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WWII escape story unites military families

Kathy Knick was nearly speechless last week when she spoke over the phone with Alfred Sanders, a 95-year-old Army Air Force veteran who flew alongside her father during World War II.

“On a scale of one to 10, it was the highest you could go,” said Knick, a second-grade teacher at Evans Elementary School in Columbia County.

Though her father, Karl Kurbjun Jr., died in 1968, the ties the two veterans share are unbreakable.

Kurbjun and Sanders were part of an 11-plane B24 Liberator formation commanded by the 486th Bombard­ment Group in Sudbury, England, that on May 28, 1944, was tasked with bombing a critical oil refinery in Leipzig, Germany.

While Kurbjun’s fleet safely returned, German fire killed three of Sanders’ engines, forcing him to parachute into Ronquieres, Belgium, 35 miles south of Brussels.

Over the next three months, he was captured twice and escaped German authorities three times after hiding in attics, abandoned farms and as many as 14 homes, the Purple Heart recipient said last month in an interview with the Augusta Histor­i­cal Society, parts of which were published in The Augusta Chronicle.

Kathy Knick’s husband, Joe Knick, went to the official Web site of the 486th Bombardment Group after reading that Sanders was stationed in Sudbury, and he saw the plane of the 10-man crew that Kurbjun piloted situated next to Sanders’ plane in the unit’s formation.

Through the historical society, the Knicks were able to contact Sanders while he was on his way back to his son’s home in Augusta from a barbecue restaurant in Conyers, Ga.

“My wife nearly lost her breath when they answered the phone,” said Joe Knick, who works in project controls in Savannah River Remedia­tion.

Kathy Knick said she talked to Sanders’ son, Mike, about being Air Force brats and memories of Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya, where the Kurbjuns were stationed at one time and San­ders’ planes were often deployed.

“We each grew up with parents who were real heroes and you are just so proud of them,” Kathy Knick said. “Really, you are proud to be raised by them.”

Born in 1921, Kurbjun grew up in Virginia and when he and his two brothers became teenagers, their father chose to buy them a plane instead of teaching them to drive.

The brothers taught themselves to fly and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Kurbjun enlisted in the Army Air Force, five years removed from high school and his first job as a lithographer at the printing firm where his father worked.

“Back then you didn’t need to be a college graduate in order to fly,” Joe Knick said. “If you had previous experience, you were good to go.”

Records show both San­ders and Kurbjun reported to Sudbury in March 1944.

On May 28 of that year, when the lead pilot was hit, Sanders took command of the formation for roughly 90 seconds until German artillery fire struck his plane and effectively ended his fifth mission for the group.

Kurbjun, who was flying his seventh mission, returned safely.

“He limped in quite a few times, but he never went down,” Kathy Knick said.

Before he left the Air Force to use his G.I. Bill to study business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kurbjun flew 16 flights each on the B24 Liberator and the B17 Flying Fortress.

He flew his ninth mission on D-Day.

While in college, Kurbjun met his wife, Miriam. He graduated in 1949, a year before Kathy Knick was born, and was recalled in 1951 during the Korean War. He stayed in the Air Force until 1957, when he went into the reserves until his death.

Kathy Knick has since returned to Sudbury with her two children to visit the station of the Flying Fortress.

“I can’t even explain the feeling of visiting the place where my father once was,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to think of all he did for our country.”

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