Great Escapes

Five amazing but true stories of escape over, under, or directly through the Iron Curtain

By Michael Scollon

November 2019

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Hundreds of thousands of people attempted to beat the formidable barriers erected by the Eastern Bloc after World War II to keep communist citizens in and Western influence out.

Here are a handful of the most extraordinary successes.

Tunnel 57

"During the very first days, it was kind of possible but already very dangerous -- people were jumping over the barbed wire, but only a very few. A few days later the East German border guards started to shoot at escapees."
Ralf Kabisch on the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961

The communist authorities had become so alarmed by the mass exodus of East Germans that they built a wall to stop it, and West German students were on a mission to tunnel in from the other side.

Ralf Kabisch, Joachim Neumann, and about 20 other university students spent much of 1964 digging below a vacant bakery they had rented in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, working two-hour shifts to extract the hard clay handful by handful.

After five months, driven to extract compatriots trapped in East Germany, they had carved a narrow passage 12 meters deep and running 145 meters to the courtyard of an apartment building just behind the Iron Curtain.

An escapee being hoisted up the final 12 meters to freedom in West Germany.
An escapee being hoisted up the final 12 meters to freedom in West Germany. (AP)

And then they hit pay dirt -- ground softened by the spades of wartime Germans who had dug emergency latrines two decades earlier.

"We ended up in shit," Kabisch recalled in a 2014 video interview. "But it was very good luck for us. Was really a blessing in disguise."

"We had set the goal that if all went well, if nothing busted, and nothing unexpected happened, that two meters a day was our goal. If we managed that, it was very, very good.
Joachim Neumann, Berlin Wall Memorial

The students broke through the surface inside a former outhouse-turned-storage shed right under the noses of German Democratic Republic (GDR) border guards with orders to shoot to kill if they saw anyone try to flee to the West.

It was the perfect cover to carry out what would be the most successful mass escape from East Berlin, an endeavor known simply as "Tunnel 57" in recognition of the number of people who crawled out on October 3-4, 1964.

When the time came, potential escapees were given precise times to approach Strelitzer Strasse 55 on the East German side. There they uttered the code word "Tokyo" to get past the West German student manning the entrance. A second student guided them to the tunnel entrance, and a third through the tunnel -- well below the wall, the "death strip" of spikes, and all the other barriers designed to keep GDR citizens behind the Iron Curtain.

Twenty-eight people made it out the first night. By midnight of October 4 another 29 were freed before a potential escapee betrayed the cause, and border troops arrived to shut down the operation with guns blazing.

The students all had their reasons to breach the Berlin Wall, erected in surprise move on August 13, 1961, imprisoning friends and family members in East Germany.

Kabisch wanted to free his cousin, who had asked that spring: "Can you do anything for me? I must get out of here," he told the Thai newspaper The Nation.

Neumann wanted to free his girlfriend, Christa Gruhle, who was about to finish a 16-month sentence for a failed escape attempt.

"Some did it even if they had nobody they wanted to get out," Kabisch told The Nation. "They were so angry at the system."

The GDR had taken great pains to prevent defections, closing the border with the West in 1952, and making unauthorized departures punishable by three years' imprisonment in 1957. But more than 3 million GDR citizens had left by 1961, approximately one-sixth of the Soviet satellite's population, prompting the decision to erect the Berlin Wall and significantly fortify the length of the border with West Germany.

The wall, 12 meters high and ringed with barbed wire and protected by tank traps, ran the length of the 155-kilometer border around the exclave of West Berlin. It was just part of an extensive system that was deadly effective in keeping East Germans behind the Iron Curtain. According to the Berlin-based Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany, at least 138 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall from 1961 until passage was permitted in 1989; 75,000 escape attempts failed.

Around 40,000 did succeed in escaping from East Germany over that time, however, including more than 300 by way of one of the 70-odd tunnels dug by student activists like Kabisch and Neumann.

While a great success, the Tunnel 57 escape did not end peacefully. Shots were exchanged in the dark as the West German students scurried to avoid capture by the GDR border guards.

