floundering about in the mountainous cold, the Americans were found by local Tibetans and taken to the small town of Tsetang, which fortunately was only a short if tough trek over great heights from Lhasa. But in Tsetang they encountered what all uninvited visitors to Tibet encountered: the suspicion of local officials and their fear of making any decision without explicit instructions from Lhasa. Naturally these descenders from the sky amazed the population of Tsetang, who followed them about in great crowds, pressing closely even when the foreigners answered calls of nature.

Important officials eventually arrived from Lhasa, interviewed the disgruntled Americans (who wanted to go home), and escorted them to the capital. Before their arrival only six Americans had ever been to Lhasa. The five men were greeted by stone-throwing crowds, said to be angry because by flying over Lhasa – no plane had ever done that – the men had placed themselves higher than the Dalai Lama; the authors doubt this, but it is a fundamental matter for Tibetans. The crowds were angry also because one of the Americans was wearing a jacket bearing the Chinese flag, which to independence-minded Tibetans symbolised an alliance with China. News of their descent had already galvanised three parties in Lhasa. The Chinese representative wanted to make clear that he would take charge of the five Americans as a sign that Tibet was Chinese. The British official in Lhasa was determined to protect the British position, which contrived to admit that Tibet was simultaneously under Chinese ‘suzerainty’ – a hazy concept to this day – and autonomous. The Tibetans insisted that Tibet was wholly independent and that they alone should take charge of the unwelcome visitors. The Americans were visited by two of the highest officials in Lhasa, who decided they could leave for India – a horrendous walk of several weeks, over very high passes (pilots would have used oxygen at such altitudes) and in terrible weather.

The result of this wrangle was a series of lunches and dinners, some very drunken, given by the Chinese and Tibetans (Tibetan parties could last for weeks), and the genteel hospitality, including ice cream and biscuits, of the British representative and his wife, a quaint, middle-aged couple, only recently married, whose real interest was wild flowers. The wife, an old-fashioned good sort, beat them at table tennis.

The Americans cared little about where they were, thought the Tibetans very weird and childlike (which the authors do not distinguish clearly enough from their own opinion, although they have been to Tibet), and were understandably keen to get back to India. Everyone else wanted them out of town to minimise the growing row about how to resolve the diplomatic contretemps.

The final section of the book describes the men’s ordeal, all of them ill from altitude and cold, walking and riding mules over some of the hardest country in the world in winter, all the way to India. Without their guides and protectors, who had been promised nothing but stuck to them when they could have walked away in the falling snow, the Americans would have died. As it was, they stumbled into India and were fit enough to do a bit of dancing with their British hosts, one of whom was the almost legendary Basil Gould, the highest British official ever to have visited Tibet.

The Americans, even the two pilots, never saw each other again, and two of them refused to discuss their ordeal. None seemed very interested in thinking about Tibet; one of them said of his time there only that it was ‘pretty bad’.

The authors supply a reasonable potted account of Tibetan history and politics since the beginning of the nineteenth century, with some inaccuracies – such as their saying that 1.2 million Tibetans were killed by the Chinese occupiers after 1949, which would mean at least half the entire population at the time. This figure is Tibetan Exile Government propaganda. The truth, some hundreds of thousands killed, is bad enough. The book’s bibliography is inflated: why for instance include a book on the CIA’s activities in Tibet long after this story ends?

There is a scattering of infelicities that a careful editor could have expunged. It is redundant to describe Shangri-La as ‘mythical’, and Tibet was not ‘Conan Doyle’s “Lost World”’, which was semi-tropical and had never been seen by humans. As the desperate Americans eventually understood, the Tibetans who stood by them on the long trek to the Indian border ‘may have lived in an unforgiving land but they had managed to create a society that was based in part on shared acceptance’. I’m glad the authors included Basil Gould’s first words to them when they staggered into his Residency: ‘I trust you had a good trip?’

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