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"The Pigeon Who Crashed the Iron Curtain"

Lena, the "Freedom Pigeon," gained widespread fame by flying an anti-Communist message over the Iron Curtain.
Lena, the "Freedom Pigeon," gained widespread fame by flying an anti-Communist message over the Iron Curtain.
How carrier pigeon Lena became an honorary U.S. "citizen"

In 1954, a carrier pigeon named Lena was participating in a race between two German towns. While flying from Nuremberg to her home loft in a West German village, Lena got lost and ended up landing in the town of Pilsen in communist Czechoslovakia, where she was discovered by a Czech pigeon enthusiast. The unnamed man recognized Lena's German leg band and decided to send his own message - to Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.

We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.

We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
The message was signed "Unbowed Pilsen."

Two days later, Lena arrived in Munich. Although she placed last in the race, the message she carried from behind the Iron Curtain made her an instant celebrity as her story was immediately broadcast into Eastern Europe by RFE.

Lena the pigeon poses with a stewardess after landing at an airport in New York City.

Lena was then flown, "in an air-conditioned airliner," to New York, where she was given "the red carpet treatment usually reserved for visiting statesmen," according to the New York Times.

Upon her arrival at New York's International Airport, the paper reported that Lena was met by "Coos and Kudos" - adding that the ceremony was also attended by 1,000 pigeons released in her honor by American pigeon fanciers, including four "hero pigeons" who flew missions during World War II. A copy of the message Lena carried to Munich was also flown (by carrier pigeon) to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A news clipping about Lena's arrival from August 2, 1954.

Known as "The Pigeon Who Crashed the Iron Curtain," or simply "Leaping Lena," her celebrity status resulted in Lena's selection as the model for the emblem of the 1955 Crusade for Freedom campaign. A few weeks after her arrival in New York, Lena became an honorary "citizen" of the United States after completing her "physical examination" (a three-week quarantine at a USDA animal center in New Jersey). She was finally transferred to the US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding and training center, where she finished her career.

--Alex Mayer