Slovaks Greatest Race
The men who pilot the unlimited hydroplanes are a brave, speed-loving lot with interesting stories to tell. The task of selecting one of them to feature in this issue was difficult indeed. The fans of Mira Slovak will be delighted and we only hope that the supporters of Muncey, Regas, Schoenith, et al, will wait till next year when, unfortunately, the choice will be just as tough!
The late Major General Claire L. Chennault unfolded the letter which reached him in Taipei, Taiwan. The writer was a crop-dusting pilot in Yakima, Washington, a young man whose message moved the fighting old general who knew first-hand the ravages of Communism.
The letter read:
I escaped from Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia last year by flying an airliner from Prague to Frankfurt, West Germany. I was granted political asylum in the United States in December, 1953. I feel an obligation to fight against the Communists because I saw what happened in my country.
I will fly with you, against the Communists, anywhere, and for no salary. I have only one wish in my life and that is to fight these terrible aggressors.
Unfortunately, the general had to reject the services of the Czech refugee flyer because the U. S. would not authorize Chennault's International Volunteer Group. In so doing, however, he set the stage for Mira J. Slovak to fight the Red scourge in still another way not by shooting down Yaks and MIG 15s, but indirectly, by telling his story by proving to the American people just how important freedom can be.
It is the saga of a young man, not yet thirty, who cherished freedom enough to leave friends and family behind in a dangerous flight to Free Europe. It is also the story of an ambitious young refugee who in just five years worked his way from one job to another until he became a national sports celebrity as pilot of Miss Bardahl, the U. S. champion unlimited hydroplane.
Mira Slovak was born in the village of Cifer in western Czechoslovakia in 1929. He grew up, however, in the town of Leopoldoe where his father operated a grain elevator. From early childhood Mira heard about speed and racing in his own home. His father, Jan, was a sports car enthusiast and his younger brother, Jardra, was a motorcycle speed demon at 14.
For years motorcycle racing has been a major sport in central Europe, and most of the 7,000 citizens of Leopoldoe were avid fans. Two-wheeled speedsters were the feature of all local festivals, and on the feast of St. Ignatius, when Leopoldoe had its annual fete, the cyclists were the center of attraction. Mira gave little indication, however, that he would one day be a world's speed champion because he was the only male Slovak for whom racing motorcycles held little appeal.
As Mira tells it, there weren't many things over which he showed much enthusiasm in those days.
"I was about the worst student in my class," he relates, "and my mother learned in a hurry that I'd never become a doctor as she wished. I simply couldn't stand the sight of blood."
There was, however, one thing which did interest the slight youngster during the period when the shadows of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini began to extend across Europe. That something was aviation.
Mira read what he could about airplanes. He even tried to build one in his back yard. Meanwhile, he continued his struggle through formal schooling. He attended a parochial school in Leopoldoe, and then studied languages and history at Hlohovec gymnasium.
World War II, meanwhile, raged throughout Europe, and Leopoldoe did not go unscathed. As a railroad junction, the little city was a bomber target, and Mira and Jardra used to sit in a foxhole near their home and watch the B-17s fly over. No quirk of the imagination could have convinced young Mira that not many years away he would be a personal friend of William E. Boeing, Jr., son of the founder of the company which built those American bombers he now watched in awe and admiration.
As the German war machine began to crumble, the eastern front moved closer and closer to Leopoldoe. The Slovaks remember well the Nazi soldiers rushing westward through their town so that, when the end came, they would be prisoners of the British and Americans rather than the Russians.
Unfortunately, the citizens of Leopoldoe could not take up their city and flee with the Germans.
"For us the end of the war brought a great fear," he recalls. "I remember waiting with relatives and neighbors in our basement as the Russians drew near. We were to learn shortly that liberation would be ten times worse than war."
With obvious emotion Mira relates the coming of the Red army to Leopoldoe. Women of all ages had to run away or hide from the "liberators" who were like "wild, dirty animals."
After the war Dr. Eduard Benes, who with Thomas G. Masaryk had first established the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918, returned as president. In 1947 this new Czech government advertised for young men to fly for the country's air force.
Maria Slovak then proved a wise mother who recognized a son's unrelenting desire. Though she would have preferred to see Mira in medical school, she went about the task of convincing her husband that the boy should be allowed to follow his ambitions in the air. It was with the concurrence of both his parents that 18-year-old Mira Slovak became one of 3,000 applicants for pilot training. When the preliminary screening was completed, he was one of 105 candidates accepted.
Poor study habits born of disinterest in early schooling made the going extra rough for the young man from Leopoldoe. To keep up in such difficult courses as meteorology and navigation, Mira used to read by candlelight under a blanket after "lights out" at 10 p.m. Later his mother sent him a small kerosene lamp to reduce the fire hazard during this after-hours cramming.
