As a soldier, he escaped Nazi captors. At 97, he finally got his medals.
Special To The Washington Post July 6, 2022
As a soldier in World War II, William “Willie” Kellerman was captured three weeks after he took part in the Utah Beach invasion in Normandy. He managed to escape his German captors, hid out with members of the French Resistance and, in a grand stroke of survival, pulled through after being shot in his hand and leg.
Like other soldiers who were taken as prisoners and wounded in battle, he thought he might be awarded a medal or two when he came home, he said.
For nearly eight decades, that didn’t happen.
“It bothered me a little, yes, but what can you do? I went 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 now that other people are realizing it’s true, too.”
Kellerman’s superior officer probably never filled out the required paperwork for his medals, said his daughter, Jean Kellerman-Powers, noting that a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed her father’s military records.
“For years, I tried to get his record acknowledged and get him his medals,” she said. “After all he went through, I knew it was long overdue.”
Last month, the Army agreed.
On June 28, Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, traveled to New York to pin a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Prisoner of War Medal on Kellerman’s jacket at a ceremony in Brooklyn.
“It was overwhelming after 80 years, but it was worth the wait,” Kellerman said. “I’m feeling very grateful.”
McConville said it was an honor to recognize Kellerman’s service, albeit eight decades on.
“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,” McConville said in a statement to The Washington Post.
“They remind us of 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 the thousands of Allied troops sent to fight in the Battle of Normandy, he said.
“It was five days after D-Day when I was on Utah Beach,” said Kellerman, a private first class. “A lot of guys died. I was really lucky.”
That was only 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 got blown out 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 hedgerow, he found himself in front of a German tank, he said. Soldiers took him captive and locked him in a building with dozens of other captured Allied troops.
Nazi soldiers forced him and others to march to a prisoner of war camp at night so they wouldn’t be spotted by enemy planes, he said.
If his Nazi captors learned that he was Jewish, “I knew I’d be in serious trouble,” he added.
When the men were allowed to stop in the woods for a break, Kellerman said, he noticed a bunch of thick bushes.
“I decided this was it — this was my chance,” he said, recalling how he sneaked 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,” he said.
He encountered a French farmer who took pity on him, he said, and gave him some food and new clothing.
“He burned my uniform and dressed me up like a French farmer,” Kellerman said, noting the man also gave him a beret.
Kellerman hoped to get out of the war zone and make it to Switzerland, he said, so he stole a bicycle 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 them he was American, 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 decided to hide him in the Freteval Forest with about 150 Allied pilots whose planes had crashed. According to accounts, the men survived in the heart of occupied France 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. His parents had thought for several months that he was missing in action or had been killed, he said.
Then he was hit by sniper fire in April 1945. Seriously wounded in his hand and leg, he went to an Army hospital, and that’s where he remained until the war ended in September of that year.
Once he was back in New York, he enrolled in art school and made a living for several years making jewelry, then he 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 dad 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 it was time to get serious about the Army medals her father had long been denied.
“I’d heard stories my whole life about how he was captured by the Nazis and escaped,” she said. “The older he got, he started to talk about it more and I knew that it was time to push this through.”
Kellerman-Powers enlisted the help of film director Henry Roosevelt, who had interviewed her dad for a documentary about the Battle of Normandy, “Sixth of June.”
“He had some connections in Washington, D.C., and he started the chain of calls that finally got my dad his medals,” she said.
At the ceremony last month, she said, she was overwhelmed with emotion as she watched McConville pin the medals to her father’s chest.
“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 said. “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.”
When his medals were pinned to his jacket, Kellerman said it was as if things came full circle.
“It was like I’d been living in the dark all my life, and then all the lights went on,” he said.