When he arrived, he had a fractured ankle and had lost 45 pounds from spending three months hiding in attics, abandoned farms and canal boats in Belgium to evade German soldiers chasing him for bombing one of the country’s oil refineries.
Five seconds later and he said he might have missed his flight back to his hometown of Kentwood, La., and to Mildred, now his wife of 72 years.
“I told everyone that I would have died in Belgium, but not in Germany,” said Sanders, a 20-year Air Force veteran who shared his story Friday during an interview with the Augusta Historical Society at Georgia Regents University. Sanders, 95, came to Augusta from St. Paul, Minn., to visit his son, Mike.
Fred Gehle, the project coordinator for the historical society’s Veterans History Project, said Sanders’ interview is one of more than 800 the local group has conducted for submission into the Library of Congress’ American folklore division.
Sanders joined the Army Air Forces in 1942 and was selected to pilot a B-24 Liberator two years later. He had a crew of 10 men and six to eight 500-pound bombs on board when he took off from Sudbury, England.
“We flew four successful missions, but it was the fifth that was a disaster,” Sander said.
On the last mission, May 28, 1944, Sanders’ engine was hit by the Germans while he was at 18,000 feet on the way to bomb an oil refinery in Leipzig, Germany. He continued on course and was hit again after he dropped a bomb.
When he noticed a third engine had failed and that he didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to England, he set the plane on autopilot, ejected from the aircraft and parachuted into Ronquieres, Belgium – 35 miles south of Brussels.
“I remember them saying in training to count to 10 before pulling the ripcord, but I yanked it almost immediately,” he said. “I’m lucky the parachute did not catch on something.”
The fall fractured Sanders’ ankle and as many as six Belgians stripped him of his flight gear, he said. Running on adrenaline, Sanders said he made it to a nearby wheat field, where he hid until a truck passed and two men and a woman offered help.
They took him to their home and gave him a glass of wine, a pistol and a change of clothes. He stayed until dark and was then taken to an abandoned farm in Halle, Belgium, where he met 17 Russian soldiers who had deserted the country’s military.
After two nights in hiding, he left after a German soldier killed the farm’s owner. From there, he would stay in 14 houses, surviving on beer and potatoes, he said. The diet resulted in returning home weighing 130 pounds. He left at 175 pounds.
At the last home in Hove, Belgium, a young girl offered to take him to Switzerland, Sanders said.
“I should have suspected something was up,” he said. “She sat in the backseat.”
Not far into the trip, Sanders said German soldiers stopped the car and told the driver to take him to a nearby farmhouse they had converted into a headquarters.
“The girl who offered to help me and a soldier went inside the house, while the driver and I stayed in the car,” he said. “When an air raid began and people fled for bomb shelters, I said to the driver let’s go.”
The driver took him to Brussels, where a member of the Swiss embassy said he could help him.
Sanders was entrusted to the care of two embassy aides who were supposed to make an ID for him, but they instead took him to the Palace of Justice. He was turned over to a German officer, who took him into custody and loaded him into a baggage cart along with 47 other prisoners and as many as 1,500 Jews, he said.
While in the cart, a Canadian solider said he had a key to open the door. Four jumped out before Sanders, two at a time. When it was his turn, he remembers the Germans shooting like crazy.
“You could hear the bullets,” said Sanders, who ran until he found a canal boat and stayed in the engine room for three days.
With the help of the Canadians, he escaped to France, where he was taken on a U.S. military transport plane to London. After a brief hospital stay, he was eventually sent home.
Sanders stayed in the Air Force 18 more years. For his service, he received a Purple Heart. He later taught community college for 17 years after earning a master’s degree in vocational education from Florida State University.
He has since returned twice to Belgium to visit the villages he hid in during his escape. Archeologists were able to excavate parts of his plane.
“I was happy to live through the experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again for anybody,” he said.