By Airman 1st Class Magen M. Reeves, 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 11, 2016
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
William “Bill” Sullivan was honored for his military service during wartime operations at a ceremony held at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, Aug. 5.
Bill, 93, originally from New York, New York, was a prisoner of war during World War II, fighting for his life across the European countryside.
While visiting Malmstrom AFB, Bill received a certificate of recognition and was coined by Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Stoss, Air Force Global Strike Command director of operations, for his service and dedication to the U.S. military during what could be argued as one of the nation’s most difficult times.
“Bill was very pleased,” said Elizabeth. “The certificate is pinned on his wall in his room. He is very proud of what he did (for his country). It’s what he signed up for.”
Bill was assigned to the Army’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which deployed behind enemy lines in Normandy, France, as part of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944.
Those deployed would take part of the historical events of D-Day, the day the Allies invaded western Europe.
Bill and several of his comrades were captured by a German military unit soon after the events of D-Day.
Bill and his company would be transferred in and out of German captivity multiple times.
“Bill escaped five times (during his time as a POW),” said wife, Elizabeth. “He is still good at that, even to this day.”
According to Bill, he spent several months bouncing from location to location throughout parts of France.
During a time on the run, he survived a transport train bombing where casualties were heavy.
“The train did not get far when it was attacked by our Air Corps,” Bill had said in a letter he wrote to the son of a fellow POW, recounting experiences of their travels through the war-torn country. “We were in locked boxcars and casualties were heavy.”
Several weeks later, Bill recounted that a desperate escape was made.
“The field we entered was posted, ‘achtung minen,’ but there was no turning back,” Bill had said.
“Achtung minen,” is roughly the German translation for “attention minefield.”
Bill and his fellow escapees had to navigate a live minefield in order to escape their German captors.
The experience would lead them through with no lives lost and deliver them into the hands of kindness.
“Six locals got involved in hiding us at the risk of their lives,” Bill had said. “We were taken to a storage barn in the woods where we were fed for eight days. When we started to see German patrols, it was time to leave.”
His freedom would not last long before he would be captive once again.
According to Bill, he had to endure physical and mental abuse including death threats and mind games as a prisoner of war.
“(A German interrogator) gave us shovels and told us to dig, which we did, very slowly,” Bill had said. “When he returned, he said he had changed his mind. I think he realized he might be a POW himself shortly. To this day, I wonder which of us got the reprieve.”
On Sept. 13, Bill arrived in Germany as a captive, where he remained for several months in POW camps.
POWs were mentally and physically abused in the camps. Extensive physical labor tasks would be forced upon the prisoners, only to repeat the task over and over again.
“In the a.m. we dug holes, and in the p.m. filled them in,” Bill had said.
Bill recounted that he spent weeks in a six-by-six foot shed with other prisoners during one of his detainments in a camp.
The number of POWs held in German camps during this time period is estimated to be 257,000.
In February 1945, Bill made what he called the “March of Death,” which was a series of forcible marches of Allied POWs across Eastern Europe between January and April.
An estimated 80,000 POWs were forced to march in extreme winter conditions.
Bill himself marched from Frankfurt-Oder to a location south of Berlin.
He said a lot of lives were lost on the journey.
Bill escaped from captivity in late April 1945 and was a refugee until after the surrender of Germany was announced, officially ending the European phase of WWII, commonly known as V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
Bill accounted that he was airlifted to France almost a week later and then traveled to England. He returned to the U.S. in June by way of the British royal mail ship Queen Elizabeth.
The Queen Elizabeth ocean liners was utilized to transport troops and POWs back to America.
After returning to America, Bill received a Purple Heart for his actions during wartime operations.
With the war over and a nation returning to peace, Bill put the soldier’s life behind him. He went to work for ABC as a photographer and videographer for 40 years. It was during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, that Bill met his wife, Elizabeth, a native of Dublin, Ireland.
Currently, Elizabeth helps and supports him.
To this day, Bill doesn’t talk about his time as a POW, except in the form of written correspondence to strangers.
“He would write letters to others, and tell his story that way,” said Elizabeth.
Through years of correspondence between Bill and the relatives of fellow POWs Bill was with in Europe, bits and pieces of his experiences have been put together to tell his story.
“It takes a lot of years for survivors to talk about it,” said Elizabeth. “By the time I met him in 1988 and married him in 1992, Bill had moved on. He does have a Purple Heart, but even I don’t know what for.”
Elizabeth said Bill made his first returning trip to Normandy after 1945 in the 80s. Up until 2015, Bill went to Normandy every year to attend a reunion celebration for those who would always have a piece of themselves in Normandy.
Bill wrote a letter to the son of a fellow POW about his experiences, which has been transcribed and is viewable at www.menintheshed.com.