Leeland Engelhorn, POW
Leeland Thomas Engelhorn died two years ago on this date. That he died at the age of 80 was a testament to his will to survive; when he was liberated from the Nazis, he weighed 95 pounds.
Engelhorn was born September 19th, 1922, at Church’s Ferry, where his father worked in bank. 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 bomber named Sugar. On August 3, 1944, they were coming back from a bomb run on Germany’s Manzel Jet Plant when German fighters attacked them; they lost five B-24s and thirteen ME-109s in the fight.
Sugar was high in the Austrian Alps when her crew bailed out. Three men landed in Ehrwald Austria, but Engelhorn drifted to the other side of the mountain ridge. He was badly wounded from shrapnel, but he headed for Switzerland, a neutral country. Engelhorn survived on fruit from vineyards and orchards, but when children spotted him on day 18, he knew his plan was over.
He walked to an Austrian farm cottage, knocked on the door and turned himself in. The woman, Frau Koeller, turned out to be an English teacher at a local school, and she and her husband invited Leeland to sit at their kitchen table. They were sympathetic to his predicament, but everyone knew the family would have to turn him in. As a gesture of sympathy, Herr Koeller gave the lanky kid a big fat cigar. Engelhorn later said it made him so dizzy he nearly passed out.
The Germans loaded Sargent Engelhorn into a motorcycle sidecar and took him to 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. He later told stories about the camp clown – a fellow prisoner they called “Hamburg.” He said this man would do outrageous things to embarrass the Germans, feats that most often landed him in solitary confinement. But, Engelhorn said, it was crucial for POWs to turn their circumstances into jokes – black humor – to keep up their morale. In fact, every time Hamburg came out of solitary, the prisoners would applaud and whistle.
The advance of Russian troops forced the Germans to move the Stalag’s prisoners in 1945, and Engelhorn became part of the “Black March.” Roughly 6,000 POWs were moved out on foot in groups of several hundred men each. They carried heavy packs of Red Cross food on their backs, 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.
Engelhorn survived it by making a pact with two others to share everything. What little food they found was split three ways, and at night they huddled together, sharing their body warmth to stay alive. When they finally reached central Germany, it was gruesome twisted scene – prisoners inside the camp wanted to get out – the death march prisoners couldn’t wait to get in.
Inside, they still received no food, and after several days, they were in fact taken out and marched back toward Poland. A couple weeks later, they were finally liberated.
When Engelhorn got home, he got a bachelors and masters degree in Geography at UND. He moved to the San Diego area, where he was one of the founders of Grossmont Community College. He and his wife raised six children, and he retired in 1990 after 30 years of teaching.
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. <http://www.b24.net/pow/march.htm>
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm