Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

The Freedom Bridge

A Human Interest Story by Bruce L. Fister, Lieutenant General, USAF, Retired

I was the 435th Tactical Airlift Wing Commander at Rhein Main Air Base, Germany, from August 1985 to June 1988. During that time many interesting events throughout Europe and the Middle East occurred, but the most interesting and least known was the release of Anatoli Shcharansky from the Soviet Gulag on February 11, 1986.

Anatoli Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky) was a Jewish descendent confined to the Soviet prison system for 20 months. He became internationally known and became a focus of the Reagan administration’s human rights campaign and a part of the President’s Cold War strategy. In the course of time an agreement was made between the United States and the Soviet Union to release Natan Sharansky in exchange for four or five Americans who were acting as Eastern European spies and were arrested and confined in American federal prisons.

On approximately the 1st of September 1985, I was contacted by the American Counsel General in Frankfort, Germany, Ambassador Bill Bodie. He asked that I help him execute Natan Sharansky’s exchange for the Eastern Block spies. Ambassador Bodie was assigned this task and had no experience in executing this covert operation. Several members of my staff and I had a background in special operations, and were well up to the task.

Natan Sharansky was to be released from East German control on February 11, 1986 from the Freedom Bridge between East and West Berlin. Our task was to transport him from West Berlin to Rhein Main AB and get him into the commercial air system via the Frankfort Flughoffen. Additionally, we were to facilitate the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s requirement that the spies renounce their U.S. citizenship and provide their transport back to designated Eastern Block countries.

The spies were brought to Rhein Main via commercial air. On the evening of February 10, 1986, in the 435th TAW detention facility, the FBI got the spies to renounce their U.S. citizenship. On the morning of February 11th, Natan Sharansky began his walk across a snowy Freedom Bridge to his freedom in West Berlin. At the same time two 435th TAW C-130s departed Rhein Main to deliver the spies to the appropriate Eastern Block countries. Natan Sharansky was put aboard a Military Airlift Command C-21 in Berlin and flown to Rhein Main. The aircraft taxied into one of our hangers. Sharansky was put in a car and escorted through controlled access to the Flughoffen where he was reunited with his wife Avital, in an El Al distinguished visitors lounge. Unknown to other passengers aboard the El Al flight to Tel Aviv, the Sharanskys flew to their new home in Israel.

All of this occurred while I hosted a lunch at the Rhein Main Officers’ Club for the top Flughoffen management and 13 local mayors from around Rhein Main AB. The operation went without a hitch and Natan Sharansky went on to live in freedom and serve in the Israeli Knesset and in other political leadership roles. This small operation allowed a brave man, his wife, and daughter to be reunited. It was to the credit of a small group of Airmen at Rhein Main Air Base who played a small part in this operation that the gift of freedom could be bestowed upon this family.

Note: For details on Natan Sharansky’s life in the gulag, see his book, "Fear No Evil” published by Random House in 1988.
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