We Die Alone

March 1943 in Northern England. Four Norwegian commandos set sail for their Nazi occupied homeland. Their mission is to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. The commandos were betrayed, Germans were informed of their mission, and attacked by one of their ships as they approached the Norwegian coast. Only one of the four commandos survived.

His name is Jan Baalsrud. He managed to swim ashore, then continued swimming from one island to the next until the Germans lost sight of him. The story of the next 68-day ordeal is told by David Howarth in We Die Alone.

Battling bitter cold, frostbite, the loss of one of his boots and partially blinded by ceaseless snow, Jan swims, walks, crawls, climbs from one island to the next until he lay dying of cold and exhaustion on a beach.

After some time, he was found by two young girls who took him to their home, where he was fed, given new clothes and a few days of rest. He was then rowed to another island and began walking across steep mountain ranges in an effort to reach safety in neutral Sweden.

As if this wasn’t enough, the rest of Jan’s excursion was one misfortune after another. He spent most of his time alone, although he was helped from time to time by Norwegian villagers who at great risk to themselves and their family, tried to aid him, minimize his suffering, and move him closer to the border.

At one point he started an avalanche, fell at least 300 feet, suffered a concussion and all but his head was buried in the snow.

What kept him alive is a mystery. It was not hope, because he had none, and it was not any of the physical conditions which are usually supposed to be essential to human life. Perhaps it is nearest to the truth to put his survival down to stubborn distaste for dying in such gruesome circumstances.

Eventually he crawled out and continued on his trek until finally he stumbled into the cottage of Marius Gronvold and his family who took him in for a week to recover.

Gangrene had invaded his toes, Jan drained them and eventually cut off nine of them to save his legs. Since he could no longer walk, Gronvold and his friends built a sled to transport him up a 3,000-foot mountain where another group was supposed to meet him. But a winter storm developed that made it impossible for them to find him.

Gronvold was forced to leave Jan in a hole protected by a boulder. He spent the next 20 days in a sleeping bag immobilized in the snow, periodically supplied by Gronvold and other members of the resistance in the village.

Finally, a group of Laps and their reindeer came to his rescue and dragged his sled across the border into Sweden where he was treated in a village hospital for seven months.

We Die Alone is one of those World War II tales that defies belief. At the start, I knew Jan would survive. But I had to know how? No one could survive under those conditions. Somehow he did. However, he never couldn’t have done it without the help of a great many courageous Norwegians.

There was nobody who could share the pictures which were still so vivid in his own mind: pictures of endless snow, the cold, the glaring nights, the procession of faces of people who had offered their lives for his and whose names he had never known, the sound and smells of the northern wastelands, the solitude and hopelessness and pain.


Dom said...

Your excellent summary of the book makes it appear to be a book that should be read by anyone who wants to try to gain a fuller understanding of how the apparently impossible could be achieved by the combination of (A) a person’s sheer mental strength and determination and (B) the generosity and selflessness of strangers who would willingly risk themselves under dangerous circumstances to help a needy stranger. I cannot help but believe that reading this book will leave the reader with both greater mental strength and greater compassion.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: You are correct. You summarize my short note very well. I might add a little luck is also important and I think that's true of any distinguished accomplishment. Richard

Stefanie said...

An amazing story of survival! I read a thriller a number of years ago in which Jan made a brief appearance in the story. It was a good book but unfortunately I can't remember what the title was or anything else about it!

Richard Katzev said...

Right, an unbelievable tale. I did a little research: Was the book you forgot Defiant Courage: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug? It is listed on Jan Baalsrud's Wikipedia page.

Linda said...

Had never heard of this man. What a survival story!! There is something very powerful and mysterious about the human will to survive - and some few people are able to summon up from somewhere in their being enough of this mysterious reserve to pull through the most horrific circumstances. I guess it is different things for different people - Baalsrud did not want to die alone in that pitiless environment. I've read of Holocaust survivors who survived because they were so determined to bear witness. I remember reading about a physician who said his preferred patients were mothers of young children, because he had observed in them the strongest will to survive. It is certainly a mysterious something that transcends the physical.

Thank you for this good review - it is going on my list and I know a veteran who would love to read this.

Richard Katzev said...

The will to survive is a mystery to me, as I confess I don't have that desire. At least I can say that now in the comfort of my desk chair. Will I do everything I can to survive when I am tested? Only time will tell. And you are right about the Holocaust survivors. Some didn't want to go on; those who survived generally did. Their tale is every bit as amazing as Jan's. Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

Linda said...

Perhaps youth is an essential element. I don't know. I believe life itself, as we live on through ever mounting losses, teaches us how to let go. The young have yet to learn that.

Just my thoughts.

Richard Katzev said...

Maybe so. It's a good distinction. Age is a ceremony of losses, according to the poet Donald Hall. And don't forget that thoughts can produce a revolution. So don't dismiss your "Just my thoughts."

Stefanie said...

No, that was not the book. It was a work of fiction. It may have been Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson but I am not certain.

Richard Katzev said...

I find it terribly interesting how much we forget about the books we read and the tales they tell. I keep a commonplace book that helps me to recall those I've read. By and large it's a very reliable tool and when I review the passages from the book that I've saved, they often lead me to want to read the book again.