FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. — In a ceremony surrounded by family and friends, World War II veteran, former U.S. Army Pfc. William “Willie” Kellerman, was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, Purple Heart and Bronze Star at the Fort Hamilton Community Club on June 28, 2022.
The Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. James C. McConville, presided over the ceremony and awarded the medals to Kellerman.
“This is 77 years late, but it’s never too late to do the right thing, the right way,” said McConville. “The right thing is to recognize Pfc. William Kellerman for his heroic actions in World War II. The right thing is to come together with all his family and friend and acknowledge his heroism as we’re doing today. Today is a great day, because we get to honor a member of our nation’s greatest generation, Mr. William Kellerman. It’s my honor and privilege to be here today to help pay Mr. Kellerman a long, overdue tribute for the sacrifices he made in service to the United States of America, to our allies, and people everywhere.”
Kellerman, now 97 years old, was born in 1925 and raised in the Bronx during the Great Depression. Drafted into the military at the age of 18, Kellerman attended basic training with the newly formed 42d Infantry Division at Camp Gruber in Muskogee, Oklahoma. A few weeks later, he was sent to the 79th Infantry Division, Kansas.
On June 11, 1944, five days after D-Day, a 19-year-old Kellerman landed on Utah Beach in Normandy with Company D, 1st Battalion, 315th Infantry Regiment. Less than one month into his tour of duty, the company radio was damaged under heavy gunfire and Kellerman was sent to notify his battalion’s headquarters. While en route, he was captured and taken prisoner by a German tank on July 4, 1944. Held hostage by German soldiers, he was taken to a building with 80 POWs, many wounded. From there, the prisoners were marched every night by Schutzstaffel guards and fed one slice of black bread daily.
One night, Kellerman escaped by foot and journeyed nearly 600 miles before reaching the Loire Valley, when a serendipitous flat tire on the stolen bicycle he was riding led him directly into the headquarters of the French Forces of the Interior, a French resistance fighters group, hidden within a bike shop. The Resistance assumed he was a German spy, and after hours of interrogation, the determination was made that Kellerman was in fact an American Soldier by asking him who won the 1943 World Series. It was an easy question from a boy from the Bronx: it was the New York Yankees.
The French Resistance hid him in the Freteval Forest, along with 152 airmen from the Royal Air Force and other allied countries, as part of Operation Sherwood. They remained there until it was liberated by American forces in August 1944, and Kellerman resumed active duty with the 79th Infantry Division. In April 1945, Kellerman’s unit engaged in combat with the armed forces of Germany. He was shot in the hand and leg by enemy small arms fire. Kellerman was then transported to a field hospital in Czechoslovakia and remained there until the end of the war; he returned to the U.S. in January 1946.
Nearly 78 years after being wounded by enemy fire, Kellerman felt both humbled and validated to receive his Prisoner of War, Purple Heart, and Bronze Star medals.
“I’m so overwhelmed, it’s hard to find words, but your presence is my best present,” said Kellerman during the ceremony. “It is like I’ve been in the shadows all my life, and someone turned the light on, and they can really see who I am. I cannot thank you enough for being here ... God bless America.”
Kellerman's awards were not previously processed due to an administrative oversight at the unit level in the 1940s. In addition, Kellerman's file was one of the millions burned in the National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis, Missouri on July 12, 1973. U.S. Army Human Resources Command worked closely with Kellerman and his family to review and assess his service records, and due to their combined and diligent efforts, the Army was able to affirm that Kellerman earned his medals during his service in Europe during WWII.
In his parting words, McConville talked about the importance of remembering our heroes.
“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,” said McConville. “They remind us of how ordinary people go out and do extraordinary things.”
Veterans or their families with questions about awards, records, or other benefits, should contact the Army Service Center at 1-888-ARMYHRC (1-888-276-9472) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Army Service Center serves as the primary entry point into the Army Human Resources Command for inquiries from Soldiers, veterans, family members, civilians, and government agencies to support their efforts to receive or process entitlements or benefits. Learn more by visiting the Army Human Resources Command website.