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WWII vet who escaped Nazi captors finally gets Purple Heart, Prisoner of War medals at 97

The 97-year-old was presented with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Prisoner of War medal on June 28 by Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff.

WWII vet who escaped Nazi captors finally gets Purple Heart, Prisoner of War medals at 97
Cover Image Source: Twitter/GEN James C. McConville

World War II veteran and D-Day survivor William "Willie" Kellerman spent the past eight decades of his life unrecognized for his bravery and sacrifices during the war. That finally changed late last month when the 97-year-old was presented with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Prisoner of War Medal by Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff, at Fort Hamilton Community Club in Brooklyn, New York. "It was overwhelming after 80 years, but it was worth the wait," Kellerman told The Washington Post. "I'm feeling very grateful."


Kellerman, who grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression, was an 18-year-old fresh out of high school when he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and sent to serve in Europe. The following year, he found himself on a warship off the shores of Utah Beach, France, among the thousands of Allied troops sent to fight in the Battle of Normandy. "It was five days after D-Day when I was on Utah Beach," recalled Kellerman, a private first class at the time. "A lot of guys died. I was really lucky. Our company's radio got blown out by the Germans, and our captain decided to send me to notify headquarters. I went out late at night to cross the fields so I wouldn't be spotted."


However, as he was jumping through hedgerows and dodging bullets, Kellerman came face-to-face with a German tank. "They came out of the tank with machine guns," Kellerman told PEOPLE. "The next day they took me back where they had about 60 to 70 other Americans that they had gotten." He recalls being given one slice of bread a day and being forced to march with other captives to a prisoner of war camp at night so they wouldn't be spotted. "Our planes would shoot anything moving in the daylight," he explained. Meanwhile, Kellerman feared the day his Nazi captors learned that he was Jewish. "I knew I'd be in serious trouble," he said.


Fortunately, Kellerman managed to pull off a daring escape before that day arrived. He noticed a bunch of thick bushes when the prisoners were allowed to stop in the woods for a break one night and decided to take his shot. "I decided this was it—this was my chance," he said, recalling how he crawled into the bushes in the dark and waited. "When they'd marched on and the coast was clear, I climbed out and ran in the opposite direction." Kellerman chanced upon a French farmer who despite not being willing to let him stay in his farmhouse for fear of being discovered and punished by the Nazis, took pity on him and gave him some food and new clothing.


"They gave me all their French clothes and took my uniform and burned it," Kellerman recalled. Disguised, he took off on foot and walked along the railroad tracks in the hopes of getting out of the war zone and making it to Switzerland. After finding a bike along the side of the road, Kellerman 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," he recalled. "They were with the French Resistance. I had knocked on the door of their headquarters."


According to Kellerman, he managed to convince them he was American and not German, by passing a test. "They asked me who had won the World Series in 1943," he said. "I'm a New Yorker from the Bronx! So I correctly told them the Yankees won." The French Resistance fighters kept him hidden in the Freteval Forest until Allied forces took over in August 1944. "I finished the war with them," said Kellerman, who was seriously wounded in his hand and leg by sniper fire in April 1945 while fighting alongside Allied forces. He recovered at a hospital in Bayreuth, Germany, until he returned home when the war ended in September of that year.


Kellerman went on to attend art school in New York City and made a living for several years making jewelry before becoming a window and sewing machine salesman. He lived in Havana before settling down in Long Island, New York, with his late wife, Sandra Kellerman, with whom he raised three daughters. One of them, Jean Kellerman-Powers, accompanied him to Normandy in 2018 to receive one of France’s highest honors, a Legion of Honor medal, for his service during World War II. It was during that trip that Kellerman-Powers decided she had to get her father the Army medals he had long been denied.


"For years, I tried to get his record acknowledged and get him his medals. After all he went through, I knew it was long overdue," she said. "I'd heard stories my whole life about how he was captured by the Nazis and escaped. The older he got, he started to talk about it more and I knew that it was time to push this through." She enlisted the help of film director Henry Roosevelt, who had interviewed her dad for a documentary about the Battle of Normandy, "Sixth of June," and he used his connections to get Kellerman official recognition of his sacrifices during the war.


"It bothered me a little, yes, but what can you do? I went on with my life," Kellerman said of not being awarded the medals when he returned home from the war. "A lot of people always thought my story was crazy, but I know it happened. I'm glad now that other people are realizing it's true, too." McConville said it was an honor to recognize Kellerman's service, even though it came eight decades late. "I think it's very, very important that we never forget the heroism of veterans like William Kellerman because they remind us of what this country is all about," he said. "They remind us of how ordinary people—young ordinary people—go out and do extraordinary things."


"When I was growing up, my dad always wore a beret, and I thought it was because he was just a Bohemian guy," Kellerman-Powers revealed. "It wasn't until we went to Normandy that he told me he wore the beret as a way of giving thanks to the French farmer who gave him those clothes and saved his life." Speaking of the moment his medals were pinned to his jacket, Kellerman said it was as if life had come full circle. "It was like I'd been living in the dark all my life, and then all the lights went on," he said.

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