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Dakota Datebook

Leeland Engelhorn, POW


Leeland Thomas Engelhorn was born September 19th, 1922, at Church’s Ferry, North Dakota. When World War II broke out, 18-year-old Leeland joined the Air Corps and was sent to Europe. On his 21st mission, he was a ball turret gunner and radio operator on a B-24. On August 3, 1944, they were coming back from a bombing run when German fighters attacked. They lost five B-24s, while the Germans lost thirteen ME-109s.

They were high in the Austrian Alps when the crew of Engelhorn’s B-24 had to bail out. Engelhorn was badly wounded from shrapnel, but he tried to reach Switzerland, a neutral country. After 18 days, when he was spotted by some children, he knew it was over. He walked to an Austrian farm cottage, where a sympathetic family welcomed him, but everyone knew they would have to turn him in. 

He finally received medical attention at a POW camp. The doctors there had no anesthetics, but they did allow Leeland to get “liquored up” before they removed the shrapnel from his wounds.

Engelhorn passed through several POW camps before arriving at Stalag Luft IV in what is now Poland. In 1945, the advance of Russian troops forced the Germans to move the prisoners. Engelhorn became part of the “Black March – when roughly 6,000 POWs moved out on foot in groups of several hundred men. They carried heavy packs of Red Cross food, but believing the march would last three days, many of these packs were discarded along the road. They would be sorely missed. The march lasted 86 days – covering 600 miles – during one of the worst winters in European history. Cold, dysentery and starvation claimed at least 1,500 prisoners on that march.

When they finally reached central Germany, it was a gruesome twisted scene – prisoners inside the camp wanted to get out – and the death march prisoners couldn’t wait to get in. Inside, they still received no food, and after several days, they were taken out and marched back toward Poland! A couple weeks later, when they were finally liberated, Engelhorn weighed only 95 pounds.

After coming home, he got a bachelors and masters degree in Geography at UND. He moved to the San Diego area, where he and his wife raised six children. He retired in 1990 after 30 years of teaching. Leeland Thomas Engelhorn died on this date in 2003.

Source: Daniels, Dwight. “Leeland Thomas Engelhorn, 80; professor, POW survivor.” San Diego Union-Tribune. 31 July, 2003.
Engelhorn, Brad and Patti. Phone interview, 15 July 2005.
Geiger, Roland. “Stalag Luft VI, St. Wendel: August-September 1944.” p 18-21.

Hatton, Greg. “Death March Across Germany.” 1999.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm