The Iron Curtain, with rows of barbed wire, armed patrols, land mines and guard towers, did not stop the flow of persons who were determined in finding ways to “escape” the “Communist-dominated” countries of East Europe.
One daring and ingenious method was crashing through the Iron Curtain in a “Freedom Tank.” The episode was then used to rally Americans behind the Crusade for Freedom and Radio Free Europe.
After two years of planning and preparation, on July 25, 1953, a World War Two German “armored car,” covered with foliage for camouflage, driven by Vaclav Uhlik, and carrying seven passengers, rolled over three rows of barbed wire of the Iron Curtain near the Bavarian town of Waldmuenchen, along the Czechoslovakia-German border.
Vaclav Uhlik, his wife and two children, two former Czech soldiers Walter Hora and Vaclav Krejciri, Josef Pisarik, and Libuse Hrdonkova were in the vehicle.
The “armored car” was described as a “Freedom Tank”, because the sheet metal armor had been on it in such a way that, at first glance from a distance, it did resemble a Czecho-slovak army vehicle. Czech border guards saw the vehicle, but, apparently, they were so surprised but its actions they did not shoot at it or otherwise attempt to prevent the escape. The eight passengers were taken by German police and handed over to American military authorities, for processing as “refugees.”
The August 3, 1953, issue of Time magazine carried an article about the “Freedom Tank” that was entitled “The Wonderful Machine” and described the escape:
Sleepy police patrols in Pilsen hardly glanced at it. By 5 a.m. the car had reached the barbed-wire border area. Vaclav wrenched the wheel, lurched off the road and into the wire barrier. Czech border guards stood by, mouths agape, as the machine snorted through the wire and crossed into West Germany. None fired, or even raised a Tommy gun. The car rumbled westward for several miles before West German police caught up with it.
A tank on the move
Carl Koch of Radio Free Europe reportedly negotiated the purchase of the vehicle and the “tank” was delivered to Radio Free Europe in Munich, which broadcast the story of the escape of the refugees.
The “Freedom Tank” was then sent to the United States in September 1953.
Escapee Libuse Hrdonkova met Leonard Cloud, an American soldier in Prague following the end of World War Two, when he was stationed there. He then returned to the United States only to return to Czechoslovakia in 1949, when they married. His visa expired, and he was forced to leave Czechoslovakia without her.
She had not seen him since he left Czechoslovakia. She finally succeeded on her 21st attempt to leave Czechoslovakia. She departed Germany in September 1953 to be re-united with her husband in Iowa.
Her arrival in the United States was a “red carpet” affair, named “Project Silver Lining,“ with welcoming speeches, a welcoming telegram from the Governor, a marching band, motorcade, and parade through Sioux City, Iowa. Upon arriving in Sioux City, she said, “I’m so happy to be in a free country. It’s wonderful.” For years, she spoke at various civic functions throughout the United States about the virtues of freedom.
The “Freedom Tank” was delivered to the Washington meeting of the Crusade for Freedom and American Heritage Foundation organizers in October 1953, attended by over 400 delegates. A Paramount Pictures newsreel, released October 23, 1953, covered the events of the meeting and at one point showed some of those who attended the meeting looking intently at the “Freedom Tank”. Audiences in movie theaters heard Jackson Beck, the film’s narrator, solemnly proclaim:
This symbol of resistance to Kremlin tyranny was constructed by Vaclav Uhlik, a Czech mechanic. For three years, Mr. Uhlik listened to Radio Free Europe broadcasts and from them took courage and hope while he worked patiently and in secret to build this vehicle in which he and seven others dashed across the frontier to freedom. Behind the iron curtain are seventy million Vaclav Uhliks to whom this crusade for freedom is the messenger of the Lord.
Vaclav Uhlik, his family and the other passengers went to the United States in December 1953. Bill Watson, narrating a Paramount Pictures newsreel showing their arrival at New York’s Idlewild airport, said:
Arriving in New York from Frankfurt, Germany, seven Czechoslovak refugees are ready to participate in the fund raising campaign for Radio Free Europe, whose broadcasts sustained their hope and courage. They crashed through the iron curtain last summer in a fake armored car in a daring escape plan.
The newly-arrived refugees were settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the assistance of the American Heritage Foundation, which financially supported the families. They were able to supplement their income through television appearances and newspaper and magazine interviews.
During the Crusade for Freedom newspaper campaign, Vaclav Uhlik was quoted in Advertising Council advertisements, “People believe RFE broadcasts like the Bible.”
