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We Die Alone: A Wwii Epic Of Escape And Endurance [Paperback]

David Howarth , Stephen Ambrose
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (368 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If this story of espionage and survival were a novel, readers might dismiss the Shackleton-like exploits of its hero as too fantastic to be taken seriously. But respected historian David Howarth confirmed the details of Jan Baalsrud's riveting tale. It begins in the spring of 1943, with Norway occupied by the Nazis and the Allies desperate to open the northern sea lanes to Russia. Baalsrud and three compatriots plan to smuggle themselves into their homeland by boat, spend the summer recruiting and training resistance fighters, and launch a surprise attack on a German air base. But he's betrayed shortly after landfall, and a quick fight leaves Baalsrud alone and trapped on a freezing island above the Arctic Circle. He's poorly clothed (one foot is entirely bare), has a head start of only a few hundred yards on his Nazi pursuers, and leaves a trail of blood as he crosses the snow. How he avoids capture and ultimately escapes--revealing that much spoils nothing in this white-knuckle narrative--is astonishing stuff. Baalsrud's feats make the travails in Jon Krakauer's Mt. Everest classic Into Thin Air look like child's play. In an introduction, Stephen Ambrose calls We Die Alone a rare reading experience: "a book that I absolutely cannot put down until I've finished it and one that I can never forget." This amazing book will disappoint no one. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This 1955 volume is one of the most remarkable survival stories ever written. Jan Baalsrud was the only survivor of a Norwegian commando team ambushed by the Nazis during World War II. Wounded and with the Germans in pursuit, Baalsrud escaped and miraculously fought his way through the Norwegian tundra to a distant village, where he was saved by locals who helped spirit him to Sweden. Baalsrud suffered frostbite and snowblindness, came through an avalanche, and lived to tell the tale. This edition has a new introduction by Citizen Soldiers' author Stephen Ambrose.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Jan Baalstrud encountered some of the most harrowing adventures yet recorded about the survivors of the Second World War . . . A mere outline of Jan's adventures cannot possibly suggest the emotional impact that Mr. Howarth creates by his sharp selection of revealing details and his terse skill in telling a plain, unvarnished tale. We Die Alone fills one with humber admiration for the stubborn courage of a man who refused to die under circumstances that would have killed ninety-nine men out of a hundred and with almost equal admiration for the many men and women who never hesitated to help him as best they could, knowing full well that death was the mildest punishment they could expect for their heroic 'crime.'" --The New York Times
"One of the great escape stories of our time." --Chicago Sun-Times
"Almost unbelievable. We Die Alone is a spine chiller. It may well become a legend." --Boston Post

From the Inside Flap

March 2, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
By DAVID BROOKS

The United States, a nation of 300 million, won nine gold medals this year in the Winter Olympics. Norway, a nation of 4.7 million, also won nine. This was no anomaly. Over the years, Norwegians have won more gold medals in Winter Games, and more Winter Olympics medals over all, than people from any other nation.

There must be many reasons for Norway's excellence, but some of them are probably embedded in the story of Jan Baalsrud.

In 1943, Baalsrud was a young instrument maker who was asked to sneak back into Norway to help the anti-Nazi resistance.

His mission, described in the book "We Die Alone" by David Howarth, was betrayed. His boat was shelled by German troops. Baalsrud dove into the ice-covered waters and swam, with bullets flying around him, toward an island off the Norwegian coast. The rest of his party was killed on the spot, or captured and eventually executed, but Baalsrud made it to the beach and started climbing an icy mountain. He was chased by Nazis, and he killed one officer.

He was hunted by about 50 Germans and left a trail in the deep snow. He'd lost one boot and sock, and he was bleeding from where his big toe had been shot off. He scrambled across the island and swam successively across the icy sound to two other islands. On the second, he lay dying of cold and exhaustion on the beach.

Two girls found and led him to their home. And this is the core of the story. During the next months, dozens of Norwegians helped Baalsrud get across to Sweden. Flouting any sense of rational cost-benefit analysis, families and whole villages risked their lives to help one gravely ill man, who happened to drop into their midst.

Baalsrud was clothed and fed and rowed to another island. He showed up at other houses and was taken in. He began walking across the mountain ranges on that island in the general direction of the mainland, hikes of 24, 13 and 28 hours without break.

A 72-year-old man rowed him the final 10 miles to the mainland, past German positions, and gave him skis. Up in the mountains, he skied through severe winter storms. One night, he started an avalanche. He fell at least 300 feet, smashed his skis and suffered a severe concussion. His body was buried in snow, but his head was sticking out. He lost sense of time and self-possession. He was blind, the snow having scorched the retinas of his eyes.

He wandered aimlessly for four days, plagued by hallucinations. At one point he thought he had found a trail, but he was only following his own footsteps in a small circle.

Finally, he stumbled upon a cottage. A man named Marius Gronvold took him in. He treated Baalsrud's frostbite and hid him in a remote shed across a lake to recover.

He was alone for a week (a storm made it impossible for anyone to reach him). Gangrene invaded his legs. He stabbed them to drain the pus and blood. His eyesight recovered, but the pain was excruciating and he was starving.

