On August 1, 1954 a plane landed at New York City's Idlewild Airport in Queens (now LaGuardia). The plane carried Lena, a German Racing Pigeon. Lena's arrival in the U.S. was a grand celebration. She was met by “four hero pigeons of World War II” from Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. Other flocks of other pigeons and reporters who welcomed her to The United States (According to New York Times articles on August 1, 1954 and August 2, 1954 and United Press article from August 2, 1954).
Lena came to The United States in order to be “used as a model for insignia to be used in the 1955 Crusade for Freedom, which supports Radio Free Europe” (New York Times from August 2, 1954).
Apparently, Lena or “Leaping Lena” was “The Pigeon Who Crashed the Iron Curtain” when she got lost during a pigeon race that started in Western Germany (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blog post, www.rferl.org, October 23, 2009). She landed in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Somebody found her and attached a message to her leg—a message addressed to Radio Free Europe.
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.
Lena’s message was delivered to Radio Free Europe Headquarters. It was reportedly read on the air—broadcast back to the Eastern Bloc—from which it came. Apparently, this is what prompted the Crusade for Freedom fly the pigeon to New York “from Munich on an air-conditioned airliner on a fund-raising campaign for Radio Free Europe” (United Press article from August 2, 1954)
After Lena’s arrival in New York City, she spent three weeks in Clifton, NJ in “quarantine at the United States Department of Agriculture animal center.” Then, she went “to the Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding and training center at Fort Monmouth” in New Jersey (New York Times from August 22, 1954 and August 23, 1954).
I discovered Lena’s story while researching a project about the use of pigeons as a medium for communication in New York City. My goal was to map the movement of pigeons across the city and over time. Therefore, I needed precise details—specific dates and specific places—to enter as map coordinates.
When I began the task of confirming these crucial details—the where’s and the when’s—I began to notice discrepancies.
First, I could not pinpoint when Lena’s flight actually took place. Two of the four articles from the New York Times on August 1, 1954 and August 2, 1954 agreed that the flight took place “a month ago.” Therefore, Lena’s journey would have taken place around July 1, 1954. Then, just three weeks later, on August 22, 1954, an Associated Press report in the New York Times said that Lena “flew from Communist Czechoslovakia last May,” not last July. Even if Lena’s flight took place at the end of May, there would still be a time discrepancy of one month between reports.
The details of where Lena flew from and to also do not align. The New York Times report from August 1, 1954 says that Lena began her flight in Nuremberg. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blog post from October 23, 2009 agrees that Lena flew “from Nuremberg.” However, the United Press article from August 2, 1954 says that Lena flew “from Munich.” This is also what Richard H. Cummings said in his blog post on January 8, 2011 at Cold War Radios (coldwarradios.blogspot.com).
All of the sources agree that after Lena flew from—wherever she began—either Nuremberg or Munich—she got lost and landed in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
Then the sources start to disagree again.
The United Press article from August 2, 1954 said that “Lena flapped into Munich” after her detour in Pilsen. This information is reflected in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blog, which appears to have cited this article in its post. Other sources such as Richard H. Cummings’s Cold War Radio blog, and the New York Times articles from August 1, 1954 and August 2, 1954 report that Lena flew back to her home loft in West Germany before being sent to RFE headquarters in Munich with her message.
It should be noted here that it would make more sense for Lena to fly home before she went to Munich. Homing, racing, or carrier pigeons—as they are commonly known to the public—do not fly from point A to point B like a bicycle messenger service. They only fly from some place else—a place that is not their home—back to the place that they recognize as home.
Of course the location of this “home” is not consistent either. The United Press article from August 2, 1954 says that Lena came from “Klatzenbach,” which cannot be found on Google Maps. In his book called Radio Free Europe’s “Crusade for Freedom” Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950-1960 Richard H. Cummings says that Lena came from Katzenbach, a municipality in the Rhineland-Palatinate State of Germany. However, in his blog post from January 8, 2011, Cummings says that Lena came from Klautzenbach, a district in the town of Zwiesel in Bavaria.
As the discrepancies compounded, I became wearier and wearier of the truth behind the facts of this story. However, the detail that thoroughly convinced me that this story was fictitious was found in that United Press article from August 2, 1954. It says, “Lena’s trip to the U.S. was arranged by the 1953 Crusade for Freedom, which finances Radio Free Europe.” All the other sources suggested that Lena’s flight took place in either May or July of 1954. If this is the case, then how on Earth could the Crusade for Freedom have planned Lena’s trip in 1953?
I decided to examine the source. I knew that Radio Free Europe had a reputation for spreading propaganda in its broadcast. I had heard that they were an arm of the CIA, but I had never researched this in depth. In Richard H. Cummings’s book Radio Free Europe’s “Crusade for Freedom” I learned that the Crusade for Freedom was the organization that financed Radio Free Europe. It was run primarily by American citizens in the United States. These “Average Joes” organized in order to finance the fight against Communism waged by Radio Free Europe. Lena’s story made the fight against Communism accessible and identifiable to everyday Americans. Its details were inconsistent and, in all likelihood fictitious, or exaggerated to point of fiction. The purpose of this story was to serve as a myth for Americans during the Cold War. Cummings closes his Preface with the following statements, Radio Free Europe and the Crusade for Freedom
should not, in my opinion, be seen [as] an evil deus ex machina in the government’s Cold-War activities but a successful evolutionary process involving the government, private industry, mass media, academia, religious leaders, and, lastly, “your average Joe.” The Crusade for Freedom could be termed a “fraud” on Americans, but it was, in my opinion, a benign fraud: it probably gave most Americans what they wanted anyway: pageantry, a feeling of belonging and contributing to a justified cause—a Cold War consensus.
I am only left to wonder what that little pigeon, Lena, thought about all of this. She was anthropomorphized to extremes in this story—becoming the legend to a political conflict that stretched well beyond the boundaries of any map.