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Article: The Bridge of Spies

Gary Powers

The Bridge of Spies

It's June 22, 1953,  when a Brooklyn newspaper boy is delivering a newspaper to one of his customers, but she needs change to break a dollar bill for her to pay him.

He didn't have enough coins in his pocket, so he asked the two ladies in the apartment across the hall if they could help him.

By pooling the coins in their pocketbooks, the two ladies were able to give the newsboy change for the dollar. 

As he left the apartment house he began jiggling several of the coins in his left hand and one of the coins seemed to have a peculiar ring. Jimmy rested this coin, a nickel, on the middle finger of his hand and noticed it felt lighter than the rest of the coins.

All at once the coin fell to the floor and fell apart!

He picked it up, and almost like magic, the coin split in half! Inside was a tiny photograph showing a series of numbers too small to read.

The hollow nickel found by a newspaper boy in Brooklyn named Jimmy in 1953.
The hollow nickel found by a newspaper boy in Brooklyn named Jimmy in 1953.

A police officer's daughter, who was a friend of Jimmy told her father about the coin. The police officer reported this to a New York City detective who, in turn, gave the coin to the FBI.

This was the first time the FBI had ever encountered a nickel quite like this one.

The face of the coin was a 1948 Jefferson nickel, and in the "R" of the word "TRUST" had a tiny hole drilled there so that a fine needle could be inserted into the coin to open it.

Examination of the coded message inside showed that there were ten columns of typewritten numbers, each five digits and 21 numbers in most of the columns.

The coded message contained in the hollow nickel
The coded message contained in the hollow nickel

 From 1953 to 1957, continuing efforts to decipher the coin, all ended in failure. The only thing they knew for sure was that the typewriter had not been made in the US, so a foreign-made typewriter was involved.

The Mystery of the Hollow Coin is Solved 

A man named Reino Hayhanen was born near Leningrad on May 14, 1920, and despite his peasant background was an honor student and by 1939 obtained the equivalent of a teacher's certificate to teach high school.

In September of 1939 was appointed to a primary school faculty near the village of Lipitzi, and two months later was recruited by the Soviet Secret Police (NKFD).

Hayhanen was proficient in the Finnish language and was sent to the combat zone of the Finnish-Soviet war to translate captured documents and interrogate prisoners.

After the war, he was assigned to check the loyalty and reliability of Soviet workers in Finland and to develop informants and information. 

He became a respected expert in Finnish intelligence matters and was accepted into membership in the Soviet Communist Party.

In the summer of 1948, he was given a new assignment to learn English and special training in photographing documents.

A year later he entered Finland as Eugene Nicolai Maki, an American-born laborer. The real Maki was born in Enaville, Idaho on May 30, 1919, his parents were impressed by the new Russia, sold their belongings, and moved to Estonia.

They did not find the "Utopia" they expected, and over the years their former friends in Idaho forgot about them. In Moscow, however, plans were laid for a "new" Eugene Maki, one thoroughly grounded in Soviet intelligence.

Hayhanen had been given a US passport on July 28, 1952, and arrived in the US on October 21, 1952, as Eugene Maki. Four months later his Finnish wife Hanna Kurikka.

His Soviet handlers had recalled Hayhanen to Moscow and introduced him to a Soviet agent, "Mikhail," who would be his superior when Hayhanen returned to the US.

"Mikhail," his handler as it turned out, was none other than an English-born Soviet agent whose Russian parents had emigrated to England. His real name was William August Fisher, born July 11, 1903.

Hayhanen turned out to be a drunk, had difficulty with his wife, and had a very poor work ethic. After many months of no contact with his handler in Moscow, he finally found a hollowed-out nickel in a drop box. 

However, before he opened the nickel he apparently purchased a newspaper and used the hollowed-out nickel to pay for it.

Rudolf Ivanovich Abel

William August Fisher was born and grew up in New Castle upon Tyne in the NE of England. 

Fisher's parents were revolutionaries of the Czarist era. His father, Heinrich Fisher, was German and his mother Lyubov was of Russian descent. His father was a revolutionary activist who taught and agitated with Vladimir Lenin in St. Petersburg.

During World War II William August Fisher served in intelligence operations against the Germans, and after the war began working for the KGB which sent him to the US with the name Rudolf Abel.

He was told to head up a network of spies in the United States to gather intelligence on American nuclear secrets. 

A photograph of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel
A photograph of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel

Hayhanen was one of the members of the network, but Fisher was unhappy with his performance and asked Moscow to recall him.

