During World War II, Leeland Thomas Engelhorn was shot out of the sky, starved and held as a prisoner of war.
Engelhorn, a 170-pound North Dakota native, worked as a gunner and a radio operator on a B-24 bomber. After conducting a strike against a German aircraft-production plant in 1944, Engelhorn’s plane was shot down. He bailed out, survived the fall and started walking toward Switzerland. While stealing some fruit from an orchard, Engelhorn was spotted. The orchard owner and his wife gave him a cigar then turned him in to German authorities.
The Nazis took Engelhorn to a POW camp in Poland where the doctors cleaned his shrapnel wounds without the benefit of anesthetics. When Russian troops advanced toward the camp, the Germans moved all 6,000 allied prisoners. Known as the “Black March,” the POWs were forced to walk hundreds of miles through one of the worst European winters in history. Almost 1,500 died from cold and hunger.
When he was liberated by American troops, Engelhorn weighed only 95 pounds. For his stamina and bravery, he received the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.
After the war ended, Engelhorn returned to America and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geography from the University of North Dakota. He became a founding faculty member at Grossmont Community College, and was named a National Educator of the Year in 1972.
Engelhorn died on July 28 from complications of prostate cancer. He was 80.