Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Under the Wire: The Bestselling Memoir of an American Spitfire Pilot and Legendary POW Escaper by William Ash and Brendan Foley

Few in this world 'live in interesting times' and even fewer, one could argue, live 'interesting lives'. William Ash, however, can lay claim to both. Growing up in depression era America, Ash lived a hard yet adventurous life in Texas during the 1930s. Soon he found himself hopping trains and moving around the US with other job-seekers as America, and much of the world, experienced a period few could imagine getting any worse. Yet while the economy would eventually improve, it came at the cost of a World War that took the lives of some 60 million. Ash was not one to sit out the war and while the United States retained her neutral position. He went across the border into Canada to sign up with the RAF and forgo his American citizenship as the Second World War had begun and entered its second year with soon enough Great Britain, and her present and former colonies, being the last German opponent on the continent. Ash takes us through flight training and his eventual voyage to England where he was introduced to the plane he would fight and be shot down in, the Spitfire. His career as a pilot didn't last very long, so the majority of the book is taken up with stories of being on the run in occupied territory, living as a POW and his numerous escape attempts.

Soon after being shot down Ash becomes part of the French resistance network that worked to get allied pilots out of occupied territory and back to England to fight another day. Unfortunately, he was shot down just after a traitor had done tremendous damage to the network and French resistance fighters were attempt to rebuild it. Thus, Ash was never able to get out of France and found himself living with a couple in the middle of Paris for weeks. During that time he was even able to take in some sights! Sadly, this arrangement didn't last long and soon the Gestapo broke through the front door and arrested the couple and Ash. After being interrogated and beaten by the Gestapo, Ash was handed over into the hands of the Luftwaffe and put into his first POW camp.

 Being in a POW camp didn't suit Ash much, so he begins to think up ways to escape his current situation and somehow reach England. He attempts to escape from various camps located in Germany, Poland, and Lithuania but again and again he is caught, thrown into isolation, and released to try again. Much of what Ash recalls has to do with German treatment of western prisoners of war and their time in confinement. It seems many attempted to escape, but there were also those who became content with their lot and chose to wait out the war or help those escaping in other ways (distracting guards, creating fake uniforms, passes, etc.). It is somewhat amazing to see how sophisticated escape attempts became and how detail oriented one had to be in order to not only successfully escape but also make it back to England.

 To the author's credit, while he mainly concentrates on the actions of British, Canadian, and American POWs there is a minor yet frank discussion of Soviet POWs and the fate many suffered in German camps. Their deaths numbered in the millions and while western POWs were put in lice-infested barracks and served meals with minimal caloric nutrition, Soviet POWs were left to the elements without a roof over their head and surrounded by barbed wire while slowly starved to death or forsaken to die of various diseases and infections.

 Although there are many stories related about daring escapes and what happened to those men after (at times it's hard to keep track of all the characters introduced), the idea of POW 'escapologists' raises the question of if the western allies had so many escapes (and their POW numbers were quite minimal when compared to, for instance, Soviet POWs) how many and what type of escapes were there on the Eastern Front? Unfortunately, this is one aspect of the Eastern Front that will remain either unknown or related in limited anecdotal tales. First, the Germans would hardly allow Red Army soldiers to escape more than once if caught (something that also changed for western POWs following 'The Great Escape'). Secondly, for the Soviet Union, prisoners were automatically labeled 'traitors to the motherland' while in the west it almost seems as if they were on 'temporary leave' - awaiting the next opportunity to attempt an escape and rejoin the fight. (That is not to say that allied POWs did not suffer during their time in confinement, but their treatment can not readily be compared to that of their Soviet counterparts.) Thus, few Red Army soldiers would be willing to admit they spent time as POWs in German hands, and without that acknowledgment, there's simply no room for 'escape' stories.

 For all of Ash's escape attempts, he was truly successful only at the end of the war when his entire POW camp was put on the move, trying to evade Red Army forces and the Western allies as Germany's thousand year Reich lay in ruins. The forced march these prisoners experienced is similar to those of concentration camp victims but, once more, the treatment of allied prisoners of war cannot be compared to concentration camp inmates who at the slightest pretext were killed even as the war was coming to an inevitable conclusion and defeat for the Germans. Yet, wanting to end the war on a similar note to how he started it, he escaped from his handlers and came over to allied lines, eventually being evacuated to England. So, overall, a highly entertaining and interesting story of one man's war. A volunteer from the United States who wanted to do something few others were capable of or interested in, fly and fight against the menace of Hitler on behalf of the 'underdog'.

No comments: