We Die Alone

WeDieAlone

“When one’s body is worn by a long effort at the limit of its strength, and especially when its function is dulled by cold, one’s mind loses first all of its sharp appreciation of time. Incidents which are really quiet separate become blended together; the present and the immediate past are not distinct, but are all part of a vaguely defined present, of physical misery. In a person of strong character, hope for the future remains separate long after the past and present are confused. It is when the future loses its clarity too, and hope begins to fade, that death is not far away.”

-We Die Alone

We Die Alone is required reading prior to the OBXi Marine Corps Black Sea Rotational Force Training Module. AMZ


A good introduction to the fundamentals of escape and evasion is We Die Alone, A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance by David Howarth. The book is about a nearly nine week ordeal by Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian dissident who volunteers to infiltrate occupied Norway during WWII.

The story begins in the spring of 1943, with Norway occupied by the Nazis and the Allies seeking to disrupt German coastal defenses in the North. Baalsrud, and three other covert agents, smuggle themselves into their homeland using a small fishing boat crewed by eight Norwegian sailors. They are planning to spend the Norwegian summer recruiting and training resistance fighters and launching a surprise attack on a critical German air base. But Baalsrud and the crew are betrayed shortly after landfall, and a quick fight leaves him alone and trapped on a freezing island above the Arctic Circle. He is poorly clothed (one foot is entirely bare), has an initial head start of only a few hundred yards on his Nazi pursuers, and leaves a trail of blood as he crosses the snow.

Highlights of his ordeal include surviving three days wandering non-stop in the far north completely snow-blind; amputating nine of his own toes with no anesthetic and a pocket knife; and being literally buried under four feet of snow and ice for a week and – ironically – surviving the blizzard which raged above it.

The “hero” of the book turns out to be the various people he meets along the way and who volunteer to smuggle him across the frontier into Sweden at great cost and risk to themselves and their families.

The story has many lessons in the vignettes on how he survives and avoids capture:

  • Don’t give up. It bears repeating because it the crux of the entire story: “When one’s body is worn by a long effort at the limit of its strength, and especially when its function is dulled by cold, one’s mind loses first all of its sharp appreciation of time. Incidents which are really quiet separate become blended together; the present and the immediate past are not distinct, but are all part of a vaguely defined present of physical misery. In a person of strong character, hope for the future remains separate long after the past and present are confused. It is when the future loses its clarity too, and hope begins to fade, that death is not far away.” Don’t give up. This passage has application in all facets of life.
  • Survival and evasion eventually requires reliance on others. The more extreme the environment, the sooner you will need assistance. During his journey, Jan would not have survived without the help of many courageous villagers in the isolated, yet very connected and tribal, northern Norway. It will be critical that people sympathize, and trust the person they come in contact with. Baalsrud was very careful about the information he shared and how he presented it it. By doing so, he reduced the anxiety of those he came in contact with, establishing rapport and trust as a priority. All formal US military SERE courses include a local support or “supporting insurgent” component during training because of this.
  • The more you are forced to rely on others, the more operational risk you will have. This is a no brainer and thus the balancing act. Remember, relying on others may also mean relying on their resources (i.e., shelter, food, clothing, vehicles, boats, etc.) without the “others” knowledge. Of course, by doing so, it may create the perception that you are a common criminal and no quarter will be given if discovered. The evader must always balance the risks associated with using local resources without permission with revealing him/herself to a potential friendly asset. Baalsrud’s crew revealed their intentions right off the bat to the wrong person and paid for it with their lives quickly.
  • The more you know, the less you need (at least in the short term). Baalsrud was on the run with not much more than what he was wearing and a boot on one foot. REI commandos take heed! This is said tongue in cheek, of course, because there are many unanswered questions in the book like what type of fire starter Baalsrud uses, as well as his fuel, food and specific items of clothing and shelter he is provided from the various people he came in contact with.

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