80 years after World War II, William Kellerman finally received his medals

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A soldier in World War II, William “Willie” Kellerman was captured three weeks after his participation in the invasion of Utah Beach, Normandy. He managed to escape his German captors, hide with members of the French resistance and survive in a major struggle for survival after being shot in the hand and leg.

Like other soldiers who were captured and wounded in combat, he figured he might get a medal or two when he got home, he said.

That hasn’t happened in almost eight decades.

“It bothered me a little, yes, but what can you do? I got on with my life,” said Kellerman, 97, who grew up in a Jewish family in the Bronx. He now alternates between homes in Manhattan and on Long Island.

“A lot of people always thought my story was crazy, but I know it happened,” he said. “I’m glad other people are now realizing it’s true.”

Kellerman’s supervisor likely never completed the required paperwork for his medals, his daughter Jean Kellerman-Powers said, noting that a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed her father’s military records.

“For years I’ve tried to acknowledge his record and get him his medals,” she said. “After everything he’s been through, I knew it was long overdue.”

Last month, the army agreed.

On June 28, General James C. McConville, the Army Chief of Staff, traveled to New York to pin a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Prisoner of War Medal to Kellerman’s jacket at a ceremony in Brooklyn.

“After 80 years, it was overwhelming, but it was worth the wait,” Kellerman said. “I’m very grateful.”

Her father was drowning. They rescued him using CPR they saw in movie scenes.

McConville said it was an honor to recognize Kellerman’s contributions, albeit eight decades later.

“I think it’s very, very important that we never forget the heroism of veterans like William Kellerman because they remind us what this country is about,” McConville said in a statement to the Washington Post.

“They remind us how ordinary people – young ordinary people – go out and do extraordinary things,” he added.

Kellerman said he was 18 and had just graduated from high school when he was drafted into the army in 1943 and sent to serve in Europe.

In June 1944, when he was 19, he was among thousands of Allied troops sent to the Battle of Normandy, he said.

“It was five days after D-Day that I was at Utah Beach,” said Kellerman, a private first-rate. “A lot of people have died. I was really lucky.”

That was just the beginning of his quest to beat the odds – the estimated number of Americans wounded or killed in the Battle of Normandy is about 135,000.

“Our company’s radio was destroyed by the Germans, and our captain decided to send me to notify headquarters,” he recalled. “I went out late at night to cross the fields so I wouldn’t be spotted.”

After jumping over a hedge, he found himself in front of a German tank, he said. Soldiers captured him and locked him in a building with dozens of other captured Allied troops.

Nazi soldiers forced him and others to march to a POW camp at night so they wouldn’t be spotted by enemy planes, he said.

If his Nazi captors found out he was Jewish, “I knew I was going to get in serious trouble,” he added.

These high school seniors ran away from graduation to fight a fire

When the men were allowed to stop for a break in the woods, Kellerman said he noticed some dense bushes.

“I decided this was it — this was my chance,” he said, recalling sneaking into the bushes in the dark and waiting.

“When they marched on and the coast was clear, I got out and ran in the opposite direction,” he said.

He met a French farmer who took pity on him, he said, and gave him food and new clothes.

“He burned my uniform and dressed me like a French peasant,” Kellerman said, noting that the man also gave him a beret.

Kellerman was hoping to get out of the war zone and make it to Switzerland, he said, so he stole a bike and rode it as far and as fast as he could until he got a flat tire.

“I found a little bike shop where I could get it fixed, and all of a sudden these three guys came out and pointed their guns at me,” Kellerman recalled. “They were with the French resistance. I had knocked on the door of their headquarters.”

Kellerman said he convinced her he was American and not German by passing a test.

“They asked me who won the 1943 World Series,” he said. “I’m a New Yorker from the Bronx! So I correctly told them the Yankees won.”

The French resistance fighters decided to hide him in the Freteval forest along with about 150 Allied pilots whose planes had crashed. In the heart of occupied France, the men reportedly survived on a diet of green apples and coffee made from barley.

In August 1944, Allied soldiers took over the area and Kellerman said he was ordered back into combat. For several months, his parents believed he was missing or killed, he said.

Then in April 1945 he was hit by snipers. Seriously injured in his hand and leg, he was taken to a military hospital, where he remained until the end of the war in September of that year.

Back in New York, he enrolled in art school and made a living selling jewelry for several years, then became a window and sewing machine salesman, he said.

Kellerman and his late wife, Sandra Kellerman, raised three daughters. One of them, Kellerman-Powers, 61, accompanied her father to Normandy in 2018 to receive one of France’s highest awards, a Legion of Honor medal, for his service during World War II.

During this trip, Kellerman-Powers decided it was time to get serious about the Army medals that her father had long been deprived of.

“I had heard stories all my life about how he was captured by the Nazis and escaped,” she said. “The older he got the more he talked about it and I knew it was time to push it.”

Kellerman-Powers enlisted the help of film director Henry Roosevelt, who had been interviewing her father for a documentary about the Battle of Normandy, Sixth of June.

She found handwritten letters from her enslaved ancestor: ‘I’m just blown away’

“He had some connections in Washington, DC, and he started the chain of calls that eventually got my dad his medals,” she said.

At last month’s ceremony, she said she was overcome with emotion as she watched McConville pin the medals to her father’s chest.

“Growing up, my dad always wore a beret, and I figured that was because he was just a bohemian guy,” says Kellerman-Powers. “It wasn’t until we went to Normandy that he told me he wore the beret to thank the French farmer who gave him these clothes and saved his life.”

With his medals pinned to his jacket, Kellerman said it was like coming full circle.

“It was like I’d lived my whole life in the dark, and then all the lights came on,” he said.

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/07/06/william-kellerman-wwii-medal-nazi/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_national 80 years after World War II, William Kellerman finally received his medals

James Brien

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