The 6 Most Badass Ways Anyone Has Ever Escaped the Country
Most of the people reading this are living in countries that are so awesome, they have fences and border guards to keep people out. If so, it's hard to imagine what it's like to have lived behind one of those walls during the Cold War. You didn't have to be crazy to attempt an escape from one of these places. But it sure as hell helped.
An East German Drives a Tank Through the Berlin Wall
When Wolfgang Engels was a new conscript in the East German army, he was given a crappy job: help build the barbed wire fence that eventually became the Berlin Wall. It was especially sucky because he happened to be a Berliner, the only one in his unit. It's no wonder that two years later, Wolfgang lost it, in the "Oh shit, I'm on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall (and my name is Wolfgang)!" sense of the word.
In April 1963, East Berlin was gearing up for the May Day celebrations. Part of the celebrations included a mighty display of East German military power, and there were a lot of tanks laying around willy-nilly. Engels got an idea. It wasn't the brightest plan.
"Why do you have that 'I'm about to steal a tank' look on your face, Engels? ... Engels?"
Wolfgang found an unguarded armored personnel vehicle and decided he was just going to drive that shit through the Berlin Wall.
But before executing Operation Wall Plow, Engels first had to learn how to drive a tank. In the day leading up to the escape, he parked his truck next to some tank drivers and started chatting. "How do you start it? What does that do? What would happen if you drove it right at the wall?" And because the soldiers were starved in the conversation department, they told him.
"OK, that makes sense. Can you show me by driving me through that wall? It's for science."
That night, after one of the guards apparently left the keys in the ignition, Engels stole his escape tank. He picked the spot he thought he could penetrate the easiest and headed right for it. Unfortunately, his foot slipped off the pedal and he ended up rolling rather than plowing. So when he smashed into the wall, he made a hole, but not a tank-sized hole he could drive through.
The situation couldn't have been worse -- his back end was in the East, and his front was in the wall. Engels was like Winnie the Pooh stuck in a honey pot (of danger). Not helping matters was the fact that his tank was enmeshed in barbed wire, which Engels immediately fell into after exiting the tank. Even as he extricated himself from the wire, East German guards shot him in the back. It took his last bit of strength to climb the hood of the car and onto the wall. From there, West Berliners dragged Engels to safety, nursed him back to health, and gave him asylum.
"I've peed on that wall every single day since."
Exactly as he planned it.
A Pilot Drugs the Soviet Air Force With a Spiked Cake
In 1989, Soviet pilot Alexander Zuyev's life was going south. He was rejected as a test pilot, his marriage was falling apart, and Gorbachev's forehead birthmark was really starting to freak him out. Lucky for him, he was a pilot with access to lots of planes. Unlucky for him, communist countries don't lend out fighter jets on the honor system.
"I'll bring it right back, I swear. Just making a quick beer run."
Of all the ways to secretly steal a plane, there was only one way for Zuyev to be cartoonish about it. He served his comrades a cake drugged with crushed sleeping pills.
Soviet airbases are just like any other workplace -- if you set down a cake in the lunchroom, people will swarm that shit like ants. Only Zuyev couldn't just drug everybody in the vicinity, so he brought a cake, but only handed out slices to certain members of his squadron. The others, like the commander and mechanic on duty, still had routines to fulfill for his plan to work. Which meant Zuyev not only took the risk of drugging his co-workers with cake, but also looked like a petty asshole while doing it.
"This is some bullshit right here."
Once his fellow airmen were asleep, presumably in a sweet little pile on the floor, Zuyev cut the telephone lines, ran to the nearest MiG-29 that was ready to fly, informed the guard on duty that his replacement was late, and said something along the lines of "Hey, I know, I'll stand here until he gets here. There's cake in the lounge. Hand me your gun." All of which seemed perfectly reasonable to the guy who was skipped in the cake distribution earlier. He gave Zuyev his gun and walked away, thinking, "Man, I am awesome at guarding the motherland's state of the art aircraft."
Everything seemed to be turning up Zuyev when the actual replacement mechanic and squadron commander showed up, presumably waving their fists in the air over the cake snub. Zuyev took some shots at them with his borrowed assault rifle, then jumped into the cockpit and hightailed it out of there.
"Suck my diiiiiiiiiiiiiick!"
It wasn't long before Zuyev landed in Turkey, declared himself a political dissident, got arrested for hijacking, was cleared of the charges, and was allowed to move to the United States. And that was when he started spilling Soviet military secrets.
