A World War II Veteran Gets His Due—Nearly 80 Years After Surviving D-Day

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ginger Adams Otis headlined “A World War II Veteran Gets His Due—Nearly 80 Years after Surviving D-Day”:

A paperwork error made in the 1940s robbed a World War II veteran and D-Day survivor of his U.S. Army medals. Nearly 80 years later, the Army is coming to New York to fix its mistake.

On Tuesday, 97-year-old William Kellerman—who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, made a bold escape when captured by German troops and survived sniper shots—will receive the Prisoner of War Medal and the Purple Heart long denied him.

Gen. James C. McConville, Army chief of staff, will travel to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the 11 a.m. ET ceremony.

“The Army is conducting this ceremony now to correct this unfortunate oversight,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Kellerman said he believes his superior officer never filed the paperwork for his medals decades ago. His tale of survival was so improbable it seemed his officer didn’t believe it, Mr. Kellerman said.

Now, the U.S. Army acknowledges that it all happened just as he said—even the Hollywood-style plot twists such as a fortuitous stolen bicycle, followed by a serendipitous flat tire, gun-wielding members of the French Resistance and a classic disguise that included a jaunty beret.

“This has been annoying my brain all these years. I know it sounds like a crazy story, but it is all true,” said Mr. Kellerman.

Born in the Bronx to a Jewish family, Mr. Kellerman was 18 years old when he was drafted late in 1943.

He was 19 years old on June 6, 1944, when he and thousands of other soldiers huddled on war ships in the Atlantic Ocean as the first wave of Allied troops launched themselves into the shores of Normandy.

Five days later, on June 11, it was his turn to dodge German fire while running up Utah Beach.

“The more experienced guys, they sent them in first. A lot of them were killed on the first day,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Roughly three weeks later, on July 4, his luck appeared to change. Heavy gunfire blew out his company’s radio and the captain ordered Mr. Kellerman, a private first class, to notify battalion headquarters.

Mr. Kellerman, tacking cautiously across French terrain while German bullets flew overhead, made it across several hedge-lined fields before he looked up and saw a tank bearing down on him.

“I was not going to fight a German tank,” he said.

He was captured and moved the next day to a building that held about 80 prisoners of war, some of them wounded. The SS soldiers, looking to get the prisoners into German territory, forced the men to march at night because Allied airplanes controlled the skies.

“Our planes shot anything that moved during the day,” Mr. Kellerman said.

One night, a few weeks after his capture, the Germans let the men stop for a break and Mr. Kellerman found himself next to a bank of heavy bushes.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’” Mr. Kellerman recalled. “They only counted us in the morning, so I thought I might have a chance.”

He rolled into the bushes and the German soldiers marched their prisoners away. As soon as they were out of sight, Mr. Kellerman took off in the other direction. He ran until he saw a house, where a Frenchman gave him food and, after burning Mr. Kellerman’s Army uniform, a fresh set of clothes, including a beret.

“Then he told me to get out, because if the Germans find you here they’ll kill us all,” Mr. Kellerman said. At first Mr. Kellerman tried to keep to the woods, but eventually got brave enough to walk some of the country roads. Mr. Kellerman, who kept his beret pulled low, gave a breezy “Bonjour” to any German troops that passed by.

When he saw an untended bicycle one day on a bridge, he grabbed it, but not without a small pang for the man fishing in the river below.

He walked and biked nearly 600 miles into the Loire Valley, picking up food where he could from French farmers, Army records show. A flat tire in a small town in the Loire Valley forced him to stop at a bike shop—which turned out to be the secret headquarters of the French Resistance.

“I couldn’t understand why three guys came out with guns pointed at me,” Mr. Kellerman said. After convincing them he was an American POW and not a German spy, the men put their guns away, but they wouldn’t let him leave. Mr. Kellerman had now become a security risk.“They said, ‘We can’t let you go. If the Germans catch you, they’ll get it out of you,’” he said.

Mr. Kellerman, along with 180 Royal Air Force pilots and Allied soldiers, was hidden deep in Freteval Forest, at a camp codenamed Sherwood.

Back home, his mother and sister feared the worst. They had received a hand-delivered letter from the U.S. Army telling them he was listed as missing as of July 22, 1944.

Mr. Kellerman’s family—and his battalion captain—learned he was alive when Allied forces took over Freteval Forest at the end of August. Instead of sending him home, which was usual for prisoners of war, his captain put him back into combat, Mr. Kellerman said.

He was part of the force that took Chames, France, according to the U.S. Army, and in April 1945 was hit by sniper fire in the hand and the leg.

Mr. Kellerman was being treated for his wounds in an Army hospital when the war officially ended. He served until 1946, the Army said.

After leaving the military, Mr. Kellerman used the GI Bill to attend art school and then lived in Havana, Cuba, where he made jewelry. He married in 1950 in New York and became a successful businessman. He and his wife, Sandy, had three daughters.

In 2018, Mr. Kellerman traveled with his daughter and granddaughter to Normandy to receive the Legion of Honor from France for his WWII service. The French knew all about Mr. Kellerman thanks to his time with the French Resistance in Freteval Forest.

“That’s when I learned why my father, for his whole life, always wore a beret,” said his daughter Jean Kellerman-Powers. “I always thought it was because he was an artistic guy. But no, it was because it’s part of how he survived thanks to the people who helped him.”

When the family returned, Ms. Kellerman-Powers made it her goal to get the U.S. Army to review her father’s service record. Many requests were denied, she said, before the Army acknowledged its nearly 80-year-old error.

For Mr. Kellerman, the late-in-life recognition is an unexpected gift.

“I feel like I’m coming out of the shadows and into the sunlight,” he said.

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