How One Soldier’s Overdose Got Him Through WWII

It’s March in 1944, and you’re a soldier on a mission in the wilderness during the harsh European winter. You and your unit have been skiing in in knee-deep snow for two hours straight. It’s about 5° F (and that’s the day’s high). You finally set up camp, thaw your hands out over a small fire, and try to rest.

Aimo Koivunen / Pervitin / The Temmler factory / Snowy field.
Source: Getty Images

But your enemies don’t want you to rest. Bullets are firing and you have to scramble to get your equipment and find shelter. As the enemy encroaches, you and the boys set up mines to slow them down. Soon enough, a platoon of well-rested, well-armed soldiers in snowsuits are making their way over. Decisions have to be made, and they have to be made fast.

Thanks to this soldier’s personal account, we get an intimate look into the wildest ride a soldier could experience…

A Rather Unique Position to Be In

Aimo Koivunen was a 24-year-old Finnish soldier, and that scenario occurred on the morning of March 18th, 1944. What went down in the following weeks would later have to be pieced together by his own recollections and multiple eyewitnesses. He and his unit were situated in the northernmost territory of Lapland, an area known for its skiing territory and long winter months. Aimo was committed to serving his homeland, but the Soviet enemy was all too powerful.

A portrait of Aimo Koivunen.
Aimo Koivunen. Source: Pinterest

(Finland was in rather a unique position compared to the rest of Europe. The country was allied with Germany but did not support the Holocaust. It remained a democracy throughout the war, making it one of the very few times in history when a democracy engaged in a war against another democracy).

He Was in for a “Feisty Expedition”

Aimo had been assigned to ski patrol (yes, there was such a thing) and the morning scenario took place on his third day of this assignment. Aimo later wrote that when he joined the ski patrol mission, he considered himself as a “kind of decent cross-country skier.”

A Finnish soldier tracks Soviet troops using marks in the snow.
Source: Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive

His Lieutenant, Heikki Norri, asked if he was interested in joining the group for a “feisty expedition.” He was already two years into his service, but it was the first time Norri asked him to join his group, and the boys had told him good things about the lieutenant.

Day Three of the Expedition

So, Aimo accepted the offer, even though he could have gone on vacation in a few days. He figured he would just defer the leave until after. Aimo wrote that they were skiing for over two days non-stop, taking only short breaks.

An image of a Finnish soldier using binoculars.
Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

When the morning of March 18th came, Lieutenant Norri stopped the unit and gave them a status update as well as orders. He let part of the group rest and make some tea. Aimo put some snow in a pot to boil, and as the water started to boil, so did Aimo’s worries.

He Had a Hunch

The night before, when they crossed the enemy’s ski track, they heard a shot and saw a plane fly over them. As he added wood to the fire and snow to the pot, he applied grease to his skis. Suddenly, he realized his hunch was spot on.

A photo of Finnish troops wearing gas masks during the Winter War.
Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two of their watchmen, about 400 meters away, opened fire. The enemy responded with explosive rounds, and the Second Lieutenant ordered them to take battle positions. Aimo rushed to the open hillside to take a look at what they were dealing with.

Open Fire!

That’s when he saw a platoon of snow-suited skiers sliding down the hill towards them. Yet they were too far to start shooting. The rest of his unit was preparing for a full retreat. Aimo noticed that another platoon was heading towards them; their aim was to encircle the Finns.

An image of Finnish troops on skis.
Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

The first platoon was now 150 meters away, so the Finns opened fire. “I don’t know if I hit anyone but there was no one coming any more, and we didn’t plan to wait and see,” Aimo wrote.

He Tried Setting Mines

As Aimo recalled, they fought for about 10 minutes at the camp, after which they retreated and shot while skiing. They were advancing in a line, though, and the Soviets were as close as 20 meters from them. Aimo had ski track mines in his bag and the Second Lieutenant Rytkönen gave orders to get them.

A snow camouflaged Finnish soldier aims at the enemy.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He then asked the boys to cover him while he set the mines, “but to no avail.” He had to ski forward, shooting empty the entire magazine. The situation quieted down for a while, as the second platoon never came close enough.