As Hayhanen made his way back to Moscow he passed through Paris where he contacted the US embassy while there and told them he wanted to defect to the US. He feared the KGB would severely discipline or harm him.

When he arrived at the embassy in Paris he appeared drunk but was able to convince the CIA personnel that he was, in fact, a Soviet spy. He showed them a hollowed-out Finnish 5-mark coin. Upon opening the coin they found a square microfilm image. 

On May 11, 1957, Hayhanen was returned to the US and turned over to the FBI who began verifying his story. He proved quite cooperative and solved the mystery of the hollow nickel they had from the newsboy.

In addition, Hayhanen was able to provide enough information to the FBI that they were able to locate Fisher a/k/a Rudolf Abel, and take him into custody 

On June 21, 1957, Fisher answered a knock on the door and was confronted by FBI agents who addressed him as "colonel," and Fisher immediately knew that Hayhanen had turned him in.

Fisher said nothing to the FBI agents, and after a few minutes, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) officers were called in and arrested him for entering the country illegally. 

He was flown to the Federal Alien Detention facility in McAllen, Texas, and held there for six weeks. During this period Fisher told them his real name was Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, and that he was a Soviet citizen.

Fisher knew that as soon as his handlers in Moscow saw the name Abel on the front pages of US newspapers they would realize he had been captured.

As Fisher was no longer considered an illegal alien, but rather a Soviet spy, he was returned to New York City on August 7, 1957, to stand trial as a Russian Spy.

James B. Donovan

Under US law Fisher a/k/a Rudolf Abel was entitled to a defense at his trial, and a well-known attorney by the name of James B. Donovan was asked to represent Abel at his trial.

Donovan had worked as a wartime counsel in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and had years of courtroom experience so he was uniquely qualified to act as Fisher's defense lawyer.

This came with a price, however, because once Abel's activities became well known he became hated by the public who demanded he be hanged for his crimes.

In October of 1957, Abel was tried on three conspiracy charges and Hayhanen testified against him at trial. The jury took just three and a half hours to convict him on all counts on October 25, 1957.

James Donovan was concerned that the judge might sentence Abel to death and was able to convince the judge to instead send him to prison. His logic was that Abel might be valuable in the future for a prisoner exchange with the Soviets.

The judge agreed, and Abel was sentenced to thirty years and a fine of $ 3,000.

Abel was remanded to custody at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia where he occupied himself with painting, learning silk-screening, playing chess, and writing logarithmic tables.

May 1, 1960

On May 1st, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and the pilot was captured by the Soviets.

I wrote about this event earlier in a blog post titled "The U-2 Enters Service."

So now the foresight of attorney James Donovan came true as the US held Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, and the Soviets held spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers.

Both countries found themselves in the exact same predicament, embarrassed being caught spying on each other, and a solution needed to be found for all involved.

The US wanted its pilot back, and the Soviets wanted its spy back.

Once again the US called upon attorney James Donovan to help.

Donovan was dispatched to the Soviet section of Berlin to negotiate the release of Powers for Abel, but during this same period of time a young American student, Frederich Pryor, managed to get himself caught on the wrong side of the Berlin wall being built and was taken into custody.

This complicated things.

The GDR (German Democratic Republic) now decided they would exchange Prior for Abel, and the Soviets refused to turn over Powers.

After a number of conversations, Donovan declares that the US will trade Abel for Powers, but only if the GDR releases Prior to the US at the same time.

The Soviets agreed to exchange Powers for Abel, but the GDR dragged its feet on releasing Prior.

The exchange would take place at the center of the Glienicke Bridge, however, the GDR would release Prior at a different crossing.

The Glienicke Bridge is where the biggest Spy Swap in History took place on February 10, 1962, at 5:00 am.

After a short delay, the GDR finally delivered Prior, and the exchange of Abel for Powers was completed.

Glienicke Bridge - The Bridge of Spies and the biggest Agent Swap in History

Gary Powers and Prior exchanged for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy.

Fisher was reunited with his wife and daughter and gave speeches and lectures to schoolchildren on intelligence work.

Fisher was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer on November 15, 1971.

 In 1990 the USSR released a postage stamp featuring 

1990 postage stamp featuring Rudolf Abel in a series of spy stamps issued by the USSR.
1990 postage stamp featuring Rudolf Abel in a series of spy stamps issued by the USSR.

In 2015 the movie "Bridge of Spies" was released telling the story of Rudolf Abel, Gary Powers, and Frederic Pryor. 

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here:

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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