One guard, Egon Schultz, was shot and killed, and the East German authorities were quick to blame young, West German radicals.

East German border guards carry away a refugee who was wounded by East German machine gun fire today as he dashed through communist border installations toward the Berlin Wall, 1971. (AP Photo)
East German border guards drag away a man who was shot when he made a dash for the Berlin Wall. (AP)

Upon hearing on East German radio that they were being accused of killing Schultz, the students protested by sending message-carrying balloons over the Berlin Wall.

"The murderer is the East German secret police," the message read. “The real murderer is the system that addressed the massive flight of its citizens not by removing the cause of the problem, but by building a WALL and giving the order for Germans to shoot Germans."

Three decades later, after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, the true cause of Schultz's death was revealed -- he had been killed by a fellow border guard.

"They used this as propaganda," Kabisch said of the East Germans in his 2014 video interview. "The boy that had been hit was hit by his own."

Freedom Tank

"We knew what would happen if we were caught. For Walter and Krejcerik, it would be the firing squad. For Marta and me, for Mrs. Cloud, for Josef, there would be questionings, beatings, and finally hangings. For the two children, life without home or parents. We had two guns; we could shoot our way through if we had to."
Vaclav Uhlik

There was a jolt as the tank hit the first row of electrified barbed-wire fencing, the deafening roar of land mines exploding below the steel floor, and the blinding flash of flares and piercing sound of sirens announcing that the border had been breached.

Eight Czechs had literally broken through to the other side -- completing a five-year plan by crashing a homemade tank through the Iron Curtain and into West Germany.

For the mastermind, 32-year-old Vaclav Uhlik Sr., the decision to leave came when it became obvious that his ownership of an auto repair shop was doomed after the communists came to power in the 1948 Czech coup.

"No more independence, no more future: I would be forced to work for the government in my own shop, at whatever salary they condescended to give me, or I would live on what repair work I could do with my bare hands. At 27, I was through."
Vaclav Uhlik writing in Argosy magazine about the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia.

There would be no regrets -- the way Uhlik saw it, his freedom had already been taken away twice when he was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. He wasn't willing to lose it again.

Denied his livelihood, Uhlik turned to forestry -- and to a strange-looking war machine that he obtained to haul logs out of the forest.

Uhlik saw a greater purpose in the rusting remnants of his German Sd.Kfz. 254, an armored German scout car that had both tracks and a set of wheels that could be lowered to reach road speeds of 60 kilometers per hour.

The Uhlik family showing off their homemade tank. (Hoover Institution)
The Uhlik family showing off their homemade tank. (Hoover Institution)

The logs, delivered to the fanatical communists who maintained the crude but fearsome border system, helped uncover valuable inside information on how to beat it.

"Vaclav Sr. would talk to the communists. He would go to the bar -- he wouldn't drink much, but would drink enough to get them talking," Jennifer Uhlik Tomchak, granddaughter of Vaclav Sr. and daughter of Vaclav Jr, told RFE/RL by telephone.

Every third log used in the three rows of barrier fencing, for example, had to be very thick. People would try to get through the thin ones, but it was behind them that the land mines were placed. Beyond the mines lay chunks of jagged concrete capable of stopping heavy trucks or even tanks.

Uhlik determined that the best spot for an escape was a patch of swampland where obstacles would sink, but which a tracked vehicle could easily navigate as it made its way through the no-man's land between the barriers and the actual border.

The 'Freedom Tank' is unloaded at a Hudson River port in 1953 to begin touring the United States to enlist support for the 'Crusade For Freedom.' (Hoover Institution)
The "Freedom Tank" is unloaded at a Hudson River port in 1953 to begin touring the United States to enlist support for the "Crusade For Freedom." (Hoover Institution)

In the early morning of July 25, 1953, the eight jammed into the painstakingly rebuilt and tested tank, reinforced and fashioned to look like a Czech military vehicle.

Marta, 26, didn't need much convincing to decide to leave her parents and siblings, who knew nothing of the plan. "She knew she had to go," says Uhlik Tomchak.