Feeling Shaky and Weak

With all the back-and-forth shooting, somehow no one from the unit was hit. Rytkönen still ordered Aimo to set up the mines on the ski track, but suggested they speed up the pace. He eventually made it to the front of the line, and they picked up some speed.

An image of skis from the Finnish troop.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He started to feel shaky and weak. “Shooting still continued behind me and the boys demanded me to pick up speed,” he described. “I did all I could.” By then, it was the afternoon, and the boys were starving. All they had eaten was a small crispbread sandwich in the morning.

What We Didn’t Learn in High School History Class

Aimo was a pretty good skier, but anyone would start to lag behind after hours of non-stop skiing. Soon enough, he started to fall behind his fellow troops. With the Soviets close behind, he knew he needed to think quick.

A photo of an amphetamine called Pervitin.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What wasn’t taught in high school history class is that Germany would routinely give its soldier an amphetamine called Pervitin, an extremely powerful stimulant and early form of crystal meth. With one dose, even the most exhausted of troops would feel like new and be able to fight for several more hours. Allied to the Germans, the Finnish soldiers also had access to the drug.

The Decision: Take a Pill or Meet Your Fate?

Aimo was opposed to using the stimulant up to that point, which is likely why he was entrusted to carry the group’s supply of Pervitin. But he was exhausted, falling behind, and very likely going to meet his fate if he didn’t do something.

A photo of a Pervitin container on a table.
Source: 9 News

“I felt ever weaker, and I couldn’t keep up the pace. I felt faint,” he later wrote (translated from the Finnish). He heard someone yell at him, “Aimo, don’t sleep!” So, he decided to take the stimulant. The pills were in the front pocket of his jacket. “I tried to pick one, but because of the clumsy winter mittens, there were plenty of pills on my hand.”

A Dose for 30 Men

“Without slowing down I ate them all – I tried to do it unnoticed by others.” In that quick moment, Aimo digested 30 pills – 30 times the dosage one man was meant to take. That’s right: he took the dose of an entire unit.

A photo of The Temmler factory where Pervitin was manufactured.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As you can imagine, the effects were immediate. “I didn’t ski long before I felt like a new man! We progressed hastily and the poison had done its job.” Suddenly, Aimo felt hopeful for the first time in hours. But that’s nowhere near the end of his story…

His First, and Maybe Last, Mistake

He was later told that he became “dangerously disorganized”, and the boys had no choice but to take the clips off his sub-machine gun. “I have no recollection of this phase of the journey.” Things went in a wildly different direction after that.

A portrait of Aimo.
Aimo. Source: Pinterest

Something unexpected happened, he explained, as his surroundings started to change form. “I noticed I was losing consciousness. My last reasonable thought was that I had made my first and, perhaps, last mistake….”

Real Memories or Hallucinations?

Aimo wasn’t clear-headed, of course; he had only hazy recollections. In fact, that one dose ended up affecting the rest of his life as he continued to have a hard time sorting out real memories from hallucinations.

An image of a man touching a butterfly.
Photo by Thinkstock Images/Getty Images

The truth is, the dose Aimo took should have killed him. It’s remarkable that not only did he survive the drug, but he lived through an incredible series of events for the next few days. Let’s go back to that moment when his surroundings started to change…

Alone and Afraid

He set off on his skis with extreme renewed energy, but after a while, he got disoriented and went off path. “At some point, I had departed from the boys – or was it the other way around, I never really found out.”

A photo of soldiers from the Finnish troop.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Unaware of what day it was, all Aimo knew was that he was far away from his troop. “Questions dart around in my heated brain,” he said. “Why am I all alone? Where are the others? How did I end up in here?” The only thing he got was a “vague feeling of terror creeping up in my mind.”

No Food, No Ammo

He knew he needed to eat something, so he took off his skis and sat on them. He opened his bag only to see that it was empty. No food, no ammo – zip. How could it be, he asked himself? Feeling depressed, he put his gear back on, rose to his feet and checked the compass on his wrist.

