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.