Marta's good friend Libuse, who held young Eva during the 50-kilometer dash from the village of Line to the border, was desperate to see her husband, Leonard.

The couple had met while the U.S. Army was stationed near Plzen after liberating western Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, and married when he returned in 1949. But Leonard was forced to leave communist Czechoslovakia when his visa ran out.

Uhlik did the driving, peering out of the narrow viewing slot and wearing a soldier's field cap as a disguise. Hora and Krejcerik sat in the back, their stolen guns at the ready.

The 'reedom Tank' on display in New York City in 1953. (Hoover Institution)
The "Freedom Tank" on display in New York City in 1953. (Hoover Institution)

Traveling slowly to avoid detection, the five-ton tank reached the Iron Curtain at the break of dawn.

"Vaclav wrenched the wheel, lurched off the road and into the wire barrier," Time magazine wrote in August 1953. "Czech border guards stood by, mouths agape, as the machine snorted through the wire and crossed into West Germany."

A few kilometers inside the country, near the town of Waldmunchen, the group surrendered themselves and their weapons to police and requested asylum.

By December, they would be living in the United States, touring their new country to show off the "Freedom Tank" as part of a campaign to enlist 25 million Americans to support Radio Free Europe.

But beyond the television and radio appearances, real life in America awaited and they all went their separate ways.

The Uhliks moved from Massachusetts to California, where they had two more children before they divorced in the early '70s.

Vaclav Sr., "known to be extremely skeptical of any form of government," according to Uhlik Tomchak, would encounter difficulties, like in 1974 when he drove through a roadblock in his homemade armored truck.

The 'Freedom Tank' takes a spin on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (Hoover Institution)
The "Freedom Tank" out for a spin on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (Hoover Institution)

After California sheriff's deputies shot out the tires and threw teargas into the vehicle, he reportedly told the authorities that he thought the officers were communists sent to kill him.

In 1977 his body was discovered in a shallow grave.

Marta would live to see the fall of communism, and returned to the Czech Republic twice to see her family. She died in 1999. Her eldest children Eva and Vaclav Jr., or Jim, still live in California.

Walter Hora settled in Massachusetts and worked at an auto plant; his friend Krejcerik joined him for a time before moving on. Pisarik worked as a gardener in Massachusetts until his death in the 1960s.

The escapees' arrival in the United States, where all eight settled, was covered closely by the media. (Hoover Institution)
The escapees' arrival in the United States, where all eight settled, was covered closely by the media. (Hoover Institution)

Libuse settled and raised a family in Sioux City, Iowa, writing in her memoires that she had "chased the white star" -- an apparent reference to the emblems that adorned the American military that liberated Plzen. She died in 2012 at the age of 90.

Red Bikini Girl

"I know that my parents in the Voroshilovgrad region will be terribly upset, but I could not help myself."
Liliana Gasinskaya

1979 was the year the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan, revolutionaries established an Islamic republic in Iran, and China launched its one-child policy. It was also the year the West became transfixed with a scantily clad Ukrainian woman who leapt from a Soviet cruise liner and into the spotlight in Australia.

Liliana Gasinskaya was 18 years old when on January 15, 1979, she left everything but her swimsuit behind, squeezed through a porthole in her staff cabin on the Leonid Sobinov, and swam for 40 minutes in Sydney Harbor before reaching shore and asking to stay for good.

"I put on my red bikini and left my ring on my finger because I knew that I could not carry anything at all with me otherwise I might be caught,"
Liliana Gasinskaya, Daily Mirror

Never mind that she was from Ukraine's modern-day Luhansk region, as far as the public was concerned Gasinskaya was a prized Cold War defector from Russia, and admiring readers followed every step the "Red Bikini Girl" took in her introduction to the West.

Runaway Russian: Why I Risked My Life -- Girl Flees Red Liner
-- Daily Mirror (Sydney)

"Please let me stay. I don't want to go back to Russia. I'll kill myself if they try to send me home."