An image of Finnish troops, almost invisible in their white clothing.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

He figured the camp where his Lieutenant was waiting was only about 20 miles away. He set off on his new path but blacked out again. When he regained consciousness, while skiing down a slope of a field, he fell down quite badly.

Those Aren’t His Men

He realized he had hallucinated on the way down. But he had hope as he assumed he was close to camp. He saw small fires – a sign of his men resting and eating. As he skied down the hill, his eyes started to water; “tears of joy or whatever, it hindered my sight.”

A photo of the snowy landscape.
Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As he came closer to what he thought were his fellow men, he made a startling discovery. It wasn’t his men at all. It was the Russians. He skied right through the enemy camp at full speed with no possibility to turn around.

He Zipped Through the Enemy Camp

His abrupt and unexpected appearance startled the Russians so much that they only managed to fire a few shots at the speedy Finn. They yelled loudly, but Aimo figures they didn’t have enough time to get permission to shoot, which is why he only heard a couple, five at most, shots fired.

A member of a Finnish patrol advances through the snow-covered countryside.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

He thinks they were the same platoon that chased them earlier. Regardless, Aimo zipped right passed them and out of their camp, wondering if they were going to chase after him.

The Most Demanding Skiing Race of His Life

His mission now was not to get caught as a prisoner. He thought to himself, “What kind of warfare is this, to ski here without ammo – depressing and dangerous!” He had only a few more miles of treeless swamp left to ski over until he could get some cover in the bushes.

An image of the Finnish infantry on skis.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He soon saw a group of snow-suited men on the swamp. He understood immediately from their pace that they were renowned Red Army partisans. Aimo was in for “the most demanding skiing race of my life.”

Fear Is a State of Mind

“Fear is a state of mind when one does not feel hunger or fatigue,” he wrote. “I had to race well-rested men… Even now, at my old age, I still get shivers when thinking about this race.” Aimo could never get over the fact that he outraced those well-rested partisans.

A photo of a Finnish soldier hiding in the snow.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

On the chase, there were moments when he was less than hundred meters away from them. Going up hills and skiing down them, he managed to gain some distance crossing the fields. “If I had made a mistake and fallen down, they would be sure to catch me.”

The Storm Rescued Him

“At times it felt like the boys were already touching the back of my skis – they were right behind me.” To make matters worse, it started to snow “spiky ice crystals” and he had trouble keeping his eyes open. The blizzard made it hard for him to see even a couple meters in front of him.

An image of the enemy troops during the storm.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As it turns out, the storm was his rescue. It seemed as though the partisans had left him in peace, the poor guy. “It felt nice – it came to my mind that here we have such a skier that is not easily caught by anyone!”

Skiing Felt Like Drinking Tar

After skiing his heart out for a full day, he set up camp in the thick forest and made a fire. He made some tea, put out the fire, covered himself in a fur vest and “lay down in the hole in the snow like a bird.”

An image of a Finnish soldier in the snowy field.
Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The next morning, he knew he had to continue on, even though “skiing felt like drinking tar.” By the time night came again, he made soup out of the tips of pine trees and drank his last tea. As he drifted off to sleep, he had a vivid nightmare of being attacked by a wolverine.

Where Reality and Hallucinations Meet

He woke up to find that he had hit his hand on the tree next to him so hard that the compass on his wrist broke. Angry that he lost his only tool to direct him, he had no choice but to continue skiing. He hoped that he was heading West and skied the entire day.

A photo of a bag in the snow.
Photo by European/FPG/Getty Images

His vivid dreams, which were likely the aftereffects of the massive dose he took, were blurring the line between reality and hallucinations. He thought he was skiing with a friend only to come to and realize he had been skiing down a hill without his equipment. He had left his bag and gun behind.

A Cabin, a Fire, a Need to Sleep

He was now without his cooking pot but kept skiing. He had one goal – to make it back alive. By the next morning, he was “dead tired and half conscious.” He stumbled upon a remote lodge whose doors were open.

A picture of a Finnish soldier walking in the snow.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

He let himself in, found some wood in the corner and made a fire on the floor in the middle of the room – he was that disoriented. He fell asleep as the fire grew larger around him. Soon enough, the whole cabin was alit. Eventually, the whole cabin collapsed. Unfazed, Aimo moved on to the sauna next door, to set another fire.

