Learning about Owego, N.Y. native Margaret Hastings
WAVERLY, N.Y. - There are some people who seem to find adventure, one such person is Owego native Margaret Hastings. Having joined the U.S. Army to help out her country in its time of need, Hastings was stationed in the South Pacific, where she made the fateful decision to take a plane ride on May 13 several years back.
She joined some of her fellow service personnel for a sightseeing flight over Papua New Guinea. Her flight crashed into the rainforest, and Margaret was one of three survivors out of the 24 people onboard. The story was big news, and Margaret was a national sensation after their rescue.
Wondering why none of that rings a bell? Here's a hint: it wasn't called a rainforest then, it was called a jungle. It wasn't the war on terrorism, but World War II, and Margaret Hastings joined the Women's Auxiliary Corps to serve her country. The year was 1945. All of that was not enough, though. Much of Margaret's fascinating story would have been lost if not for a chance find by a contentious carpenter who found her diary while tearing down a barn near Spencer.
Finding an old handwritten book in shorthand he brought his find to the barn's owner, who said she didn't want it.
Next the carpenter tried to sell the book, but could find no buyers. Rather than throwing it out he then brought the book to the Tioga County Museum, where it found its way to County Historian Emma Sedore in 1996.
Sedore read the book and typed it out, revealing the diary of Margaret Hastings and her harrowing experience in 1945.
"It was intensely interesting to me," Sedore said. Margaret's story has been the subject of two books, one in the 90s which is out of print and somewhat valuable now, and another just last year called 'Lost in Shangri-La' by Boston University Journalism Professor Mitchell Zuckoff. Sedore helped Zuckoff with his research for the book, sharing Margaret's diary. "I am very honored to be a part of the book," Sedore said.
The C-47 aircraft nicknamed the Gremlin Special went down in the thick jungle of New Guinea while Margaret and 23 others were going to see a valley nicknamed 'Shangri-La' for the pristine beauty and numerous villages filled with people who had never had contact with the outside world. Miraculously, the aircraft did not catch fire after crashing into the side of a mountain, leaving six alive. Three would later succumb to their injuries, leaving Margaret, Lieutenant John McCollom and Sergeant Ken Decker alive.
Three days later they reached a clearing, where Sedore said they spread out a life raft salvaged from the wrecked C-47.
The trio were soon spotted by a search plane. Later that day, May 16, 1945, they were also found by native villagers from Uwambo, the villager's first contact with the outside world.
Three days later two medics parachuted into the valley to assist the survivors. The next day eight Filipino paratroopers parachuted in, and were quickly surrounded by hundreds of spear-wielding tribesman.
On June 28, 1945 the survivors and their rescuers were "snatched" up by a C-47 flying less than 20 feet off the ground. The aircraft trailed a hook which grabbed a rope attached to a glider that had been towed into the valley by the same aircraft.
After making a successful landing, as many of the rescue team that would fit and all the survivors were loaded onto the glider for their desperate rescue.
It all somehow worked, and Margaret was on her long journey back home to Owego. "I'm glad she kept the diary and proud of how she handled herself," Sedore said of Margaret's all but forgotten adventure.
A talk Sedore gave at the Susquehanna River Archaeology Center at 345 Broad St. in Waverly about Margaret Hastings was recorded by the center for the Veterans Administration, who are interested in women's health and other issues as more women serve in the armed forces.
Margaret Hastings enjoyed fame after the war, with numerous newspaper and newsreel stories about her, a meeting with General Dwight Eisenhower, and a tour to sell war bonds. Margaret married, adopting the name Atkinson. She worked at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y. until she retired from military service. Margaret passed away on November 24, 1978, unnoticed in Owego, and with only a short obituary in the Binghamton paper. Perhaps her story is best closed with what another famous general, Douglas MacArthur, once said to Congress, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."