Russian Swim Girl Can Stay In Australia. Bikini Red Is A True Blue!
-- Daily Mirror (Sydney)

"She promptly celebrated with a meal, a drink -- and a swim in a new bikini."

Lillian: The Red Bikini Girl -- Without The Bikini
-- Penthouse

"Since childhood, I hated the communist system. It doesn't work because people are constantly lying."

Liliana Gasinskaya quickly transformed herself into a model, DJ, and actress upon being allowed to stay in Australia.
Liliana Gasinskaya quickly transformed herself into a model, DJ, and actress upon being allowed to stay in Australia. (CTK)

Gasinskaya told the Daily Mirror, whose staffers hid the asylum-seeker from Soviet authorities in exchange for an exclusive photo shoot and interview, that she was 14 when she first began thinking about ways to get out of the U.S.S.R.

When she learned that people were being recruited to work on Soviet cruise ships, she signed up for training and was eventually assigned to work as a waitress on the Leonid Sobinov, a ship operated by the Soviet Black Sea Shipping Company that regularly sailed from the United Kingdom to Australia.

"It looked beautiful -- a place where I knew I would be very happy," she told the Daily Mirror about seeing a photograph of Australia for the first time.

And at first, everything worked out splendidly. Gasinskaya's original request for political asylum was changed to refugee status, which was accepted within a week of her entering Australia.

A follow-up article in the Daily Mirror celebrated the development, reporting that well-wishers had showered Gasinskaya with cash and clothes to help ease her transition and that she was preparing to meet one of her heroes, rocker Rod Stewart.

But the country's adoption of the Red Bikini Girl didn't go over well with everyone, coming just a few years after the country dropped its "White Australia" policy that barred immigrants of non-European ethnicity.

Gasinskaya, better known as the Red Bikini Girl, received plenty of attention in her new home
Gasinskaya, better known as the "Red Bikini Girl", received plenty of attention in her new home. (Getty Images)

To many, the fast-track acceptance of Gasinskaya while hundreds who entered the country illegally were being deported, and tens of thousands who had applied for legal immigration had been denied, was a clear-cut case of "cheesecake immigration."

"It is easy to conjure up popular support with a front page spread of an attractive, single, young, Caucasian woman," read a letter to the editor in The Age, "but she is no more brave and in need than the Vietnamese refugees."

Gasinskaya stayed, passed a modeling course in Sydney, adopted the anglicized version of her name, Lillian, and briefly married the Daily Mirror photographer behind her first exclusive photos.

In late 1979, she attracted more attention when she was named Pet Of The Month for the first Australian edition of Penthouse magazine.

The magazine was given an "R" rating, preventing it from being distributed in some areas of Australia, and Gasinskaya's nude modeling debut opened a censorship debate when the country's Channel 10 television station commissioned a documentary called "So You Want To Be A Centerfold" that was deemed "unsuitable for broadcast" by a sister station.

She continued to pursue her career, working as a go-go dancer, a DJ, and appearing on popular Australian soap operas. The song Red Bikini Runaway, featuring the lyrics "Do you like my bikini, it's red," even entered her exploits into popular culture.

But her stay in her new home was threatened when it was alleged in 1981 that she had traveled home on a Soviet passport.

Gasinskaya's daring defection was not welcomed by everyone, including one tourism executive who said it was 'a pity it happened'
Gasinskaya's daring defection was not welcomed by everyone, including one tourism executive who said it was "a pity it happened."

Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Minister Ian Macphee ultimately told parliament that an investigation "was able to establish that at no stage had she visited the Soviet Union," and that there were no grounds for revoking her refugee status.

However, he also noted that she had lied to investigators and had admitted that she had applied for the return of her Soviet citizenship, the possession of which would mean she would lose Geneva Conventions protections for refugees.

"In making these applications Miss Gasinskaya was no doubt motivated by an understandable desire to see her family again," Macphee announced on April 8, 1981. "Her applications however raise new issues, the significance of which Miss Gasinskaya does not appear to comprehend."

Mick Young, the shadow minister for immigration and ethnic affairs, was more to the point.

