Tags: Jan Baalsrud, Norwegian resistance fighters, We Die Alone, world war II
I visited Norway last summer and was struck by the unanimous kindness of every single Norwegian I met. It was truly remarkable that every stranger on the street, behind the counter and in the next seat was friendly, helpful and politely deferential to me and my fellow traveling companions. It was amazing. So it was not surprising to me to read a true story about a Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II who was saved from capture and certain death – solely by the kindness of Norwegian strangers.
Norwegian exile Jan Baalsrud volunteered for a military mission in World War II that had only a small chance of success. And all 12 of the men who volunteered with him knew that failure meant a certain death. They were tasked with sailing from northern England to Nazi-occupied Norway to train resistance fighters and stage resistance operations in-country – behind enemy lines. The most challenging and dangerous part of the operation was the landing. Unfortunately, their cover as fishermen was blown and they were ambushed by the Nazis. Jan was the only survivor and his harrowing tale of surviving, foiling the Nazis and crossing to neutral territory in Sweden on foot is the stuff of legends. But, his story is all true.
Despite being shot at and chased by a small army of Nazis, he evaded capture on the coast by enlisting the help of some village children who stumbled onto his worn out body. Amazingly, the children and their family took him in and revived him – much to their own peril. This family was the first of many who risked their lives to save his and to ensure his safe crossing to Sweden. Each of several families would patch him up, stuff provisions in his pockets and send him on his way – until he became incapacitated and had to be carried.
Frostbitten and snowblind by an avalanche, he literally stumbled into a house of Norwegians who happened to be friendly to the resistance movement. This family hid him in a remote cabin and then physically carried him on a gurney up a mountain to be passed off to another group of resistance fighters who lived in the village on the other side of the mountain plateau. Through a variety of circumstances, he was forced to remain on the plateau for more than a month, while the weather improved and an adequate team could be assembled to transport the crippled Jan to Sweden. His stories of self-amputation in order to prevent gangrene from killing him, abating his hunger and warding off severe depression during this period of isolation in the wintry tundra are unfathomable. But, his survival could never have happened without the good Samaritans and Norwegian “neighbors” he encountered on his journey. It reminded me of the Underground Railroad in our own country, although I wonder if the risk to the Railroad hosts was as high as it was during World War II. Resistance fighters who were discovered by the Nazis were swiftly sent to concentration camps, tortured and killed. After meeting so many Norwegians from a variety of backgrounds last summer, I am not surprised by their daring attempt to save him and transport him to safety.
We Die Alone was first published in 1955 by a World War II veteran who ran a spy ring, David Howarth. A prolific writer of more than two dozen books, he died in 1991. The book was reprinted in 1999 with an introduction by Stephen Ambrose, which undoubtedly gave the book a bit more notoriety and reintroduced this unbelievable story of pluck, determination and survival to a new audience. But why isn’t Jan Baalsrud’s survival story more well known?