Ski by Day, Hallucinate by Night

It’s a miracle that he didn’t burn himself alive; he managed to get some sleep on the benches outside the burnt down cabin. Aimo believes he slept for a full day. The next day, he skied during the daylight, and by the time night fell, he “went completely crazy again.”

An image of a Finnish soldier standing in the snow.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Fingers frozen, he spent most of his time skiing. He came across barbed wire obstacles and dugouts – he figured it was a German guard post (his allies, remember). He took off his skies and walked toward the post. He opened the gate, took about 10 to 20 steps when a mine set off under his foot.

He Blasted His Foot

He had walked into a mined fortification, abandoned by the Germans. After falling back about 30 meters and into the snow, he inspected his foot. It was “extremely nasty: bones were pointing out to different directions and muscles looked like they were grated. I blamed myself for being reckless,” he wrote.

A photo from the snowy battlefield.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

He then decided to crawl into the nearest dugout, but he feared he would freeze to death. The dugout was about a hundred meters away. “My eyes hurt, especially the left one, I felt strange rustle in my head, back of my pants was missing and only some strips were left of my left shoe.”

One Hell of a Drug

Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, here he was with a blasted foot and in a hell of a lot of pain. He could only assume that he was done for. But he was wrong. Pervitin, as it turns out, is one hell of a drug.

A photo of a container of Pervitin.
Source: Pinterest

Aimo rested in the freezing ditch, simply waiting for nature to take its course. He belted out a cry so loud that an echo from the fields responded. The next morning, he woke to gunshots. Fearing it was the Russians, he picked up a landmine, determined not to let them take him alive.

On the Verge of Death

Unsure of whether it was a dream or reality, saw fellow Finnish soldiers heading toward him. But they couldn’t help him, they said. Their sergeant had also stepped into a mine, and they needed to transport him first. They promised to come back for him.

An image of the Finnish sky troop.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

He felt as though he was on the verge of death, dream or not. He tried praying – copying what his mother would say when he was a little boy. Days and nights went and he slept and woke to “incredible hunger.” His stomach burning from hunger, all he could find were some pine buds and a bird (a Siberian jay), which he caught with his bare hands and ate raw.

Finally, a Plane

Aimo emerged from the ditch and made a break for it. He was still badly injured. He didn’t know where he was and where to go. But the sound of an airplane above gave him hope. He put a sugar sack that he found on the tip of his ski pole and waived it around.

A photo of a soldier looking at the sky.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Luckily, the pilot – of a German reconnaissance plane – saw him and started to circle above. Aimo later learned that Lieutenant Norri ordered the plane to search for him after hearing that that Aimo was missing. Exhausted beyond belief, he collapsed.

It Had Been Two Weeks

He woke to Finnish soldiers telling him to relax. He had fallen asleep in the middle of a minefield. They had to pick up his “miserable body” and take him to a hospital. On the way, the soldiers told him he was “out of his mind” when AImo said he was in the wilderness for a week.

An image of a Finnish soldier.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

At that point, he blacked out. He found himself in a field hospital, about 250 miles from where he started. And he was wrong about being out there for a week. It turns out he was in the wilderness for two weeks. He was found on April 1.

A Miracle

Doctors examined him, in awe of how his heart was pounding away at 200 beats per minute (the average person’s heart rate is 60-100 bpm). He had also dropped to 94 pounds. No surprise, considering he had traveled for over 800 miles.

A photo of wounded Finnish soldiers at a hospital.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Not only did Aimo survive events that would have normally taken his life, but he also lived to be 72 years old, dying in 1989. As you can imagine, his experience was studied by physicians and psychologists interested in measuring the effects of amphetamine in humans, in addition to other things. Aimo was never very willing to speak about his experience, but he was finally convinced to write about it…

The Use of Pervitin During WWII

In the summer of 1943, before he met with Mussolini, Hitler started to feel seriously ill. His doctor injected him with a drug called Eukodal, which is basically oxycodone combined with cocaine.

