Rescue From Shangri La

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 Shangri-La.

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Medics  Cpl. Ramirez and Sgt. Bulatao with
WAC Cpl. Margaret Hastings near the crash site.


Background on the 5217

Around December 1943, I received Top Secret orders sending me to the South Pacific to a unit that was initially called the 5217 Reconnaissance Battalion. Then it was changed to 1st Reconnaissance Battalion Special ... God I don't know where they got all these names. We had well over a thousand people. We had a Scout Company and a Signal Company. The reason for the Signal Company was to teach radio procedures and this type of thing. And the scout company was used to furnish men for what we called ‘advance missions.’ An advance mission usually was made up of 5 to 8 men in a team who were dispatched on a submarine and would be landed on places like Palawan, Mindanao and Leyte in the Philippines. The missions were mostly in the southern islands. They had one station on Luzon.

The unit was the brainchild of Colonel Whitney who was on MacArthur's staff. He later became a Brigadier General in the Korean War. Whitney had this idea and he spoke to General MacArthur about it and the General thought it was a hell of an idea and they formed a Philippine subsection on his staff. It was a permanent part of his staff and our unit was under the Philippine subsection. Most of our people were Filipinos who volunteered from the original 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments, which was mostly formed from California's Sacramento Valley. Almost all the men were American Filipinos who [had] lived in this country quite a while. Then the brass came up with the idea that the 5217 could augment their intelligence work with parachute training.


When did you start the jump school?

The jump school started a couple of months after I joined the unit; it was the early fall of 1944. It was just outside of Brisbane and was called Camp X because it was top secret [delete comma] (laugh). (Editor's note: Earl's father was in the lumber business and spent years prior to the war in remote sections of the island. When the war broke out he was a member of the Filipino resistance. ). I later saw my father and he told me that he killed this Japanese officer in the mountains of Mindanao. He went through his pockets and found a picture of me and another person coming out of this building in Brisbane. I guess Jap intelligence was pretty good. Sometime around Mid-August or early September, I started running two courses, three weeks each, and the only thing I didn't have at the camp where the towers (the jump towers) like they had at Fort Benning. I ran physical week, which we called A Stage, and then B Stage, which was tumbling exercises, positions, and leaving the aircraft. The last week was the actual jump. The only thing we didn't have was C Stage, which was on the towers, and no one was willing to buy me any towers, (laugh).

The camp was already in place but I had to build some training apparatus and things for physical training. And I built some mock-up ramps and other things to teach plane exit; jumping out of the aircraft.

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Equipment check by Tech. Sgt. Rini and Earl Walters in front of a RAAF C-47.

I was authorized, by MacArthur's Headquarters, to pick up all the gear and parachutes that I needed from the 503rd PIR because the unit had not left to go up north, yet. By the time everything went through, they had departed, but their rear party was still there. So I picked up a Tech Sergeant, named Rini, a T-5, McGeer and Privates Burns and Gladney. And they flew back to Brisbane with me and formed the cadre for the unit.

We spent 3 weeks for each session and I had roughly 40 odd people in each section. I ran 80 or 90 through the program and they received airborne training and became qualified parachutists. I finally qualified a total of 66.


What were the troops like?

These were excellent men; unbelievable men. I would take 9 out of 10 of them into Hell. They were all volunteers to start with and they volunteered again for parachute training. They were all gung-ho. The only problem was that two-thirds of them didn't weigh enough and they would float around up there. Rini and I didn't realize that the men weren't heavy enough. I remember this one little guy who kept floating around up there and he kept yelling, "Lieutenant, Lieutenant I'm not coming down!" They weighed, I don't know, 110, 120 pounds. So for the boys who were really light, we used something that Gladney came up with which was some sort of piping or something that added about 20-30 pounds to their weight and got them down.

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5217 during going the door during a practice

While you were doing the parachute training, were other elements of the unit going on missions?

Oh yeah, at the height of the operation, there were 66 stations operating in the Philippines that we called the forward area. These were teams that had been taken in by submarine. In fact, I made a couple of sub trips myself and that was quite exciting. Originally, that was how I was supposed to go in because I knew the dialect and that was where I was raised. My dad was actually there because, as I mentioned, he was a lumber executive, and when the war broke out, he joined the resistance.


When did you make the submarine trip? Was it prior to beginning the jump school?

It was August ’44, before we started jump training. It was wonderful for me because it was the first time I had seen my father in I don't know how many years, but I think that was sort of arranged by people up high that my dad would be at the rendezvous point at Mindanao. We flew to one of the Islands northeast of New Guinea and then took a sub. We took two patrols and I helped put them both ashore from the submarine [was sent/went] to Mindanao. The purpose of the patrols was to report to MacArthur what was happening; what the Japs were doing. It was similar to what the coast watcher stations had to do. I just took them ashore and my dad was there to meet them. I don't know how it was arranged but I also had a chance to meet my father. It was just wonderful because I hadn't seen dad since 1937.


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.

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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 immediate area.

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.

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Shangri-La Valley.

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