Brian Robson is looking for the two Irishmen who helped stuff him into a wooden crate in 1965 and ship him home to the U.K. in the mail.
Robson was 19 and working in Australia when he and two buddies hatched and executed the unconventional plan.
“The problem is, at the time, we made an agreement that it would be secret because none of us expected … any publicity. I mean, the idea was I would get to London and I would get out of the crate and disappear, go home and nobody would be any the wiser,” Robson told As It Happens host Carol Off.
“Unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong.”
Five decades later, Robson has written a book about the ill-conceived misadventure called The Crate Escape.
A case of homesickness
In 1964, Robson travelled from Cardiff, Wales, to Melbourne, Australia, on an assisted immigration program to work for Victorian Railways. He quickly regretted the decision and became desperately homesick.
But simply quitting his job and flying home wasn’t an option. He had a contract with the Australian government to stay and work for two years. If he broke the contract, he’d have to pay back the money the country spent to get him there.
Including his travel expenses, the whole thing would have cost £700. His monthly wage was £40.
So Robson and his two closest work buddies devised the scheme to mail him home. Robson believes their names were Paul and John, but after all these years, he can’t remember their surnames.
The trio bought a wooden crate that Robson barely fit inside with his knees folded up to his chest. Then they nailed him in with a bottle of water, a flashlight, an empty bottle (“for obvious reasons”), a small suitcase, a pillow and a hammer to break out.
They covered the crate with labels that read “Fragile,” “Handle with care” and “This side up.” It was scheduled to fly from Melbourne to London within 36 hours.
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Robson ended up being inside that crate for five days.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “I was passing in and out of consciousness. I had a lack of oxygen. Oh, it was bad.”
There seemed to be an endless number of stopovers, and the airport crews didn’t pay much attention to the crate’s labels. At one point, Robson says he was left upside down on a tarmac, literally sitting on his head for 24 hours because there wasn’t enough room in the crate to turn around.
He considered breaking free and abandoning the whole scheme.
“I played with the idea for a few seconds and convinced myself, look, you’ve done all this. You cannot embarrass yourself now. You’re going ahead with it and that’s it,” he said.
By the time it became unbearable, it was too late to change plans.
“I would say the last five or six hours of flying, I was quite convinced that that was the end…. I thought I was going to die,” he said.
“I was trapped in the hold of an aircraft with no air, pitch blackness, of course. I … couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t get out of the crate even if I wanted to.”
Welcome to America
At one point, Robson managed to turn on his flashlight. He was in another airport when a worker finally noticed and peered into the hole in the side of the crate.
“He looked straight into my eye. Well, if there was an Olympic Games going on at the time, he’d have won for a back flip. I’ve never seen anybody back-flip so far,” Robson said.
Robson was so exhausted and dehydrated that he couldn’t speak or move. He heard a commotion outside as people shouted about a dead body in a crate.
“Within a very short time, there were maybe 20 or 40 people around, including FBI, CIA — oh, everybody.”
That’s because Robson wasn’t in London. He’d been put on the wrong plane and landed in Los Angeles.
After the U.S. officials determined that he was neither dead nor a threat, he was free to go home. Pan American Airlines flew him first class, he said.
“The Americans, the FBI, the CIA and everything else, they were brilliant. I mean, I fell in love with America, because I’ve never been treated so well,” he said. “Everybody there really looked after me. And they just thought, oh, it’s this silly kid getting himself into trouble.”
His bizarre journey generated media buzz at the time, but Robson never mentioned his two partners in crime for fear they would get in trouble. The three young men had no idea whether their antics were against the law, he said.
Now, with his book coming out next month, he’s hoping he can reconnect with them.
“We were very good friends, only for about three months because I only knew them for about three months. And we used to meet each other every evening … and chat about old times and how we all wanted to get out of Australia and, you know, chat about girlfriends and everything,” Robson said.
“I’d love to find them again.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.