"We have spent a considerable amount of taxpayers' money to find out about Miss Gasinskaya's activities," he told parliament. "If she is not prepared to accept this country and its laws, perhaps she should seriously consider returning to the Soviet Union."

She remained in Australia and in the public eye, marrying a real estate magnate in 1984. After that marriage ended in 1988, the trail goes cold, with most reports suggesting she moved to England and quietly raised a family.

Flight Of The 'Foxbat'

"My dear Viktor, we are waiting for you at home; return soon. I was officially reassured at the highest levels here that you will be forgiven, even if you have made a mistake."
Lyudmila Belenko

Viktor Belenko had been flying his top-secret interceptor 30 meters above the sea when he suddenly rose to 6,000 meters -- high enough for the plane to be detected by Japanese radar.

Desperately low on fuel, the Soviet pilot headed for the nearest airport, skidded past the short runway, got out, shot two warning shots in the air to ward off curious onlookers, and waited with a hand-written note announcing his intention to claim political asylum.

"Contact a representative of the American intelligence service. Conceal and guard the aircraft. Do not allow anyone near it."

The 29-year-old lieutenant landed a technological coup in the West's lap when he touched down in Japan's northern city of Hakodate on September 6, 1976, leaving the Soviet Union scrambling to recover a prized jet and claiming that its highly decorated pilot had gotten lost and was kidnapped and drugged by the Japanese.

Japanese officials, wary of booby traps, cautiously examine the MiG on September 7, 1976
Japanese officials, wary of booby traps, cautiously examine the MiG on September 7, 1976. (AP)

The MiG-25, or "Foxbat" as it was known to NATO, that Belenko was piloting was a little-understood but feared new weapon in the Soviet arsenal. A scaled-down version had been tracked reaching speeds of Mach-3, raising fears that it might be faster and more maneuverable than anything the United States had at its disposal.

Obtaining the chance to strip down and inspect the Soviet Union's most advanced technology was great for Washington, but was an embarrassment to Moscow.

"If the U.S. is so bad how come they're building the best fighters in the world? If the U.S. has fallen apart how come they have more Nobel Prize winners than our progressive communist society? At the same time I could not ask anyone those questions. If I had, at that time, I would have ended up in [a] mental institution."
Belenko, Full Context magazine, 1996

Lieutenant Belenko had become disillusioned with life in the Soviet military, clashing with his superiors in the North Caucasus before receiving a transfer to an air base near the Far East city of Vladivostok to train with the MiG-25.

Stationed just 650 kilometers away from Japan, Belenko began to ponder escape, and after weeks of consideration and careful preparation he made the jump.

Lieutenant Belenko is caught on camera as he is taken to the airport to fly to the United States.
Lieutenant Belenko is caught on camera as he is taken to the airport to fly to the United States. (AP))

On the morning of September 6, 1976, he separated from his squadron during a routine September training flight, dove beneath the reach of Soviet radar and missile batteries, and across the Sea of Japan for the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Washington greeted the news of Belenko's defection with open arms, announcing just a day after his Japanese arrival that U.S. President Gerald Ford had personally decided to grant him asylum. Within days the Soviet pilot was on a plane to the United States.

The Kremlin was incensed, sending terse word to Tokyo that the Soviet Union had a right to protect its military secrets and demanding that the MiG be returned immediately or relations would suffer.

Moscow also saw the hand of Washington in the matter.

"It is evident that American 'special services' were behind this 'invitation' to the Soviet pilot," the official Soviet news agency TASS wrote on September 14, 1976. "Subsequent events showed their participation in the removal of Belenko to the U.S."

The Soviet narrative was that Belenko, a family man and excellent officer, lost his bearings and was being held against his will.

Belenko arrives in Los Angeles on September 9, 1976.
Belenko arrives in Los Angeles on September 9, 1976. (AP)

To highlight that point, the Soviet authorities trotted out Belenko's wife and mother, whom he had not seen since he was two years old, to plead for his return.

"I reject the thought that he did this deliberately," Lyudmila Belenko declared on September 28, 1976, recalling how the day before her husband's disappearance he spent the day playing with their 3-year-old son, Dmitry, and helping her bake pies.

