The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory

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.

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6
Escaping East Germany in a Big-Ass Balloon

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
"Inconspicuous. That's the word for this."

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
It could use some spinners, too.

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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.

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
"Trust us, sir, it's not for ballooning!" "Oh, that's all right then."

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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.

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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."

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
We're not sure if that's more impressive than the fact that they worked up the nuts to pilot this death-trap sober.

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5
Cornelius Rost Walked Across Stalinist Russia

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
We can't imagine why.

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
With a stop at White Castle on the way.

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Every man needs a passion.

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4
Communism-Hating Teens Murder Their Way to Freedom

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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?

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Get a mouthful of that, Eagle Scouts.

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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.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
They also raided a few hair gel factories along the way.

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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.

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Eventually the three remaining fugitives made it to the West, one by suspending himself from a subway car's undercarriage.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
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.

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3
Gunther "The Ocean Walker" Pluschow

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As Cracked has previously explained, flying a plane during World War I was about as safe and as pleasant as piloting a chest of drawers down a mine shaft.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
"Und zee vings vill be held on mit ze alt umbrella, ja?"

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So German pilot Gunther Pluschow's situation was already not the best. But then he and the other Germans in the Chinese city of Tsingtao were surrounded by British forces who wanted the city for themselves. The city was about to fall when Pluschow was given a bag full of secret documents and told to fly his already badly damaged plane through a wall of anti-aircraft fire and over countryside swarming with enemy troops. So, yeah, his chances weren't good.

But Pluschow somehow avoided death and flew 155 miles before mercifully crash-landing in a rice paddy. After setting his plane on fire (though there is a good chance that thing was on fire long before it landed, if our knowledge of early military aviation is anything to go on), he set off on foot.

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For freaking Germany. He was in China.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Marco Polo ain't shit.

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He made it to the nearest Chinese town. Then, after repeated close calls with pursuing officials, he sailed to the Chinese capital, Nanking. There, he talked a woman into getting him a Swiss passport and a ticket ... to San Francisco.

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Having made it to the other side of the planet, but still not all that close to Germany, he and his secret documents entered the USA (and this was at a time when illegal immigration was even more illegal than it is now). By now a lot of people were looking for him, as his travels seemed suspicious even to his own government. He dodged his pursuers and took a train to New York. He then boarded a boat headed for neutral Italy. Pluschow probably thought he was home free.

That thought evaporated when the ship unexpectedly sailed into dock at Gibraltar. He was arrested by the (possibly snooty) British officials and set to a POW camp at Donnington, in the south of England.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
They had to add a whole extra guard shift to keep watch over his jawline.

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Well, hell, that actually got him closer to home than he'd ever been -- the English Channel had to have looked like a trickling stream to the man. Needless to say, he escaped (the only German to do so in the whole of World War I) and boarded a final ship to Holland. Then it was simply a matter of sneaking across the Dutch-German border, having taken such a roundabout trip home that he must have felt like he booked the tickets on Orbitz.

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2
Frank Bessac Fights an Uphill Battle

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In the summer of 1949, while studying anthropology in Inner Mongolia, Frank Bessac realized that the communists were taking over the area and he had to get the hell out. But he wasn't just any old expat scientist caught in the cold. He'd been a commando during World War II, rescuing American pilots shot down over enemy territory. Also, he'd been a member of the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA. There may have been easy options out, but if anyone relished a trek across hundreds of miles of hostile territory, it was this not-quite-so-nerdy researcher.

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He joined forces with few other guys, including a U.S. CIA agent named Mackiernan. They set out for Tibet, which was still independent in those days and normally off-limits to foreigners. But that's OK, Mackiernan radioed ahead to the State Department to say, hey, let the Tibetans know we're coming and not to shoot us at the border.

Keep that in mind.

