The 12th Man remains unforgotten

Commemorating the bravery of World War II hero Jans Baalsrud

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C

12th man

The 12th Man is the story of Jan Baalsrud, a World War II hero who risked his life to serve his country—and survived against all odds.

The story of Norwegian Jan Baalsrud reads like a thrilling work of fiction. It is hard to believe that it is actually the true account of a remarkable man who managed to escape his German pursuers against all odds.

After the Germans occupied Norway on April 9, 1940, the Norwegians soon began an armed resistance. Baalsrud was risking his life when he joined 11 other men to carry supplies from the Shetland Islands to the coast of Norway for members of the Resistance. It was an extremely dangerous mission, and its success was by no means guaranteed.

The 12 men set out in a small fishing vessel from the port of Scalloway across one of the most treacherous waterways in the world. They were carrying machine guns, 8 tons of dynamite, explosives, a ham-radio transmitter, survival kits, and other provisions to unload on the west coast of southern Norway, 210 miles away.

They made it to the coast of Norway but were soon discovered by the Germans lurking in the area, who began shooting and managed to kill everyone in the boat with the exception of Baalsrud, who miraculously was able to escape. He was the only survivor of the attack, The 12th Man. He was then on his own, and his chances of surviving were negligible. But survive he did and he became a legend in his own time!

However, many conflicting stories began to circulate about his feat. Finally, decades later, Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug decided it was time to set the record straight. This book is the result of their meticulous work to discover the true story.

They set out to interview as many people as possible who were involved in hiding Baalsrud from the Germans who were in hot pursuit. These kind individuals themselves risked their own lives by helping him.

The authors also explain the tremendous courage and determination that he had to survive. He never gave up. He not only had to escape from the German Gestapo, but he also had to fight both the freezing Arctic temperatures and starvation.

And he had to be wary when encountering his fellow countrymen. He could never be sure whether the ones he met were trustworthy. Some Norwegians were jøssings (patriots), but others were quislings (traitors) working with the German occupiers.

The authors are to be commended for their exhaustive research to provide an accurate account of what actually happened during one of the darkest, if not the darkest, periods in the history of Norway.

The story of Jan Baalrsud has been made into a movie—twice. The first time was the production Ni liv (Nine Lives), written, directed, and produced by Arne Skouen.

A newer film released in  2017, The 12th Man, was written by Petter Skavlan,  directed by Harald Zwart, and produced by Veslemøy Zwart. It is available to see via major streaming services.

But the film should not be the substitute for the book, which should definitely be read as well.

Scott, Astrid Karlsen & Haug, Tore (2017) The 12th Man: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance. Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. (skyhorsepublishing.com)

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue ofThe Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.