If you aren't currently living in a country occupied by a hostile army, you can't really imagine what it's like knowing that trying to leave home means getting your head blown off. But when people want out badly enough, they find a way, across walls and borders and even massive armies.
And by the way, their stories are goddamned amazing.
#6. Escaping East Germany in a Big-Ass Balloon
Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel wanted to get their families out of East Germany, but between them and freedom was the most heavily guarded border in the world. So they decided they would just build themselves a damned flying machine. The original plan was to build a helicopter, but they couldn't find an engine powerful enough. So they settled on a hot air balloon.
"Inconspicuous. That's the word for this."
Granted, the two men had no prior ballooning experience, but hey, they found a few books on the subject and took it from there. They did the math, bought hardware and cloth ("it's for our camping club") in the nearest town and got busy building. The sewing machine they used for the hull was a 40-year-old foot-pedal dinosaur. They built a firing system out of a bike engine, a car muffler and a stovepipe that spat out "pure Hell-fire."
A few failed tests in the woods proved that the cloth was too porous to hold the air. The hull was cut up and burned in the furnace while new cloth ("it's for our sailing club") was procured from a more faraway city. Then they started over. When the old manual sewing machine threatened to wear them out physically, they just fitted it with an engine.
It could use some spinners, too.
The Strelzyk family launched the balloon (the Wetzels had gotten cold feet and opted out of the plan) after a total preparation time of 16 months. They sailed through the air, got within sight of the border ... and crashed. Six hundred feet short of freedom.
They had to walk back, leaving the balloon behind. Since the balloon was eventually found with evidence that indicated the identity of not just the Strelzyks but the Wetzels as well, the Wetzel family bought back in because with their friends as good as in jail, so were they. At this point it wasn't a question of if, but only when they'd be arrested, and they were out of stories to explain yet another purchase of a few thousand square feet of cloth.
"Trust us, sir, it's not for ballooning!" "Oh, that's all right then."
Any suspicious attempts would likely be reported, as the hunt was pushing forward nationwide. So they drove all over the country to buy raincoat cloth, bedsheets and anything else usable in small handfuls, traveling more than 2,000 miles. Meanwhile back at home, the sewing machine would run literally around the clock to assemble their largest balloon yet: one that had to carry eight people.
The result was 65 feet across, 82 feet high and 141,000 cubic feet in volume and was the biggest hot air balloon ever to fly in Europe. And it did fly -- they lifted off but at some point tilted the burner and accidentally set the hull on fire. Their only choice was to fire the engine full-throttle and make a dash for it. The gas bottles ran out fast, and once more they went down -- but the balloon was so huge it acted as a parachute, limiting the sinking speed. Yes, the thing had become too big to fail.
This time they were spotted, but by the time the border post got permission to fire, the balloon had gone. After another crash landing, the men went scouting where the hell they were and ran into West German cops, establishing that this time, they'd finally made it.
The best part might be that even though they knew every ounce of weight would increase the risk of another premature crash, they brought a champagne bottle that they then popped, because "we read that's what balloonists do after landing."
We're not sure if that's more impressive than the fact that they worked up the nuts to pilot this death-trap sober.
#5. Cornelius Rost Walked Across Stalinist Russia
A Soviet lead mine on Cape Dezhnev was probably about the worst place ever to have to spend any length of time, what with the constant threat of immediate cave-in death counterbalanced by the more subtle threat of drawn-out lead-poisoning death. As you would expect, the prisoners of war who were sent there immediately wanted to leave.
We can't imagine why.
The problem wasn't just security, but geography: Cape Dezhnev is closer to some Alaskan villages than it is to the nearest inhabited point in Russia. Hell, you might as well try walking home from the moon. But you couldn't tell that to German World War II POW Cornelius Rost. The former paratrooper got some supplies together (given to him by another inmate who himself was planning to escape) that included cross-country skis and a pistol. He then set off, heading west with four other escapees.The trip would be 8,700 miles. That's like going from New York to Los Angeles, then back. Then back to L.A. again. Then to Chicago.
With a stop at White Castle on the way.
There were some problems along the way. One of the prisoners betrayed and shot three others, then shoved Rost down a cliff and left him for dead. When an injured but alive Rost made it to a logging camp, he dragged his cantaloupe-size balls into the local Soviet distribution center, where he claimed to have been sent to "escort the timber" and managed to con the authorities out of not only a train ticket good for 400 miles of westerly travel, but a hot shower and a whole new worker's wardrobe.
Hitching lifts in trucks across Central Asia and just straight-up robbing a train station, Rost made it to the North Caucasus, where he used his money and a helpful guy known affectionately as "The Jew" to cross the border to Iran -- and safety. Where we like to think he immediately took a job in a lead mine.
Every man needs a passion.
#4. Communism-Hating Teens Murder Their Way to Freedom
What if there's not just one but two borders separating you from freedom? With a few hundred miles of enemy territory in between and police, state security and two goddamn armies trying to stop you?
You could ask the Masin brothers -- they walked right through that shit. Ctirad and Josef Masin started on the Czech government's "good kids" list at the ages of 13 and 15 by receiving medals for fighting the Nazis in World War II, just like their dad had done.
Get a mouthful of that, Eagle Scouts.
When they realized the ruling communists were little better than the Nazis, they started a resistance group. And we're not talking about the usual ways teenagers revolt, like getting a piercing or two: We're talking about twice violently raiding police stations to steal guns and ammo.
In 1953, the group decided it was time to get the hell out. Now, getting out of communist territory meant they had to get first across the Czech border, then across East Germany into West Germany.
They also raided a few hair gel factories along the way.
They started their push toward the border 150 miles away. Injuring or killing people who got in their way, the two brothers and three others sneaked across the border and hiked through the forests. When they tried to buy train tickets in Germany, the sales staff was suspicious and reported them to the police. The police raided the train station, which was only a minor speed bump in their plans -- the brothers and their band shot their way out.
The East German paramilitary soon realized they needed help from locally stationed Soviet troops to take the brothers down. Eventually, at least 5,000 men were involved, three of whom were gunned down during the chase west. The group was even encircled some 60 miles outside of Berlin. And once again, the ragtag group of Czechs broke out.
Eventually the three remaining fugitives made it to the West, one by suspending himself from a subway car's undercarriage.
Which was probably much cleaner than a subway car's interior.
Where did the brothers end up? The one place where their talents and violent hatred of communism were truly honored: Fort Bragg. That's right -- they joined the U.S. Special Forces.