A Cuban Defector Rescues His Family With a Highway Landing
Tired of primo cigars and driving cars that predated the Beatles, Cuban air force pilot Orestes Lorenzo Perez decided to defect from Cuba in 1991. That part was simple enough -- during a training run in March, Lorenzo suddenly veered off course in his fighter jet, bolted north, managed to avoid U.S. radar, and made a surprise landing at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Key West.
The problem is that, because a MiG is not a flying minivan, he left his family behind in Cuba to face the wrath of the communist government. Bad move. While Lorenzo got his act together in the States, his wife back home was told that he was a traitor, an adulterer, and a homosexual, because Cuban officials were running out of names. According to the government, the family would never be reunited again.
"They said he's gay. And they also called him fat. I don't know how to feel right now."
Through coded phone calls and letters, Lorenzo arranged for his wife and sons to meet him for a pickup. They'd recognize him by the plane he'd be landing on the highway.
It took almost two years for the rescue to occur. During those months, Lorenzo tried unsuccessfully to get his family back through legal means, even getting a meeting with President George Bush to put pressure on Castro to release them. Castro wouldn't budge. That was when a wealthy Cuban emigre donated $30,000 to get Lorenzo a 1961 Cessna and the plan took shape.
It's basically this, which is like the plane version of the Millennium Falcon.
When the big day came, Lorenzo's wife and kids waited near the designated highway (which was on a bridge) and watched. Lorenzo knew he had to avoid American radar so he wouldn't get intercepted, so he flew 10 feet above the waves of the ocean. And when he saw that an oncoming truck was approaching his landing zone -- which was, again, a busy highway -- he just touched down anyway and hoped the truck would stop in time. It did -- 10 yards away from the running propellers.
Lorenzo's kids and wife ran so fast that the little one lost his shoes. And the second they were in the plane -- zip -- time to go. Lorenzo's last visit to his homeland lasted under a minute. When Lorenzo landed for the second time in Florida, the U.S. agreed to let the family stay. After all, it's not like you can keep the guy out.
"OK, everybody back. I got this."
A Romanian Spy Puts on a Murder Charade
Not everyone is cut out for the life of a Cold War spy. Matai Haiducu, for example, was a Romanian spy who was never meant to do murder. And he knew this because when he got the orders to assassinate two dissident writers living in France, he just couldn't go through with it. Steal nuclear secrets from the French government, yes. Inject people with poison that simulates cardiac arrest, no.
One problem: Haiducu's boss was Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader who could be described as "Stalin-ish." Coming home with a case of the assassination jitters wasn't going to go over with a man who modeled his governing style after North Korea's.
Hey, you can't deny the happy results it produces.
Step 1: Confess everything to French officials. He was a spy stealing industrial secrets, he was there to kill some dissident writers, all of it. Throw himself at their mercy and hope for the best.
Step 2: Fake doing the things Ceausescu ordered him to do.
Step 3: Grab his family, change his name, and live in exile forever.
"Note to self: Gonna need more laptop batteries."
It was that middle step that was tricky, but Haidacu had the French government to help pull it off. First up, poisoning dissident No. 1, Paul Goma. The plan was to squirt a poison into Goma's cocktail, which Haidacu totally did, but a clumsy dinner guest "knocked it over" before it got to Goma. That guest was a French agent who gave Haidacu an out for failing at his job. Next up: kidnapping dissident No. 2, Virgil Tanase, in front of as many witnesses as possible. For three months, Tanase hid out in a countryside cottage while Haidacu scooped as many members of his family as he could grab.
The plot came to a head in August 1982, when all three men -- Goma, Tanase, and Haiducu -- held a press conference announcing A) not dead! and B) espionage! Tada! Or something to that effect. The bad news was that all three were sentenced to death in absentia by Ceausescu. The good news was that they lived out their lives peacefully in the country that staged the coolest fake foiled murder/kidnapping ever.
They then erected the classiest middle-finger-shaped monument and sent him postcards of it every Christmas.
A Chess Master Executes a Masterful Gambit
If you were a Soviet kid growing up during the Cold War, there were only a handful of ways to leave the country. One was to be a very tiny, flexible girl from Romania; another was to be amazing at chess. Igor Ivanov was the latter. By 1980, Ivanov was so good that he was given a job as a professional chess player and invited to compete at the Capablanca Memorial Tournament in Cuba.
