We all have heard news stories about athletes being disqualified from competitions for using illegal drugs. Using drugs to enhance your performance is considered cheating in sports, but what about the military?
Throughout history and right up to the present day, drugs have been given to soldiers who are encouraged to take them. Caffeine was popular during the American Civil War, and alcohol has been used by militaries across the globe to “relax soldiers.” In WWI, cocaine was widely distributed to the British Army.
World War II saw a trend of militaries testing and prescribing crystal meth to their soldiers to make them “Super Soldiers.” They no longer needed sleep or food and had boundless energy. The Nazis created their own compound called D-IX, which combined methamphetamine, cocaine, and oxycodone.
The British Royal Air Force, the Finnish Army, and the American military began using and abusing methamphetamines. Many did not know the strength of the medications or the mind-altering effects and addictive qualities. The power and risks of methamphetamine were on full display in 1944 through one man: Aimo Koivunen.
Who was Aimo Koivunen?
Aimo Koivunen was a corporal in the Finnish Army during World War II. Koivunen was born on October 17, 1917, in Alastaro in the Grand Duchy of Finland which was part of the Russian Empire at that time.
During WWII, Finland was an ally of Nazi Germany and had many battles against the Soviet Union throughout the war. Aimo Koivunen was the first documented case of a soldier overdosing on methamphetamine in combat.
Several countries were experimenting with stimulants like amphetamine and methamphetamine during WWII. In 1919 a Japanese chemist, Akira Ogata, had discovered a better way of making meth. He did it by using iodine and phosphorus to create crystals of ephedrine, which created what is now known as crystal meth.
A known effect of methamphetamine is increased energy, focus, and reduction in fatigue. During WWII, the long and constant combat was physically and mentally straining on soldiers, bringing company morale down. Methamphetamine solved all those problems.
The German pharmaceutical company Temmler created methamphetamine tablets called Pervitin. It sold the pills to members of the military to increase their endurance while reducing fatigue. The Nazis saw the success of how soldiers could stay awake and fight non-stop.
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Now, exhausted soldiers on the brink of collapse would take one or two Pervitin pills and be energized and excited to return to battle. Pilots and soldiers were strongly encouraged to take “energy pills” made of meth and cocaine. While it was never recommended in the United States, military personnel could buy methamphetamine without regulation.
Methamphetamine vs. Amphetamine
It is important to address the differences between methamphetamine and amphetamine to understand the psychological and physiological impact meth had on soldiers. Both drugs impact the central nervous system and are addictive, but methamphetamine is much more potent than amphetamines.
Amphetamine or Amphetamine Salts is a synthetic drug mainly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Examples of amphetamine medications today include Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, and Dexedrine. These stimulate the nervous system but are less potent than meth.
Methamphetamine, by way of contrast, is an entirely different proposition. Known as crystal meth, this far stronger drug can be consumed orally, intravenously, intramuscularly, through inhalation or snorting, or even, if you want to go that way, rectally or vaginally.
At low to moderate doses, crystal meth causes elevated moods, alertness, more energy and focus, and reduces appetite. At chronic or high doses, methamphetamine can cause seizures, induce psychosis, causes violent behavior, and mood swings.
It also causes bleeding in the brain (intracerebral hemorrhages) and can induce stimulant psychosis. Symptoms of stimulant psychosis include paranoia, delusions, and delirium, along with visual and auditory hallucinations. Other adverse physical effects of meth include excessive sweating, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, increased body temperature, tremors, diarrhea, constipation, and blurry vision.
Aimo Koivunen and His Meth-Fueled Adventure
Aimo Koivunen and other Finnish soldiers were assigned to ski patrol on March 18, 1944, a long distance patrol in isolated and harsh environments with an emphasis on survival. Three days into their patrol, they were attacked by the Soviets.
In a desperate attempt to escape with their lives, the Finnish soldiers followed Koivunen through the winter forests. Each of the men in the patrol had different supplies. Aimo Koivunen had the entire patrol’s supply of Pervitin pills (30 pills). As he became tired and the Soviet soldiers kept pursuing them, Koivunen decided to take an energy pill.
He could not stop to open the bottle, and thick mittens prevented him from grabbing a single pill. In a desperate attempt to stay alive, he emptied the entire bottle of methamphetamine into his mouth. And things started to get weird.
It is unknown why the overdose of the pills did not cause his heart to stop but what happened to him was bizarre. He had increased energy but was delirious and, at some point, became unconscious. He woke up the next morning to find himself 62 miles (100km) away from where he started.
All of his supplies and men were missing as well. Aimo Koivunen was still high on meth and saw a camp he assumed were Finnish soldiers and went over to the men. He realized they were Russians and took off again while completely delirious into the wilderness at an alarming speed.
Aimo next discovered a small wooden cabin in the woods and went inside, lit a fire, and went to sleep, only to wake up to a massive fire: he had inadvertently set fire to his shelter. Instead of leaving the burning cabin, he scooched back a little bit and went back to sleep until the cabin collapsed.
He then mistook the North Star for the light from another cabin and tried to ski towards it, travelling blindly until he stumbled across an abandoned German camp. As he was leaving, Aimo Koivunen skied over a landmine which detonated. The Nazis had set up booby traps when they abandoned the camp, which Koivunen only discovered after he had detonated one.
His right foot, which triggered the landmine explosion, was described as “ a mix of grated flesh and bone splinters.” After being blown out of his skis, Aimo Koivunen dragged his bloody methamphetamine-fueled body into a ditch and waited for help.
It was -4°F (-20°C). But he was still high on meth and somehow managed to survive in the ditch in these freezing conditions for an entire week, waiting for help he thought would come in his delusions. While he lay hidden in the snow, he slowly became aware of his intense hunger after an unknown number of days had passed without consuming food. All he could find was pine nuts, as well as a Siberian jay bird, which he captured with his bare hands and then promptly ate raw.
When he realized the Nazis from the camp would never come and rescue him, Aimo Koivunen, still high on meth, got up and continued to ski away. Finnish soldiers eventually found him lying in the snow, talking non-stop and confused.
When the soldiers went to carry Aimo Koivunen to the hospital, another man set off a hidden landmine. The rescue party couldn’t take both men at the same time. They told Aimo to wait there, and they would come back to get him. A few days later, he was still alive, and the apparently unstoppable Koivunen was taken to the hospital in terrible condition.
An Epic Adventure
Aimo Koivunen had traveled a staggering 250 miles (400km) and was missing for two weeks before he was found. When he arrived at the hospital, his heart rate was measured at 200 beats per minute (bpm). A normal heart rate falls between 60bpm and 100bpm.
Doctors were stunned that he was alive and talking to them. When he was found, he weighed 94lbs (43kg) from the meth suppressing his appetite and needed urgent treatment for his ruined foot. Yet, this man had come in from weeks or exposure and was still alive and still conscious.
Aimo said he was hallucinating almost the entire time and didn’t know where he was when he crawled into the ditch. He later spoke about his drug-fueled trip and recalled how he was attacked by a wolverine and woke up to find himself violently stabbing a tree.
Miraculously, Aimo Koivunen recovered, returned to Finland, and had a family. Aimo’s son, Mika Koivunen, said his father didn’t talk about what happened very often. However, in 1977, when a local newspaper held a contest asking soldiers to submit stories from the war, he wrote a small memoir.
His story came in second place. He passed away peacefully on August 12, 1989, at the age of 71.
Top Image: Nobody knows what Aimo Koivunen spent two weeks doing in the wilderness, or how he survived. Including Koivunen himself. Source: Fesenko / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon