The honors came 77 years after the Army veteran had been captured by a German tank crew in Normandy, escaped, made his way 600 miles across France and was repatriated by the French Resistence, only to get shot in combat just weeks before the end of World War II in Europe. On Tuesday, Atlantic Beach resident William Kellerman was awarded three prestigious medals, including the Purple Heart, by U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, in a heartwarming ceremony Tuesday at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, Kellerman told the gathering: "It's like someone that has been in the shadows all their life and then someone turned a light on and you get to see who I am.
"I can't thank you enough … And, God bless America."
The 97-year-old Kellerman was an 18-year-old fresh out of James Monroe High School in the Bronx when he went into the Army in 1943.
Less than a year later he found himself on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day plus-5; a replacement with the 79th Infantry Division, Company D, 1st Battalion, 315th Infantry Regiment, and a private first class. Just weeks later it all went south. That, after a field radio got damaged under enemy fire — and Kellerman's captain ordered him to run a message to field headquarters.
Bullets and artillery filling the air, Kellerman jumped between the hedgerows. Emerging from the fifth one, he found himself face-to-face with an enemy tank crew.
"I thought I was invincible," he said. "But I knew I wasn't going to beat a tank."
Like that, Kellerman was a prisoner of war.
While the tank crew was kind to him — "They were kids, just like me," he said. "They showed me pictures of their girlfriends" — the Nazi troops that took him next weren't. To them Kellerman was a Jew from the Bronx and soon he was headed on a series of nighttime marches with 60 others to a POW camp. But, realizing his captors only did head counts each morning, Kellerman used a chance stop along some nighttime hedgerows to tell his fellow prisoners they should make a run for it — and dove into the thick brush. "I ran and ran and ran," he said.
Although no one followed, Kellerman ran until he reached a farmhouse. The farmer, who spoke no English, thought Kellerman was a downed airman. He gave him clothes and a beret, took his uniform and burned it. Then, he sent the young soldier-turned-escapee on his way.
"First," he said, "I decided to follow some railroad tracks at night. Then, I got braver and started to follow some roads. Then, I went by day. I walking one way and I'd see German troops walking the other and I'd say, 'bonjour' and they would say, bonjour," and I'd think, 'Thank God they don't realize my terrible French accent.'"
One morning he stumbled upon a bicycle leaning against a bridge. On the river below, a man fished. Kellerman took the bike. And off he went, riding hundreds of miles until he got a flat.
He stopped at a shop. When three armed men emerged from a backroom, Kellerman realized it was a front for the French Resistence. Thinking Kellerman was a spy, the trio threatened to shoot him. His saving grace was when they asked who'd won the 1943 World Series.
"I was from the Bronx," he said. Of course, it was the Yankees.
Taken to the Freteval Forest, a Resistence commune for downed flyers in the Loire Valley, Kellerman was later returned to his unit.
"I went to the colonel, told him where I'd been, and he said, 'You're Jewish, aren't you?'" Kellerman recalled. Told yes, the colonel said: "You should be glad they didn't shoot you."
"He meant that in a nasty way," Kellerman said. "I don't think he liked I was Jewish."
Instead of being sent home, Kellerman was sent back into combat. There, he was shot twice — once in the hand, once in the leg — in April 1945. He finished the war in an Army hospital.
Out of the service, Kellerman worked as an artist in Havana, then came to Long Island, where he started an appliance business. He met his wife, Sandra, on a blind date at Jones Beach and the two had three daughters. They traveled the world — Tokyo, Istanbul, Vienna, Budapest; all over England — and were married 70 years, until her death in 2021.
But Kellerman never got his just due from the Army, which told his family his military records had been lost in a fire, daughter Jean Kellerman-Powers said.
Then on a visit to Normandy in 2018, Kellerman and his daughter met filmmaker Henry Roosevelt — yes, of those Roosevelts — who was at Sainte-Mere-Eglise making a short D-Day documentary called "Sixth of June." Roosevelt is based in New York. Hearing Kellerman's story — and, the fact he'd never been honored — Roosevelt included Kellerman in his award-winning documentary, then contacted the staff of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley.
That set all of what happened Tuesday in motion.
"That Willie could get this moment so important to him, that meant the world to me," Roosevelt said Tuesday at the ceremony.
During that ceremony McConville awarded Kellerman with the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War medal and the Bronze Star.
"Just 77 years late," McConville said, "but never too late to do the right thing."
Kellerman's two grandchildren, Jonah Corwin, of Greenpoint, and Sophie Corwin, of Manhattan, beamed with pride seeing their grandfather get his day in the sun.
"For a long time, he didn't think his story was anything special," Jonah said. "He felt like, 'Everybody has a story.' It's hard to put into words what this meant to him. I don't think it's so much the medals, but that he was a Jewish soldier in World War II doing what he did."
As daughter Jean Kellerman-Powers said: "To him this is nothing short of everything."