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Monday, January 21, 2013

Under the Wire: Bestselling WWII Memoir of an American Spitfire Pilot and Legendary POW Escape-Artist by William Ash and Brendan Foley



Re-published by CreateSpace in November 2012.

Despite the fact that this will be the third posting of the year for me, this was actually the first book that I read in 2013 and it may very well be the best book that I will read all year.

William Ash, now age 95, and his co-author Brendan Foley have created an immensely readable, very enjoyable story about young Bill Ash, an American who joined the Brits in fighting the Nazis by flying a Spitfire (a fighter plane) before America even joined the war.

Ash begins his story by telling about the difficulties of growing up in the Great Depression in Texas. Somehow, he managed to get a college degree, even though there were no jobs to be found for this new college grad. So, he hit the road, riding trains, traveling the country and living in hobo camps. One day he heard that the Canadians were looking for fighter pilots to send to England and they would even take Americans who renounced their citizenship.

The last operating Spitfire to survive The Battle of Britain.
Photo by Adrian Pingstone in 2008.
Ash's reasons for joining are a rather vague mishmash of looking for adventure, wanting a steady paycheck, wanting to fly and wanting to fight the Nazis, but that's okay. The story has been good so far and it only gets better as Ash talks about the joys of a full belly and learning to fly. Soon enough, he's off to England and set up in a Spitfire, England's hotshot iconic fighter plane of the war.

Ash's description of this plane and the way it handled makes you love it and appreciate the skill of Ash and all of his comrades. Eventually, as indicated by the lengthy title of this book, Ash is shot down over France. The story of how he hides for weeks from the Germans and eventually ends up in a POW camp is told in an entertaining and suspenseful manner.

In fact, the book is quite remarkable - it somehow manages to keep a sense of tension alive throughout the book even though the reader knows how it all ends after reading the three page Foreward. Bill Ash survives the war despite being shot out of the sky and being kept in multiple POW camps. He makes an incredible number of escape attempts, trying for a "home run" (a successful run all of the way back to Allied territory). But, Bill's sense of humor shines through and you just keep rooting for this crazy character who starts plotting his next escape as he sits through the solitary confinement he received as punishment for attempting his last escape.

The story can be heartbreaking, often gritty and matter-of-fact about abuses he and his fellow prisoners endured. I was struck by the descriptions of how they dug tunnels under the fence. If you have seen the movie The Great Escape, you know the basics of how it was done but Ash and Foley's re-telling is so vivid and visceral that it caused me to have a claustrophobic panic attack (I suffer from claustrophobia). I had to put the book down and then I picked it up and finished that section so I wouldn't have to go through two panic attacks. It is that good.

But, none of this detail would matter if you just didn't love Bill Ash, his sense of humor and his ever-hopeful personality.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Under the Wire.

Reviewed on January 21, 2013.

Note: I received a copy of this book from one of the authors, Brendan Foley, in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, this is a fantastic read.

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