UNDER THE WIRE by William Ash


The World War II Adventures of a Legendary Escape Artist and “Cooler King”
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Memoirs of an American pilot during WWII, famous for his escape attempts as a Nazi prisoner.

Born in 1917 and now living in London, Ash has often been mentioned as one of a half-dozen or so Allied POWs who inspired the role created for actor Steve McQueen in the genre movie nonpareil, The Great Escape. Yet, in this somewhat halting narrative, he is careful to point out that no American, in fact, did escape in the daring, tediously organized breakout that became known as The Great Escape. (Ash himself had been moved to another camp prior to the event.) Nonetheless, his resourcefulness in, as he puts it, “diverting Germans from the war effort” in order to repeatedly thwart his escape schemes and clap him in the “cooler” (solitary confinement), is no less heroic. Ash’s hardscrabble youth during the Depression is sketchily recalled but gathers relevance as preparation for later POW ordeals. With a degree “in arts” from the University of Texas, he wanders through hobo jungles in the late ’30s, eventually realizing, although the U.S. remains neutral, that fighting Hitler might be a step up from the treadmill of odd jobs he seems stuck on. He walks from Detroit into Canada, fails his initial physical as a pilot candidate (he was underweight), but bulks up on Depression stew (all-you-can-eat, for a quarter) and is accepted for training on the second try. Arriving in England after the 1940 Battle of Britain, but with plenty of air action ongoing, Ash recalls classic Spitfire duels led by (mostly) British aces who helped him hone his skills until he was shot down in France and survived, sheltered by citizens, until his eventual capture.

Formulaic and self-effacing nearly to a fault—the adventures speak for themselves.

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2005
ISBN: 0-312-33832-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2005