Date: January 11, 1969

Flight Info: United Airlines Flight 459 from Jacksonville to Miami, with a scheduled stop in Savannah, Ga.

The Story: A 15-year Army veteran who had served as a Green Beret, Helmey was working in Savannah for his father’s timber company when he began to suffer from delusions (possibly caused by traumatic brain injuries). Specifically, Helmey came to believe that he was a key operative in a massive FBI-CIA conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro. He thus set out to reach Havana in the only direct way possible: by hijacking a plane. He did so by brandishing a .38-caliber pistol and telling the pilot, “Tell Fidel, Red is coming.” (“Red” was his nickname.) Upon his arrival in Cuba, the 36-year-old Helmey was immediately imprisoned in a cramped cell, where he kept a makeshift diary on a tablecloth and listened to the beatings meted out to other American skyjackers.

The Upshot: Helmey was freed by the Cubans after 109 days of captivity. He was tried for air piracy in November 1969, but acquitted on the grounds that he had been temporarily insane. After the trial, Helmey sent the pair of Sta-Prest trousers that he had worn to Cuba to Levi Strauss & Co., along with this note:

Gentlemen: On the morning of January 11, 1969, I put on a pair of “Mr. Levi” Sta Press (sic) slacks and went to work. At 11 P.M. I arrived in Havana, Cuba, “in a situation beyond my control.” I was taken to jail and put in solitary confinement for 109 days. The only clothing I had was what I had on. I lived in those slacks for the duration of my confinement. I crawled on my hands and knees until there was no skin left on them. After your inspection I would appreciate them being returned to me. These slacks are as good as new except where my wife cut them in search of a diary I had sewn inside the lining of my pocket. I highly recommend “Mr. Levi’s” to anyone who is confined or travels a lot. As for everyday wear, I think the above is proof enough of the durability. The price is most remarkable for such comfortable and well-styled slacks. Thanks for making them.

Helmey later wrote a book about his experiences, which he still graciously autographs for anyone who visits him in Savannah.


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