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Books: Apocalyptic March

3 minute read

MAYBE I’M DEAD (408 pp.)—Joe Klaas —Macmillan ($4.50).

On the polar-cold morning of Jan. 28, 1945, 2nd Lieut. Jim Weis of the U.S. Army Air Forces scowled bleakly at his barbed-wire confines and remarked to some fellow P.W.s: “Maybe I’m dead and don’t know it.” For some 10,000 captured Allied airmen in Stalag Luft III. a German prisoner-of-war camp in East Prussia, hell began that night.

The German armies were in full retreat from their disastrous Russian campaign. On half an hour’s notice, the prisoners were ordered to march west, through 40°-below-zero cold, across the same winter terrain where Napoleon’s ragged foot soldiers once made their own decimating retreat from Moscow. Having lived on half rations for nearly a year, the shaky, shaggy marchers had more to fear than hunger or freezing. Their long, anonymous column made a tempting target for Allied air power, beginning the final sky mop-up in Europe.

The forced march, which cost scores of lives, is the factual backbone of ex-Newsman Joe Klaas’s first novel. Like the book’s hero Jim Weis, Seattle-born Author Klaas got into World War II in one of Britain’s Eagle Squadrons as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. After Pearl Harbor. Joe Klaas, like Hero Weis, was “sold” to the U.S. Army Air Force for $35,000.* Like Weis, he was shot down in Tunisia by Luftwaffe fighters, resold by an Arab to the Germans for $20, spent two years behind Nazi fences, and finally took part in the apocalyptic march he writes about.

To retrace his P.W. characters’ lives, Novelist Klaas uses the familiar time-machine or flashback technique. Wyoming Schoolteacher Fritz Heine is a home-loving navigator who has never really navigated; Bombardier Robert Montgomery (pleasantly plagued by his cinemactor name) is a Texan who winds up gladly admitting that a hot pilot known only as Thunderbird. “a guy with seven Air Medals, two D.F.C.s and a D.S.C., is no ordinary nigger.” The book’s only homegrown villain, Colonel Condon, was booted from West Point after his third year for cheating on a French exam, now nobly carries on by bartering stolen food for his emaciated comrades’ wristwatches. Standard Nazis, snarling or whining as occasion demands, fill out the cast on the long road to another prison camp and, finally, to Allied victory. Maybe I’m Dead lacks the dramatic pinnacles of truly stirring war fiction. Yet it is impressive for its inexorable credibility, and its very sketchiness gives it the fascination of daily war communiques, tersely measuring ground gained against a scale of fallen men.

*Britain, desperate for trained pilots to stem Hitler’s air blitz, set up the first of her three Eagle Squadrons, made up of U.S. volunteers, in 1940. Two years later, with the U.S. in the war, Britain transferred the Eagles wholesale to the A.A.F., was duly compensated for the R.A.F.’s cost of training them.

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