A photo of a nurse and a soldier at a Finnish hospital.
Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

It was a risk, of course but one the doctor thought was worth taking. It worked; the Fuhrer felt great afterward. After the famous meeting with his fellow dictator (in which Mussolini unsuccessfully tried to convince Hitler to let Italy drop out of the war), the Fuhrer reportedly spoke for several hours without stopping.

The Courage Pill

Reportedly, Hitler took many drugs, Pervitin being one of them. It was his “courage” pill, apparently. During the war, everyone from German soldiers to menopausal women were taking Pervitin like candy. Even a generation earlier, Germany was known for its large-scale drug use.

An image of white pills.
Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs/Getty Images

As the war began, its soldiers were using Pervitin to help conquer much of Europe. But of course, what goes up must come down. The high from the drug eventually dwindled, and soldiers were taking doses just to survive. The irony is that Hitler used a radical anti-drug campaign to seize control of the state.

The World’s Drug Dealer

In 1929, Berlin alone was producing 200 tons of opiates. Between 1925 and 1930, Germany was responsible for 40 percent of global morphine production. As World War I destroyed the German economy, it had to become the world’s drug dealer.

An image of the factory that manufactured the drug.
Source: Pinterest

At first, Hitler was truly anti-drug. He didn’t even drink coffee because of the caffeine. He once threw a pack of cigarettes into a river when World War I came to an end. When the Nazis took over in 1933, the anti-drug campaign began, and so did the propaganda.

From Caffeine to Morphine

The radical campaign only lasted until Hitler had his first taste of Pervitin. By 1936, Hitler was suffering from extreme stomach and intestinal pains. Complaining to Theodor Morell – the It doctor to the German elite – the doctor offered his Fuhrer something.

Photo by Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance/Getty Images

Morell became his personal physician, injecting him with everything from glucose to vitamins to Pervitin. Moreover, Morell prescribed him caffeine, cocaine (for his sore throat), and morphine. The country’s soldiers were prescribed Pervitin, too, but it came at a price.

Good Old Tank Chocolate

The drug was referred to as “panzerschokolade,” which translates to “tank chocolate,” and the packaging looked like soda packets. It was in 1937 when Temmler, a German pharmaceutical company, patented Pervitin for the first time.

An image of a Pervitin container.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Temmler marketed the drug after Coca-Cola, which was tremendously successful. By 1938, posters advertising Pervitin were all over in Berlin, in train stations and on bus stops. Patriotic Germans, with a desire to be hard workers, took the drug, ignoring its adverse effects. And it was actually cheaper than coffee.

Stimulated. Vigorous. Seeing Colors

German armed forces had its first taste of Pervitin when they invaded Poland in 1939. Troops and commanders wrote glowing reports about the drug: “Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors.”

An image of German soldiers.
Photo by Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance/Getty Images

Another report read, “The feeling of hunger subsides. One particularly beneficial aspect is the appearance of a vigorous urge to work. The effect is so clear that it cannot be based on imagination.”

The Boys Were Hooked

With Pervitin in their system, soldiers were weathering on for days at the front lines. No sleep, lots of trauma, empty stomachs, and fierce obedience. It was exactly what Hitler wanted of his men. It goes without saying, though, that the addiction became a huge problem.

An image of a combat plane out on a mission.
Photo by Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance/Getty Images

Nazis were shipping 35 million units of the Pervitin and similar drugs to both army and air force troops in April and May 1940 alone. Everyone was begging for more doses. They were hooked. By 1941, Leo Conti, the Nazi Reich Health Führer, had enough.

Pervitin Becomes Illegal

Conti categorized Pervitin underneath the Reich opium law, declaring it an intoxicant and thus illegal. Soon enough, soldiers were dying from heart failure, suicide or military errors caused by obvious mental fatigue.

A picture of German soldiers on skis.
Photo by Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance/Getty Images

Still, the Germans didn’t follow the prohibition of the drug. They were about to invade Russia; they needed the drugs. Use of Pervitin ironically increased in 1941. Germans had no choice but to turn to Pervitin to keep going, either not realizing the harm or choosing to deny it.