Friday, March 27, 2015

Book review: "Savage Will" by Timothy M. Gay

Like a bargain hunter finding a rare antique at a yard sale, author Timothy M. Gay has found an amazing and little-known story tucked away in World War II's dusty attic.

In 1943, a plane carrying 28 American service members 13 of them women nurses got lost in bad weather while flying out of Italy and ended up crash-landing in Albania.  All survived the crash, but getting out of Albania, a mountainous country crawling with Nazis, would be the bigger challenge.

In "Savage Will," Gay tells the story of the crash and the Americans' arduous 136-day trek to freedom.

After the crash, the Americans were taken in by Albanian "freedom fighters" opponents of the Nazis and escorted from village to village in an odyssey that sometimes turned surreal.

Entering the city of Berat, the Americans were greeted as if they are they were the vanguard of a liberating army. The Americans are feted with speeches, lavish meals and plenty of alcohol.

"They could leave us right here for the duration (of the war) and I wouldn't be too sore," joked American medic John J.P. Wolf.

But soon the Nazis attacked the city and the American fled into mountains. They hiked day after day, sometimes through snow and bitter cold, and sometimes with little to eat. Their hopes rose when a daring rescue by plane was planned, but at the last moment it was called off.  So they continued to walk.

Gay is thorough in documenting the events, but has trouble bringing the personalities involved alive. The only two characters who really stand out are British special operations agent Garry Duffy, who aided the Americans, and Albanian guerrilla fighter Hasan Jina.  Even after reading the entire book, the Americans are barely distinguishable from each other. 

In fairness, Gay is hindered by limited sources. All but one of the Americans on the trek were dead by the time Gay started his research, so he had to pull most of his information from written accounts left behind by just two of the participants.

I like at the end how Gay describes how this book came to be it's almost as amazing as the escape itself.

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