Now, Ivanov had a dilemma. He wanted to defect from a country that was pretty oppressive, despite the bonus of scoring the job of professional chess player. On the other hand, communist "Like Russia, but Latin Americaner" Cuba wasn't going to embrace a Soviet runaway with open arms.
Remember, this was the same time that Castro told 125,000 Cubans to get the fuck out of the country.
Ivanov was a chess master, a man with a brain built for complex strategy that can see two dozen moves ahead. If he pulled off a Keyser Soze-style escape from under the noses of the authorities, well, the only surprise would be that it took him so long.
Once the tournament was over, Ivanov's plane was scheduled to fly directly back to Mother Russia. But the plane had to make an unscheduled stop for fuel in Newfoundland, Canada. At this point, Ivanov set his clockwork plan into action. As best as we can construct it, it went like this:
A. Open the door of the plane.
B. Run like hell.
It's almost devious in its diabolical simplicity. And so, with nothing but the clothes on his back and his mini chess set, Ivanov went sprinting across the tarmac while Benny Hill saxophone played in the background. The KGB watchers just stood there dumbfounded for a second, then hopped off the plane and went after him. The air traffic control tower must have thought they were watching a poorly made spy comedy, with this lone bespectacled man clutching a chess set and running from KGB goons.
The goons were too late. Ivanov asked for and got asylum. He lived the rest of his life playing chess for Canada.
Or as they call it, "checkerboard hockey."
Defectors Stunt Drive a Sports Car Under a Barrier ... Twice
The Tank Guy from earlier was hardly the only one to make it to the other side of the Berlin Wall over the years. About 5,000 people managed to escape through, above, under, or around the wall, no two people using the same plan.
Unless you're Heinz Meixner and Norbert Konrad, two unrelated defectors who somehow managed to use the exact same car to escape East Germany.
"No, sir, I didn't think it was abnormal. I just assumed he got lost from the track."
Heinz Meixner was an Austrian who worked in East Berlin, so he had traveling privileges -- it was his East German girlfriend who wanted to defect. His idea was to hide her in the car as he drove through the wall ... but there were a few problems. First you had to pass multiple checkpoints, including a customs official who searched your car. And by 1963, the custom guys were thorough.
On the other hand, once you got past the passport guys, there were sections of the wall that were just steel beams. Meixner did his homework: Those beams were only 37.5 inches above the pavement. With the right car, he could just drive under them, right?
Now that we think about it, he should have just ramped that bitch, Dukes of Hazzard style.
Love makes you do crazy things. Meixner rented a tiny Austin-Healey Sprite sports car, took out the windshield, and did some measuring. From tire to top, the car was only 35.5 inches off the ground -- two whole inches to spare under the metal beam! Good enough!
On May 5, 1963, Meixner stuffed his girlfriend and her mother in the backseat floor of the car. Then he covered them with bricks. The bricks, he figured, would conceal them, protect them from gunfire, and give him an excuse for the extra-low car. Plus, when would he get another chance to cover his future mother-in-law with bricks? After making it past the passport check, Meixner was directed to the customs officer. Instead of stopping, he gunned it and ducked. By the time he slowed down on the West side of the wall, there was a 96-foot-long skid mark behind him. Oh, and the tires left a trail, too.
From the lack of flames, we're assuming it never reached 88 miles per hour.
And here's where it gets ridiculous: Three months later, a man named Norbert Konrad was in the same pickle. He lived in West Berlin and had an East German girlfriend and no hope of getting her out. By this point, Meixner's story was news, so Konrad knew it could be done, but he never actually got around to reading the details. So what Konrad didn't know was that when he rented a sports car for the escape, he rented the exact same car Heinz used, with the same plates and all.
He followed the exact same plan. And it worked, again.
Unfortunately, the East Germans had an answer to getting double bamboozled by a midget sports car: Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, we'll add welded bars to our steel barriers and you'll never fool us again. To be fair, who would have thought somebody would try something like that twice?
"OK, new plan. First, we turn ourselves into snakes ..."
When not running precariously across international borders, Evan V. Symon is a workshop moderator and can be found on Facebook.
For badasses that belong in movies, check out The 5 Most Insane Rescue Missions That Actually Worked) and 6 WWI Fighter Pilots Whose Balls Deserve Their Own Monument.