Vladimir Krman (also known as Frederick Tornil), born 1929
Vladimir Krman was born in Bratislava in June 1929. He attended business academy in the city as his parents wanted him to become a bank clerk, but dropped out so that he could train to become a pilot in the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1946. He started learning how to fly at the Aero Club in Vajnory, a suburb of Bratislava, and once he gained certification to became a flight instructor, his first posting was at Piešt’any airfield in Western Slovakia. Vladimir was a sergeant in the Czechoslovak Air Force until 1948 when, he says, Soviet rules were adopted and he was elevated to the rank of second lieutenant. Vladimir worked as a military flight instructor until leaving Czechoslovakia in early 1953, though he says he latterly came under increasing scrutiny due to his ‘political inactivity.’ He was also a member of an aerobatic flight team. Vladimir says he was about to be stripped of his right to teach, and indeed fly, which was why he decided to leave the country.
Vladimir devised the plan to leave Czechoslovakia with his cousin Jozef Fleischhacker and his friend, Gustav Molnar (both company sergeant majors in the Air Force), in 1952. It is said the escape was organized at Reduta dance hall in Bratislava while the American tune ‘Domino’ was playing, and so the men later referred to their escape as ‘Operation Domino.’ It was decided that when Gustav found himself on guard duty, Vladimir and Jozef would sneak into a hangar, prepare a plane for takeoff and then, in the early hours of the morning, set off for Graz in the British-controlled zone of Austria, where the three would ask for asylum. The opportunity presented itself on Friday, March 13, 1953 in Piešt’any. Vladimir says that while the plan went perfectly, once in the air, the trio found themselves pursued by Soviet MIG 15s. He says, however, that he managed to shake them off by flying low and changing course.
The three made it to Graz, where they were debriefed and were presented to journalists at a press conference. Around 10 days later they were transported to London, where they were advised by British officials to adopt false names for security purposes. Vladimir took the name Frederick Tornil, which he still uses to this day. After one year in Britain, Vladimir moved to Canada, where he started working as a flight instructor at Toronto Island Airport and, at the same time, for General Motors. In 1958, he moved to the Chicago area. After stints working at Rockwell-Standard and Zenith Electronics, Vladimir again went to work for General Motors in La Grange, Illinois, where he stayed for more than 30 years. He gained a commercial pilot’s license and flew from DuPage County airport as a hobby, he says. In 1967, he married his sweetheart from the Bratislava Aero Club, Ružena. She came to live with Vladimir in La Grange alongside her son Roman (who later joined the U.S. Air Force). Vladimir and Ružena had two more sons; Daniel and Martin. Vladimir says he used to enjoy playing soccer and attending dances at the Slovak Athletic Association in Chicago. Today, he enjoys DIY and fixing scooters and motorbikes.
Vladimir’s parents wanted him to be a bank clerk instead of a pilot
“They were very much against that, they didn’t want for me to be a pilot although I started flying in 1946 right after the War. I joined the soaring club, the air club in Bratislava and I accomplished, I got the C exam, which is pretty high, and also the Silver C, which qualified me for Air Force duty. Also we started jumping with parachutes and I had six jumps before I went to the Air Force, so actually I was pretty well qualified there.”
Vladimir remembers conditions in the Czechoslovak Air Force shortly after WWII
“Well, we actually started, what was available at that time was, like three years after the War ended, we had the surplus German aircraft, and that’s what we were using. Way back then in parachute jumping, there were old German parachutes sometimes infested with mice. And they had holes in them, we had to patch them in order to be serviceable so we could jump out of DC3s. And that was another thing that we got – we were so grateful to the UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration], which was the help after the War. And we got those planes there, actually they were still with the military colors, and that’s what we were using. And also the German planes of course, they were all surplus material. And we had some problems, we had some people getting killed because of the old structure. But overall we did good training and we went through all the curriculum they had in Britain. At that time, 1948, we still had members of the Royal Air Force, our Slovaks and Czechs that were fighting on the Allied side, and they were our instructors.”
Vladimir made the decision to leave Czechoslovakia in 1952
“This was in 1952 when I was getting pretty well persecuted because of my political inactivity. We got together with my cousin and a friend from the aero club – we got together and decided there is no way, no future for us. Because pretty soon my flying career ended; they stopped me from flying, and my two friends were mechanics whereas they joined the Air Force for the purpose of flying so that they would get flight training. And so actually when they demanded that after so many years of being mechanics they get flight training they were told no, so they wrote to the minister of defense, and the result was that they put them in jail as they went over the official procedure. They just couldn’t get anywhere, and they wanted to fly so badly and so we decided that it’s time to go.”
The escape happened in March 1953
“We had an alternative airport which was Graz in Austria. And we were still not 100% sure if it is in the British zone, if it is safe to land there. But there was from Bratislava another 45 minutes of flight. We wanted to go as far West as Frankfurt or Munich, but we didn’t have enough fuel. And of course then there was a Soviet airbase in Vienna, which, when we were flying over Bratislava they were getting our flight path and then they took off and went after us. But the thing we devised was that we would change direction from Bratislava to Vienna, descend down to tree level almost; it was still night, pitch dark, and then change course towards the British zone, which was, I would say, almost another 90 degrees to the left. And sure enough, in about five minutes, there were MIG 15s that were flying looking for us. We could see their exhausts, the flames from their exhausts, just about, I would say, a couple of miles away. But we were already sneaking out the other way and they were going the direction we were in before. But they didn’t find us, because like I said, we were already heading the other way and disappearing fast.”
It took Vladimir and his accomplices several moments to figure out where they had landed
“It was such that we landed, but we were still not sure whether it was a British airport or not because of the runways. They were marked – actually they were not runways, there was a grass area which was marked with evergreen twigs, which didn’t look like a civilized airport really. After landing when we were passing by hangars, it did say ‘N’ ‘O’ underlined, like ‘No. 1’, ‘No. 2’, ‘No. 3’ and we couldn’t decipher it, whether it was the way the Russians marked their hangars or not. We were coming towards the quarters and there was a bunch of soldiers that were coming towards us with their rifles, and then ‘Heck, what are we going to do?’ But what happened when we were circling the airport, I noticed barracks where there were soldiers with white belts and white things over their boots, their shoes, which I remember from movies, American movies, that this is actually the MP, the military police. I remember that, and I couldn’t even tell my guys in the back that this is what I saw. So I was pretty well sure that we are in British hands, but I wasn’t sure about the guards, which later came true, that they were Austrians.”
Once in Britain, Vladimir was told to take a new name for security reasons
“In London, they gave us new passports and also they wanted us to change the names we had for safety purposes because communists were kidnapping people even from England, they managed to kidnap someone and brought him back to Czechoslovakia and executed him, really. So they said, now, this is for your safety, do that, and we agreed.”
What was the name you chose?
“The name that I chose I am still using is Frederick Tornil. Tornil was a name of a racing-horse that won the Irish sweepstakes that particular weekend when we arrived there. So it was kind of funny because it took us a long time to pick up names, and so Tornil was the one, and they used to call me Freddie alias potápka in Bratislava, and so I adopted the name Frederick.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History