World War II veteran pfc. William “Willie” Kellerman, 97, was awarded the Prisoner of War, Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals in a ceremony held June 28, 2022 at Fort Hamilton, New York.
“It’s like I’ve been in the shadows all my life, and someone turned on the light, and they can really see who I am,” Kellerman said at the ceremony, according to a statement from hurry. “I can’t thank you enough for being here. God bless America.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville presided over the ceremony, noting that while the awards were long overdue, they were still worth giving.
“It’s 77 years late, but it’s never too late to do the right thing, the right way,” McConville said, according to the Fort Hamilton statement. “Today is a great day as we honor a member of our nation’s greatest generation, Mr. William Kellerman.
“It is an honor and a privilege for me to be here today to help pay Mr. Kellerman a long and long-awaited tribute for the sacrifices he has made in the service of the United States of America, of our allies and people around the world.”
Kellerman, born in 1925 and raised in the Bronx, was drafted at just 18 years old. He underwent basic training with the then newly formed 42nd Infantry Division at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, and was later sent to the 79th Infantry Division, Kansas.
On June 11, 1944, just five days after D-Day, Kellerman and his comrades from Company D, 1st Battalion, 315th Infantry Regiment landed at Utah Beach in Normandy, France. A month into his tour, the company radio was damaged during a period of heavy fire, and Kellerman was dispatched to inform battalion headquarters. While attempting to do so, Kellerman was captured and taken prisoner by a German tank crew on July 4, 1944.
Held in a building with 80 other POWs, Kellerman was paraded nightly by Schutzstaffel guards and fed just one slice of black bread a day, according to the Fort Hamilton statement. Despite these conditions, Kellerman managed to escape during the night and travel almost 600 miles before reaching the Loire Valley, where he luckily passed through the headquarters of the French Forces of the Interior, a group of resistance, the statement added.
After hours of interrogation, Kellerman was finally able to convince resistance fighters that he was not a German spy by answering a question only Americans would know – “who won the 1943 World Series?”
“It was an easy question from a boy from the Bronx: it was the New York Yankees,” read the statement from Fort Hamilton.
As part of Operation Sherwood, Kellerman and 152 airmen from the Royal Air Force and other Allies were hidden by resistance fighters in Freteval Forest. The troops remained there until liberated by American forces in August 1944, when Kellerman returned to active duty with the 79th Infantry Division.
The following April, Kellerman’s unit was engaged in combat with German forces when he was hit in the hand and leg by enemy small arms fire. He was treated in a war hospital in Czechoslovakia until the end of the war and returned home to the United States in 1946.
According to the Army press release, Kellerman’s awards had not previously been awarded due to “unit-level administrative oversight” in the aftermath of World War II.
His record was also one of millions lost in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
But with the help of Kellerman and his family, the U.S. Army Human Resources Command was able to review and affirm that Kellerman had earned his medals during his service in Europe.
“It’s 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.
“They remind us of how ordinary people go out and do extraordinary things.”
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, a Penn State alumnus, and a master’s candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.