October 14, 2021 — Lt. Ernest M. Sands of Minot was a bombardier for the 458th Bomb Group when he was shot down over Cologne, Germany, on this date in 1944. Sands was aboard a B-24 piloted by William Klusmeyer and knew everyone in the crew except the 2nd navigator, who called himself M.C.
Upon reaching the target, the plane dropped its bombs and was immediately hit by bursts of flak. The aircraft caught fire, one of the engines went out, and the nose turret was shattered. Inside that turret, M.C. was severely wounded but alive, so Sands grabbed him and dragged him back through the bomb bay. M.C.’s right eyeball was hanging from its socket, and Sands tried to practice first aid, but they had to bail out. He stuck the first-aid pack into M.C.’s jacket, pushed him out the camera hatch and, using an attached line, pulled the man’s ripcord. Sands next sent waist gunner Joe Pohler*, hoping Pohler’s German-speaking abilities would help M.C.
Sands jumped from the nose wheel doors, dropped through two layers of clouds, and then pulled his ripcord when he hit the third layer. Nine crewmembers landed on one side of the Rhine River, but Sands landed on the other side – alone. As the men dispersed, Sands hid himself in a depression and covered himself with leaves, which he also used to pack a flak wound to his arm.
For the next seven days, Sands walked by night and stayed hidden during the day. For food he relied on kohlrabi, which was being harvested at that time. Finally, he spotted a little white boat and thought if he could get to it and cross the river, he might get into Belgium. Unfortunately, it was already getting light, and he was caught and severely beaten by German civilians. He was then thrown into a dungeon-like jail full of rats that he avoided only by remaining upright.
Sands eventually landed in Stalag Luft 3 and then, toward the end of the war, in Mooseburg. Scott Nelson, who interviewed Sands, writes, “On Sands’ (23rd) birthday, April 30 of 1945, a tank burst through the fence and who would pop out but Patton himself. Someone told Patton that it was Sands’ birthday...and he gave Sands a loaf of REAL BREAD. After eating the black German bread for so long, this loaf of bread tasted like cake!”
Sands returned to North Dakota after the war, got into politics and served as Lt. Governor from 1981 to ‘84. One day he got a phone call and was asked “Are you Ernest Sands, and were you on a bomber shot down over Cologne on October 14 of ‘44? You pushed me out of the plane that day. You helped save my life! My name is M.C. Miller.”
Although Sands had often wondered about M.C.’s fate, it wasn’t until now that he learned the navigator’s last name. Miller told Sands that he and his wife were going to travel from Tennessee to meet him. Remembering Miller’s condition the last time he saw him, Sands said, “No, you don’t. We’re coming to visit YOU.” Sands and his wife started for Tennessee the next day. They found M.C. fit and healthy with no evidence of his injuries. And he could see with both eyes!
Sands’ instinct to send Pohler out right behind M.C. turned out to be a good one. Using the first aid kit in M.C.’s jacket, Pohler administered emergency care. Then, using his fluent German, Pohler impersonated an officer and was able to convince some local German civilians to help get M.C. immediate medical attention.
Miller was taken to the Luftwaffa hospital in Frankfurt, where a German doctor said, “Let’s try to save your eye.” When the bandages came off, M.C. couldn’t see with his injured eye, but the doctor said, “Let’s try something.” He directed short-frequency radio waves at the eye, and after several days of treatments, M.C.’s eyesight started coming back, ultimately returning to normal.
(* German websites list this man as Fohler.)
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.