The “escapees” appeared as “heroes” on American television shows and numerous newspaper and magazine articles were featured in the Crusade for Freedom’s campaign, showing them before the RFE microphone.
There was even a Crusade publicity photograph with television personality Ed Sullivan and the Uhlik family posing with the “tank” — The Uhlik family had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday-night CBS national television program.
During a Crusade parade in New York, on January 21, 1954, the tank broke down during the planned 15-mile drive from the Bronx to the City Hall in Manhattan. The first problem was a radiator leak and Vaclav Uhlik and Waler Hora, his fellow Czech escapee, fixed it to the sound of newspaper photographer’s flash bulbs. There were other problems and finally the motor just stopped running. It had to be towed to Times Square, but by then it was too late for the final leg of the trip to the City Hall.
One newspaper carried the story with the headline, “Home-Made Czech Tank Meets Waterloo in Bronx.” For the remainder of the nation-wide tour, the “Freedom Tank” was placed on a flatbed truck with a poster, “Czech “Freedom Tank” Escaped from Iron Curtain. Support Crusade for Freedom.”
Americans were encouraged to sign Freedom Scrolls showing their continuing support for the Crusade and Radio Free Europe. A large empty telephone cable reel was also on the flatbed truck and was used as a “short snorter” to tape, glue, or somehow connect the Freedom Scrolls together and roll them around it. For example, on February 22, 1954, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, the “Freedom Tank” was on display for a few hours. American Legion volunteers pasted together and attached 80 Freedom Scrolls with 6000 signatures (75 on each scroll) to Scrolls from other cities that already were wrapped around the cable reel.
At a “kickoff” banquet for the Crusade for Freedom fund-raising campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 1954, Libuse Cloud said that her mother and family did not know of her escape plans and “learned immediately of her escape over Radio Free Europe, which “sometimes feels like a voice from heaven.” She added, “I knew the bad life was behind me. I was free. I was no longer a slave. I was a human being again … Radio Free Europe is giving our people hope and courage at a time, when life is very hard and difficult for them.”
The Scrap Iron Curtain
On Tuesday evening, January 12, 1954, the CBS television network aired a 30-minute drama entitled “The Scrap Iron Curtain.” The drama, part of the CBS “Suspense” series, was written by Reginald Lawrence and stared Bart Burns as Vaclav Uhlik.
The program’s preview description read: “Dramatization of the true story of Vaclav Uhlik, a Czech machinist who built and armed car and last July transported his wife, two children and four friends to the town of Waldmuenchen in the Western Zone of Germany.” The program was “presented in conjunction with Radio Free Europe.” Another preview description read, “Dramatic documentary account of eight Czechs, prisoners of the Communists behind the Iron Curtain, who made a fantastically bold dash for freedom in a homemade armored car. Political melodrama, written for the Crusade for Freedom program, packs considerable excitement.”
In Lima, Ohio, Pangles,”Lima’s Leading Food Market”, combined sponsorship of a Crusade for Freedom advertisement with one for its store in the February 19, 1954, local newspaper edition. On February 26, 1954, the “Freedom Tank” arrived in Lima, Ohio. Pangles sponsored another advertisement with a copy of the Freedom Scroll, and these words:
It’s at PANGLES – Tonight 6 p.m. Famous FREEDOM TANK. SIGN THIS SCROLL. See and hear the local persons who will participate in this big program and history making event!
For the 1956 Crusade campaign, the Advertising Council produced a two recording set for radio stations in the United States. One was a 15 minute radio “dramatic playlet” entitled “The Tank that Jan built,” narrated by famed actor Vincent Price. The second recording was that of personal appeals from Hollywood stars Walter Brennan, Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, Pat O’Brien, Jimmy Steward, Robert Stack, Barbara Stanwyck and Dick Powell, plus television stars Art Linkletter, Dinah Shore and Jack Webb.
The “Freedom Tank” was on display for years at the Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan, before it was sold to a local farmer. Military vehicle collector Jim Gilmore in Pennsylvania now owns the “Freedom Tank,” which is currently located in the state of Michigan.
By Richard H Cummings. This article originally appeared on the Cold War Radios blog here. The author has written a number of books on the Cold War.
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The photograph of where the “Freedom Tank” crashed through the Iron Curtain is taken from an album of the Czech Border guards entitled “The Tactic of the Enemy” that is now in the collection of the Czech police in Prague.
Other photographs of “Freedom Tank” courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Collection, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Vaclav Uhlik died in 1977.
Libuse (Lela) Cloud died on December 1, 2012; she was 90 years old.