Hans-Otto Meissner (1909-1992) enjoyed a writing career with three different specialties: political history books, travelogues and adventure fiction. After attending universities at Heidelberg and Trinity, the majority of his life was diplomatic work in London, Moscow, Milan and Tokyo. Utilizing his world travels, Meissner retired and began his career as a successful author. My first experience with Meissner is the novel “Duel in the Snow.” It was originally released in German in 1964. It was later re-printed and published at least three more times in 1970, 1972 and the pictured 1974 reprinting by Pyramid. Each iteration features different cover art.
In December 1941, the US was bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Six months later the Japanese targeted another US property, the island of Attu. Focusing all of their efforts on Europe, the US forgot to guard the back door, so the Japanese forces occupied the island and began constructing landing strips that they hoped to use for bombing runs on America's West Coast cities. The location of Attu is important because it lies just off the coast of Alaska. In fact, in 1935 General Billy Mitchell advised the US Congress that whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. He felt it was the most important strategic place on the planet.
The opening pages of Meissner's novel depict the quick occupation of Attu and introduces key characters to the narrative – Japanese Captain Hidaka and Alaskan game warden McCluire. With Attu's grueling weather patterns, complete with frigid temperatures and howling winds, the actual launching of fighter planes from the island was a harrowing endeavor. Meissner's fictional narrative has the Japanese forces conceiving a plan to parachute a dozen soldiers into the northern section of Alaska. Led by the talented Hidaka, their mission is to transmit the weather patterns back to leaders on Attu so they can plan air attacks accordingly. Knowing that the radio broadcasts will be intercepted by US intelligence, the Japanese team will need to consistently travel through the wilderness avoiding detection, never residing in one location for too long. Hidaka's team realizes they will never be retrieved and that this is essentially a do-and-die mission.
Learning of the Japanese mission, the US doesn't have enough resources to allocate to Alaska for a seek and destroy operation. They would need men who not only possess combat experience, but men who are familiar with this barren stretch of frosty wilderness. After assembling a small team of inexperienced Alaskan scouts, US military brass enlists Alaskan game warden and survivalist extraordinaire McCluire to lead the expedition. McCluire hesitantly agrees and the narrative is set into motion with the team hunting Hidaka through the snowy mountains.
How this novel has flown under the radar is beyond me. At a robust length of 256-pages, I was entranced. Meissner's keen ability to develop both parties into likable foes and the patience he uses to create white-knuckle suspense is just so rewarding for the reader. Under the guiding hand of another author, the book could have been rather one-dimensional. While offering the obligatory “seek and destroy” theme, Meissner introduces Alaskan history, regional and Japanese fighting customs and a surreal look at grim survival. Western fans will love the rugged Alaskan interior while military fiction (and even non-fiction) enthusiasts will gravitate to this rather unknown chapter of the war – The Battle of Attu.
No matter which sub-genre you enjoy, the overwhelming sensation is adventure. Hans Meissner has created a stunning action-packed novel that I nearly read in one sitting. I found myself re-arranging my day to avoid any stoppage in the story. I think this book will have that same effect on you. Go hunt down a copy of this extraordinary book.
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