Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘We Die Alone’
‘We Die Alone’
Paperback: 231 pages
The Lyons Press
There is no shortage of heroes and heroic deeds remembered from World War II. But, as is common in such a long and encompassing war, countless tales of struggles of brave men and women have slipped through the cracks; many would be forgotten if it were not for books such as David Howarth’s “We Die Alone.”
Written in 1955, it is the true account of the extraordinary survival of one expatriated Norwegian in the isolated, Nazi-occupied region of arctic Norway, after his commando team’s tragic failed mission to aid the Norwegian Resistance.
In 1943, eight sailors and four soldiers set out on a nearly impossible journey with an even more difficult goal. Disguised as fisherman, the 12 Norwegians set sail from England during the dark days of Hitler’s occupation. They hoped to pass unseen and land in the remote northern reaches of Norway, with the intention of outfitting and aiding the war effort from land.
In gripping detail, Howarth paints vivid imagery of the wild and unforgiving landscape in which the men find themselves. Things go quickly awry, of course, and this true story’s real hero emerges after the men must destroy their booby-trapped fishing vessel when a German patrol happens upon them.
All souls are lost, either captured or killed, save one. Jan Baalsrud finds himself on the run; he knows his best chance at survival is to take to the mountains and find his way to Sweden.
With one bare foot, no food and otherwise ill equipped for an overland journey, Baalsrud knows he has no choice but to trust in the local population. But, in times of war, the first instinct is to protect one’s own, even if it means sacrificing someone else. Baalsrud discovers this bitter truth the hard way and is betrayed. Nonetheless, there are countless others who come to his aid, risking their lives and the lives of their families.
After the initial acts of faithlessness and furor, the rest of the book is a whirlwind survival adventure in the high arctic tundra. Baalsrud’s sheer will to persevere is astounding and nearly superhuman. Countless times, just when the reader is sure he is dead, Baalsrud is assisted by a team of compassionate saviors, and his unimaginable journey toward the safety of neutral Sweden inches forward, through deep snow, avalanches and one unfortunate circumstance after another. Truly an extraordinary reading experience, “We Die Alone” will stay with you long after the last pages of the book are turned.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.