FORT HAMILTON, Brooklyn (WABC) -- The United States Army awarded a Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal to a 97-year-old World War II veteran Tuesday.
The ceremony was held at the Fort Hamilton Community Club in Brooklyn.
William "Willie" Kellerman is alive today because of a daring escape he made during the war back in 1944, and his incredible will to survive a serious injury less than a year later.
"I can't thank you all enough for the attention I am getting," Kellerman said at the ceremony. "It makes up for all of the years I didn't get it."
Kellerman was born in 1925, and he grew up in the Bronx during the Great Depression.
Five days after June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, an 18-year-old Kellerman landed on Utah Beach, France, as a member of the 79th Infantry, 315th Regiment, Company D.
He was captured by the Germans on July 4, 1944, and was being marched to a prison camp in the middle of the night when he managed to escape.
Jeanie Kellerman says her father always tells her to think outside of the box.
"That's exactly what he did that day when he escaped the Nazis, Jeanie Kellerman said. "He literally stepped out of line rolled under a hedge."
Willie Kellerman escaped on foot before finding refuge with the French Resistance.
He made it hundreds of miles trying to get to Switzerland. He had to steal a bike for most of it, but then he got a flat.
The bike shop he stopped at turned out to be a hideout for the French resistance fighters group.
The French knew he was an American because he knew who had won the 1943 World Series.
An easy one for a boy from the Bronx: the Yankees.
He traveled over 600 miles to the Freteval Forest, where he remained until it was liberated by the Allies in August 1944.
In April 1945, Kellerman's unit engaged in combat with the Germans, and he was shot in the hand and leg by a sniper.
He was transported to a field hospital in Czechoslovakia, where the wound in his leg became infected. He remained there until the end of the war.
He served on active duty from September 4, 1943, to January 15, 1946.
So why is he receiving his awards 77 years later? They were apparently never processed due to an administrative oversight.
"It's like I've been living in the dark all my life, and then all the light went on," he said. "I'm just overwhelmed by it."
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 email@example.com.
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.
You can also learn more by visiting HRC.Army.mil.
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