Survival – An Extraordinary Example

Survival is one of the strongest instincts and drivers for humans, animals and any living organism.

St. Olav's  Medal with Oak Branch - Wikipedia Creative Commons

St. Olav’s Medal with Oak Branch – Wikipedia Creative Commons

Why do some individuals survive and others succumb to different levels of hardship, adversity or danger? I wrote about one story of survival under conditions that would have killed most people in this post.

Losing the instinct for survival, the will or desire to survive, can mean either a long miserable descent to a lingering end or a sudden death, depending on the circumstances.

The incredible story of Jan Baalsrud, a member of the Norwegian resistance during WWII is an extraordinary example of survival under harsh conditions for a lengthy period.

A detailed account of his mental toughness, physical endurance and resilience is reported in the New York Times Magazine .

On 29 March 1943. Jan Baalsrud age 25, was on a small boat in a fjord in Northern Norway. The boat was delivering explosives to local resistance units when it was attacked by German troops. To prevent the cargo being captured, the crew set fire to it.

Jan Baalsrud swam to shore through the icy water. He lost one boot and arrived on the shore with no food, water, map or any sort of plan. He did have a pistol and used it to evade capture.

That was the start of a 9 week, 450 mile journey on foot, by boat, skis, up and down mountains to safety at the Swedish border.

Along the way, he was buried up to his neck in an avalanche, stranded without cover for days in freezing conditions. He cut off nine of his own toes to prevent gangrene spreading to his foot and killing him.

At one point he attempted to shoot himself but the mechanism of his gun had frozen. At another, he told his rescuers to abandon him.

There is much more in the article, I urge you to read it. It is an account of ultimate survival under conditions and in circumstances few of us can imagine. It is also a tale of the different reactions of people when faced with adversity. Some assisted him knowing the dangers for themselves and their families. Others were ready to hand him over to the German occupiers.

There are more details on his Wikipedia page. This reference mentions that after 8 months in a Swedish hospital, he was sent to Britain. There he trained Norwegian resistance fighters being prepared for deployment behind enemy lines in Norway. He was sent back to Norway as an agent and was still on active duty at the end of the war.

Despite being awarded the MBE and St. Olav medal, he did not seek publicity for his achievements and the sacrifices he made for his country.

From the book about him  “We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance,” by David Howarth *

Even at the end, Baalsrud’s thoughts were never far from the capriciousness of fate: Who lives and who dies, who survives and who doesn’t, who is most deserving of honor and praise.

I believe capriciousness of fate is only part of it. I have had some “near misses” in my life that were certainly the result of the that. But it was inner strength, perseverance and resilience that allowed Jan Baalsrud to survive an experience that would have killed most of us.

A brilliant example of survival.

Most of us will not need to survive arduous journeys over enemy controlled, icy mountains. However, we do need to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. It is not the capriciousness of fate that will decide who survives and who succumbs the challenges of changing conditions in the years ahead.

Making the right choices, perseverance, determination and resilience are as important now as they were for Jan Baalsrud in the mountains of Norway.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  4 comments for “Survival – An Extraordinary Example

  1. April 1, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    Survival of the fittest comes to mind Peter. It’s sink or swim. When faced with such unimaginable circumstances you have to choose to keep going or give up. I can only relate when I think of my mom who has been living in the world of dementia for 17 years. The thought of losing your mind and knowing it’s happening is cruel. Some choose not to fight and others like mom choose to accept whatever is thrown her way and keep going. Even in the very late stages of the disease mom fights everyday to live her life to the fullest. I don’t know if I would be as brave. I don’t think we will ever know until we are forced into a situation where we have no choice. Will we fight till the very end or succumb ? Great article. Makes you wonder what are we made of.

    • Peter
      April 5, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      Thank you for your comment Michele. What I and many of my fellow farmers found during the problems we had in Zimbabwe was that the anticipation of disaster, losing our farms and being attacked was worse than the reality when it eventually happened to us. It seemed too terrible to contemplate until it happened. Then we did the best we could, got on with life and got over it. Much like Jan Baalsrud did, although I do not think many would have survived his ordeal.

  2. Roberta
    April 2, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Michelle’s comment is spot on.

    None of us really know what we would do in a scenario like this one. And so much hinges on how much we are willing to fight to live and survive.

    Jan Baalsrud’s story is an inspiration.

    • Peter
      April 5, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      I agree Roberta, as i wrote in reply to Michele, we only find out that answer when we have no choice but to fight and survive.

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