"On the morning of September 6, he told me he would be back early from the flight and would take our son from kindergarten. He kissed me and Dima and went off, as he did every day," she told the cameras.

"My dear Viktor, we are waiting for you at home; return soon," she said. "I was officially reassured at the highest levels here that you will be forgiven, even if you have made a mistake."

The message fell on deaf ears. Belenko remained in the United States, while American and Japanese experts continued to dismantle the MiG.

Eventually word came that the U.S. inspectors were not impressed, revealing in late October that while the massive MiG held a speed advantage, it was "inferior to U.S. warplanes' ability to find and shoot down other aircraft."

The Soviet pilot's defection was big news
The Soviet pilot's defection was big news.

Washing its hands of the matter, Japan eventually shipped the MiG back to the Soviet Union in pieces, along with a bill for $40,000 in damages for violating its airspace.

Belenko went on to receive U.S. citizenship courtesy of a special act of Congress. He became an engineer and consultant for the U.S. government and settled in to American life.

In a 1980 book about his exploits, Belenko revealed that he knew his family's public plea was staged: Lyudmila never baked pies, he left for work too early to kiss his wife and son goodbye, and he stayed too late to pick his son up from kindergarten.

Belenko was seldom heard from or seen again. He made an appearance at America's Freedom Festival in Provo, Utah, to pick up an award for "making outstanding contributions to the world" in 1987.

In 1996, he gave a rare interview to Full Context magazine in which he discussed how the Soviets had spread rumors that he had died in an automobile accident.

Belenko passport

And during a brief interview at a bar during his appearance at a Wisconsin air show in 2000, a rosy faced Belenko gave his last known comment:

"My decision had nothing to do with my profession," he said. "It was an opportunity because I was a pilot. If I hadn't been a pilot, I still would have found a way to defect."

Riding The Wire

"I'm not saying that zip-lining on a power line that comes out of a nuclear power plant was the safest thing. But because nobody had done it before it was completely unexpected. We had more of a chance than with anything else."
Daniel Pohl

It was just after midnight on July 19, 1986, and 20-year-old Daniel Pohl's future hung in the balance on a crude, wheeled carriage he fashioned to zip-line out of communist Czechoslovakia.

He and his friend Robert Ospald, 35, were not yet halfway across the grounded tension cable that linked pylons carrying electricity to the West. It would be an arduous climb, pulling hand over hand, inch by inch, to the next pylon. And the weight of the two men had pushed the cable they were suspended from dangerously close to the high-powered electricity lines directly below their feet.

Yet as Pohl swung along -- exhausted and sleep-deprived, fueled by adrenaline and fear -- he couldn't help but feel a sense of victory as he surveyed the Iron Curtain below.

Daniel Pohl, left, and Robert Ospald reenacting their electric escape for journalists (Daniel Pohl archive)
Daniel Pohl (left) and Robert Ospald reenacting their electric escape for journalists. (Daniel Pohl archive)

They had already cleared the barking dog that threatened to reveal their escape. And the thunderstorm they had waited days for was providing cover from the armed guards below.

"The lookout towers had thin metal roofs," Pohl told RFE/RL recently by telephone, "so once the rain was on the rooftops the guards couldn't hear much."

Now, in the intermittent flashes of lightning, freedom was in sight -- all they had to do was clear the barrier, reach the next pylon, lift their bodies and heavy contraptions off the tension cable, clamber down, and get through no-man's land and across the border before daybreak.

"I had no filter on my brain, which is not exactly the best thing to have in a communist society. And, of course, it produced measurable results -- communists consequently did not like me."
Daniel Pohl

Long before that stormy night, Pohl had decided that he wanted to leave Czechoslovakia.

At the age of 11 or 12 he got his first taste of questioning authority when an apparatchik from Prague visited his Pioneers club in the town of Litomsyl and ordered the children to stop playing baseball because it was "too American."