The two-year training course had run through the first year when one of the blackest days in Czechoslovakian history occurred. When conflicting goals of the too-numerous political parties in the country created a vacuum, the Communists stepped in to take over control, elevating Klement Gottwald to the presidency.
Immediately things changed at the air force school. Instructors who had flown with the British were replaced by those who had flown on the eastern front. Political education became more important than pilot training.
Some of the trainees were dropped from the course for political reasons, but somehow Mira hung on. When graduation day came, the proof that he could accomplish what he really believed in became known. Out of the original 3,000 applicants, only 54 pilots received their wings and Mira Slovak stood second in the class.
Lieutenant Slovak became first a navigation instructor, and in 1950 he was selected to attend the military air transport school. Upon graduation he was assigned as a pilot with the government-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines. Within three months he was captain and chief pilot of a plane, and the stage was set for one of the most dramatic episodes of his life.
As an airlines pilot, Mira was extremely well paid. He and fellow members of this select group received from 25,000 to 33,000 korunas a month (approximately $1,300 to $1,600). This was primarily incentive pay to keep them loyal. Still, an inward disturbance had begun to make itself known to the young flyer.
On flights to the Scandinavian countries he witnessed democratic living. He had heard the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He remembered the things his parents and teachers had told him before the war.
As an airlines pilot he was living many times better than his fellow citizens. He didn't even have to join a "volunteer brigade" for farm work when he wasn't flying as most of his fellow pilots did. He merely put in extra hours towing gliders for the government. Yet, the conflict between freedom and enslavement grew in his mind, until at last he knew that he would have to take the gamble which escape required.
Escape Secret Kept From Family
Mira was not alone in the planning. Helmut Cermak, a mechanic at the famed Skoda Munitions Works, and his wife, Hana, thought about details of the escape for months. Several others knew the secret, but fate ultimately prevented their participation in the actual dash for freedom.
Carefully the plans were made. No one was told outside of the immediate escape group. Mira longed to tell his parents, but he knew he couldn't, first for fear that some show of emotion might reveal the secret, and secondly, because he wanted to relieve his loved ones of responsibility in the matter.
"Of course, I had fear for my family," Slovak says. "I knew they would be investigated. Yet I knew that they would be proud of me for living up to what I considered an obligation to my country."
During the final weeks, he visited his parents as much as possible at Leopoldoe. Then, on March 23, 1953, the zero hour finally arrived.
The escape would be made on a scheduled flight from Prague to Brno. Mira would be pilot of the C-47 Dakota which would carry 26 passengers and three crew members. Among the passengers were Hana and Helmut Cermak and Bozidar Medic, a television engineer who was a last-minute addition to the conspiracy.
At 7:20 p.m. the plane lumbered down the runway and took off in the direction of Brno, 115 miles to the southeast. Once in flight, Slovak turned the controls over to his Communist co-pilot and walked back among the passengers. Helmut Cermak and Medic then accompanied him up front on the pretext of seeing the pilots' compartment.
With weapons brought aboard by the pilot, the escapees overpowered the other crew members and locked them in a baggage compartment. Almost casually Slovak made his final radio contact over Benesov, then tipped the ship downward in a steep dive.
Bright Lights Spell "Freedom"
Leveling out well under 1,000 feet, which was below the effective radar screen, the pilot banked the plane sharply toward the west and the 45-minute hedge-hopping flight to freedom. At any moment they expected MIG fighters to pounce upon them. As an additional menace, an attempt was made by Communist passengers to break down the door of the pilots' compartment. Mira pulled back hard on the wheel and then shoved it forward quickly. The effect was like hitting a huge air pocket and the lurching plane dissuaded any further passenger counter-revolt.
By this time colored lights began to appear in the towns and cities below them.
"We knew we were over West Germany then," explained Mira. "In Czechoslovakia we had no such lights, just dim white ones because of the power shortage."
Circling high above the American Air Force Base at Rhein-Main, Slovak contacted a passing jet and was led down. The time was then 9:50, and a more suspenseful two-and-a-half-hour drama could not he created on stage or film.
This chapter of Mira Slovak's life came to a close when he and five of his passengers were granted political asylum, and the next morning head-lines throughout the Free World proclaimed the escape.
For over a year Mira worked closely with the U. S. Air Force, in Germany and in Washington, D. C., where he arrived in December of 1953. For his cooperation during those long months of interrogation, he won permanent residency in the United States.
The rest of Mira's story from crop-duster to hydroplane pilot is familiar to all devotees of the sport. Today he is a worthy competitor on the water and a good citizen on land.
As for the Communists, his thoughts have not changed since he wrote his letter to General Chennault!
[Reprinted from the 1959 APBA Gold Cup Official Regatta Programme]
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© Leslie Field, 2005