For now, separating them from Tibet was, for starters, a stretch of desert the locals referred to as "White Death." No problem with the right maps. Too bad theirs were hardly any use, with lakes and mountains all scrambled, and possibly hand-written notes like "there are lions" to complete their confusion.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
We turn left at the sea serpent.

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Despite thin air and a permanent lack of water, they made it as far as the mountains bordering Tibet when winter struck. So they set up camp and waited for the duration of the winter. They were saved from going insane from sheer boredom by the books Mackiernan had on him. How many times can you read War and Peace in a row? Bessac read it three times that winter.

The mountains finally became passable in March. Mind you, it was still freezing cold, and their fires were fed with little more than yak dung (they'd long ago used up their books for toilet paper).

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
"MORE YAK POOOOOOP!"

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Late in April, they reached the first Tibetan nomad village. Freedom! Members of the group put their hands up and approached the Tibetan guards.

The guards opened fire, killing all except Bessac and another man, who survived with severe wounds.

Yeah, the Tibetans hadn't gotten the message that their guests were coming. The guards took Bessac and the other survivor prisoner and retreated toward the city of Lhasa with their captives and the heads of their dead friends.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Tibet isn't all adorable monks and man-llamas.

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Halfway to town, they met a group of messengers delivering the papers to the border that would have granted Bessac and his refugees entrance to Tibet and free passage to Lhasa. Yup, after six months of grueling marches, the group was massacred because the couriers were five days late.

Bessac was offered a gun to shoot the captain of the guard -- and declined. He also intervened when the patrol later was court-martialed and sentenced to mutilation, achieving a downgrade to whipping.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Which, depending on the whipper, isn't that bad of a punishment.

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He got blessed by the young Dalai Lama before the final bit -- a 300-mile mule ride across the Himalayas to India, bringing the total up to 1,800 miles. Altogether, overcoming the various obstacles along the way took him almost a full year.

1
Hugh Glass Returns From the Dead and Crawls to Safety

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When suddenly confronted with an enraged grizzly bear, the best an average person will hope for is to die without shitting himself. But it's 1823, and former pirate and all-round frontiersdude Hugh Glass is not an average person. He made it out of his bear attack better than the bear -- he took the beast down with a knife. Though a couple of volleys of rifle fire may have played a minor role.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Judging by this picture, extremely minor.

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Despite winning the fight, Glass had been ripped to shit. No, really, wizards couldn't have fixed this guy. Somehow he continued to live despite having a broken leg, a hole in his throat that would bubble with blood when he breathed and exposed freaking ribs.

The main group of frontiersmen he was with left him, leaving behind two guys named James Bridger and John Fitzgerald with instructions to bury Glass when he finally died. After two days of being worried they would get attacked by Arikara Indians, Bridger and Fitzgerald decided to just dump the guy in a shallow grave 200 miles from friendly territory and leave with all his equipment. The guy who fought a bear and won.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
Psht. There's no way that bear weighed more than 700 or 800 pounds.

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When Glass regained consciousness, he hauled his broken mess of a body out of his own grave, scraped the infection out of his wounds, set his broken leg and started crawling toward the nearest outpost, a French trapper outpost called Fort Kiowa. Sustained by a fairly reasonable desire to brutally murder Bridger and Fitzgerald, Glass headed toward the Cheyenne River, around 100 miles east of his gravesite. He crawled the whole way. It took him six weeks.

The 6 Most Epic Escapes Across Hostile Territory
So what? We were able to beat every Final Fantasy game with just six weeks and a bucket of Mountain Dew.

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After successfully avoiding vengeful Arikara war parties, wolves and bears, while surviving on berries, roots, rotting carcasses and honest-to-God rattlesnakes, Glass made it to the river. A Sioux hunting party came upon the living man-corpse and helped him fashion some branches into a crude raft, which he sailed to Fort Kiowa and safety. As soon as he recovered, Glass set out to hunt down Bridger and Fitzgerald. When he finally found them, he ... forgave them. But only after he got his rifle back.

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