Source: Smithsonian

This week in History: 57 People Escape East Berlin Through Secret Tunnel

Although many of us are old enough to remember when the wall in East Berlin was still in place and the whole of East Germany was controlled by the former Soviet Union, it feels so long ago that it almost seems unreal.

In my own childhood, I remember movies and stories about great escapes in Germany as people tried to flee from East Germany to West Germany, which was controlled by the UK, US and France.  

One story in particular caught international attention, in the first week of October of 1964, 57 East German refugees were able to escape through a tunnel dug by a group of students and others from West Germany.  This was the largest and most successful tunnel escape during this era. The tunnel, which according to a wonderful article in the Smithsonian, took five months to dig, started in an abandoned bakery in West Berlin and surfaced in an abandoned apartment building on StreilizerStrasse in East Berlin.

Source: Smithsonian
Source: Smithsonian

Refugees who traversed this 400 meter underground road to freedom had to successfully share a passcode at the entrance to the apartment building. One of the escapees, Hans-Joachim Tilleman, recounted his experience to the Smithsonian. “We didn’t see a light, so we continued to the building,” he said. “There were some people inside, and we told them ‘Tokyo’ and they let us into the hallway where we took off our shoes and tiptoed to the inner courtyard. In a little outhouse in the back, they let us down a shaft, and we crawled through.”

On October 5, 1964, the tunnel was discovered by soldiers and during the ensuing scuffle, an East German corporal, Egon Schultz, was killed by gunfire.  According to a New York Times article written at the time, “The East German Defense Ministry charged, in a statement issued by the press service ADN, that agents and murderers had penetrated into East Berlin from ‘the NATO base of West Berlin’ and that one of these ‘armed bandits’ killed the corporal.”

A different New York Times article, published in 2001, clarified that in 1994, the Berlin district attorney’s office re-investigated the shooting of Egon Schultz, and found that he had been accidentally shot by another East German soldier.

In that same New York Times article from 2001, one of the West German diggers, Wolfgang Fuchs, who worked tireless to free East Germans in several less successful tunnel escapes, said of Tunnel 57, “’The marks of their knee prints in the tunnel floor looked like the ripples on a beach left behind by the receding tide. ‘I will never forget that. That is beautiful.”

To learn more about the Tunnel 57 escape, visit these resources:

Forgotten Heroes: Texas Airman Dies in 1961 Diverting Falling Plane from Suburban Neighborhood

It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.  

Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961.  A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter.  With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.

Captain Gary L. Herod, Source: Texas Air National Guard

Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.  

This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own.  As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”  

He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy.  Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.

A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him.  Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name.  Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.

In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife.  She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.  

Source: Texas Digital Newspaper Program: The Bellaire Texan

“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”

She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”

She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.” 

To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources: