STRASBURG – Donald Keller has received two purple hearts and four other medals from his service as a radio operator for combat engineers during World War II.
Earlier this week, the 96-year-old Strasburg resident was knighted with the Order of the Legion of Honor of the French Republic.
“[It’s] the highest award you can get out of France,” he said. “It would be equal to our Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Keller said the award recognizes his bravery and heroism during the war and his efforts to help liberate France.
“I’ve never seen a medal as nice as this," he said.
The award ceremony, hosted by the World War II Foundation and the Embassy of France on Tuesday, was part of the D-Day 75th Anniversary Commemoration at the embassy in Washington, D.C.
Keller attended with some family and friends, ”dressed in a suit, tie, and all this jazz.” He was one of four award recipients.
His award comes about two years after he first filled out paperwork he received in the mail from France. He filled it out, sent it back, and expected to wait several months for a response. But after a year went by, he contacted them again. The office couldn’t find the paperwork he sent, and he wasn’t able to get the answers he needed over the phone.
So he asked for help at Strasburg High School, where he said a French exchange student spoke with the French embassy and arranged for Keller to send them another set of papers.
“Finally, things started,” he recalled.
Keller earned his first purple heart on July 7, 1944, when he helped save the lives of two badly injured soldiers in spite of having been wounded himself by mortar shrapnel to his face and chest. One in a group of eight, he said, “I was the only one left standing.”
The shell killed one of the men and injured two in addition to Keller. The other four took off running, he said.
He helped the injured soldiers get help at a field hospital before he was sent to England for treatment.
Keller earned his second purple heart in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge when an artillery shell hit a soldier next to him, and Keller was again struck by shrapnel.
Afterward, he returned to his previous post of Versailles, France, where he remained until the end of the war.
VE Day (Victory in Europe) was on May 8, 1945.
Keller said Tuesday’s ceremony was bigger than he expected, and he was honored to get to talk with some generals who attended, as well as to former Sen. Bob Dole.
“It was very nice,” Keller said. “Extra nice, you might say.
“There were 420 people in the audience there that came just for the four of us.”
Two of the other men awarded by the embassy wore their uniforms, he noted.
“I could have, but I didn’t know it, so I just wore a suit.”