Baalsrud could no longer walk, so Gronvold and friends built a sled. They carried the sled and him up a 3,000-foot mountain in the middle of a winter storm and across a frozen plateau to where another party was supposed to meet them. The other men weren't there, and Gronvold was compelled to leave Baalsrud in a hole in the ice under a boulder.

The other party missed the rendezvous because of a blizzard, and by the time they got there, days later, the tracks were covered and they could find no sign of him. A week later, Gronvold went up to retrieve Baalsrud's body and was astonished to find him barely alive. Baalsrud spent the next 20 days in a sleeping bag immobilized in the snow, sporadically supplied by Gronvold and others.

Over the next weeks, groups of men tried to drag him to Sweden but were driven back, and they had to shelter him again in holes in the ice. Baalsrud cut off his remaining toes with a penknife to save his feet. Tired of risking more Norwegian lives, he also attempted suicide.

Finally, he was awoken by the sound of snorting reindeer. A group of Laps had arrived, and under German fire, they dragged him to Sweden.

This astonishing story could only take place in a country where people are skilled on skis and in winter conditions. But there also is an interesting form of social capital on display. It's a mixture of softness and hardness. Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience. That's a cultural cocktail bound to produce achievement in many spheres.

From the Back Cover

“A book that I absolutely could not put down . . . and one that I will never forget.”
—Stephen E. Ambrose
“One of the great escape stories of our time.”
—Chicago Sun-Times
“We Die Alone is a spine chiller. It may well become a legend.”
—Boston Post

Here is one of the most exciting escape narratives to emerge from the challenges and miseries of World War II. In March 1943, a team of expatriate Norwegian commandos sailed from northern England for Nazi-occupied arctic Norway to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. But they were betrayed, and the Nazis ambushed them. Only one man survived—Jan Baalsrud. This is the incredible and gripping story of his escape.
Frostbitten, blinded by the snow, and pursued by the Nazis, Jan dragged himself forward until he reached a small arctic village. He was near death, delirious, and a virtual cripple. But the villagers, at mortal risk to themselves, were determined to save him, and—through impossible feats—they did.
We Die Alone is an astonishing true story of heroism and resilience. Like Slavomir Rawicz’s classic The Long Walk, and the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance, it is also an unforgettable portrait of the determination of the human spirit.

About the Author

David Howarth ran a spy ring during World War II. He was also the author of two dozen major books of history.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A SHORT EXCERPT FROM WE DIE ALONE

Jan Baalsrud set out in 1943 with a team of commandos to establish resistance to the Nazis in his native Norway. Upon landing, his eleven comrades were captured and killed. Only Baalsrud survived by killing a Gestapo officer and swimming through frigid waters. Shot in the foot, he set off for neutral Sweden. During his mountainous trek, he goes snowblind, is injured in an avalanche, suffers frostbite, and nearly starves while hiding in a snowcave. He is finally-remarkably-pulled to freedom by a team of reindeer as German bullets fly overhead. This short excerpt explains how, while hiding in a snow cave awaiting help, he found the courage to amputate his toes. This act of self mutilation probably saved his life. It is just one short, amazing piece of a fascinating book.

"He was still under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that gangrene would go on spreading, unless one got rid of it, like dry rot in a house. The source of it all was his toes. They were not part of him any more, although they were still attached to him, and it seemed only common sense that he would be better off without them. There was nobody he could expect to help him; but now the time and the chance had come, and he made his preparations to cut off his toes himself. He still had his pocket-knife, and he still had some brandy. With the brandy as anaesthetic, and the knife as scalpel, lying curled up on his side in the snow with his leg drawn up so that he could reach it, he began carefully to dissect them one by one. It would have been best to get it all over quickly, but apart from the pain and the sickening repulsion, it was difficult to cut them; more difficult than he had expected. He had to find the joints. His hands were rather clumsy and very weak, because there ha! d been some frostbite in his fingers too, and the knife was not so sharp as it had been. He grimly persevered, and slowly succeeded. As each one was finally severed, he laid it on a small ledge of rock above him where he could see it, because he no longer had the strength to throw it far away. After each one he had to stop, to get over the nausea and dope himself with brandy. Someone had brought him some cod liver oil ointment, and he smeared a thick slab of it on each wound and tied it in place with a strip of blanket. This grisly operation was spread out over nearly three days. At the end of it, there were nine toes on the ledge. The little toe on his left foot did not seem so bad as the others, so he kept it." --From We Die Alone (pages 194-195) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From AudioFile

In this awe-inspiring story, Jan Baalsrud of Norway, along with other resistance fighters, is sent from Britain to northern Norway in March 1943. Someone rats on them, and they're ambushed with Jan, minus one shoe and a toe, escaping alone in the snow and cold. Helped along the way by a number of his countrymen, Baalsrud survives an avalanche, snow-blindness, being buried alive in the snow for over a week, and more before being taken over the border by the Lapps into Sweden on a reindeer sledge. Stuart Langston's narration is an apt fit. His delivery is as spare as the text and every bit as intriguing. His voice has a force of delivery that makes this exciting and unbelievable tale one that the listener will want to hear in one sitting. M.T.F. © AudioFile 2002, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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