As a teenager, he began to take an interest in Western music, traveling 135 kilometers from his hometown to buy records on the black market in the capital. He scoured his relatives' attics for newspapers and magazines published before the media censorship that ensued when the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1968. His rants at school and the pub led his parents to warn him to keep his political views to himself.

Each carried a homemade wheeled carriage that they rode out of Czechoslovakia in 1986. (Daniel Pohl archive)
Each carried a homemade wheeled carriage that they rode out of Czechoslovakia in 1986. (Daniel Pohl archive)

In 1984 he met a kindred spirit in Ospald, a fellow student of karate who was also unhappy with the regime and wanted to leave Czechoslovakia.

"Robert is a great guy, but he's a little on the wild side -- especially with his imagination," Pohl says. "And I knew that if someone was going to be my partner in crime of that kind of caliber it was going to be him."

After a failed bid to sneak into Yugoslavia by way of Hungary, and a ditched plan to build a submarine to cross into the West by river, Ospald came up with the idea of zip-lining over the Iron Curtain.

They planned meticulously, first scouring the countryside by train until they discovered a trunk line extending 40 kilometers south from the nuclear power plant in the southern village of Dukovany to Austria.

Then they perfected their carriages, using main bearing wheels taken from a friend's aviation shop, stabilizing wheels machined with material from a local factory, and frames fashioned from aluminum pipes taken from the railway where Pohl worked.

When the time came they traveled stealthily by foot for days to get close to the launch tower, then hid in the nearby cornfields for about 48 hours, awaiting a storm.

News of the feat was splashed across papers around the world. (Daniel Pohl archive)
News of the feat was splashed across papers around the world. (Daniel Pohl archive)

Ospald went first, with the words: "See you in the next world. Don't be late." Then it was Pohl's turn, the rain hammering down and overloaded insulators in flames on either side of him.

"Releasing my 'cable car,' suddenly I was rolling faster and faster, down and away," Pohl wrote in his book, Extreme Zip Lining: 380,000 Volts To Freedom. "The speed we picked up was mind-boggling."

The metal wheel showering him with sparks, Pohl eventually slowed to a halt and mustered the energy to pull himself the remaining 250 meters to the next pylon.

"The climb up, the ride, and the climbing down ordeal took us 4 1/2 hours," Pohl told RFE/RL, and then there was another two hours to get out of no-man's land. "It was about 6:30 or 7 a.m. when we saw the first German sign."

Pohl and Ospald crossed into Austria near the town of Haugsdorf. (Daniel Pohl archive)
Pohl and Ospald crossed into Austria near the town of Haugsdorf. (Daniel Pohl archive)

They had crossed into Austria near the town of Haugsdorf, where they arrived at police headquarters "wet and exhausted," according to wire reports, and requested asylum.

"Our escape was discovered the next day by Czech agents monitoring Austrian TV and radio broadcasts," Pohl says. "By that time, we were too far gone to be retrieved. We were already sitting in a refugee camp, drinking Coca-Cola."

Their feat was front-page news around the world, and humiliated the Czechoslovak authorities. Ospald eventually received Austrian citizenship, and he settled in Vienna and wrote a book about his experiences, 380,000 Volt Hope For Freedom. His wife and children never joined him.

Ospald, right, and Pohl showing off the carriages the constructed from purloined parts. (Daniel Pohl archive)
Ospald (right) and Pohl showing off the carriages they constructed from purloined parts. (Daniel Pohl archive)
Ospald, right, and Pohl showing off the carriages the constructed from purloined parts. (Daniel Pohl archive)
Ospald (right) and Pohl demonstrate how they clambered up the pylon with their gear. (Daniel Pohl archive)

Pohl arrived in the United States in August 1988 and became an American citizen in 2002. While living in Boston he met a liberal priest who encouraged him during a visit to a strip bar to head to Las Vegas.

He lives there today with his wife, Delia, their son, and one of his stepchildren, working and trying to turn his story into a movie.

He occasionally visits the Czech Republic to see his parents and two brothers, and is eyeing a possible return.

"I always wanted to leave, but wanted to come back," he said.