DANSVILLE-- William Kelly begins his story the same way each time he’s asked to tell it. Describing the small, mountainous village of Altaussee, Austria where he was stationed after the war. He tells about the 2,000 year old salt mine nestled in the Austrian Alps just outside of the village and the orders he received when he stood guard for two weeks in front of that mine.
“No one is allowed in this mine unless they have authorization and credentials,” Kelly recalls being told.
Kelly also describes the day he was able to tour the mine he and 30 other soldiers were guarding. The 15 foot wide tunnel was lined with stacks of paintings, sculptures and antiques stacked on shelves flushed against the tunnel walls.
Those antiques and priceless art pieces were stolen by the Nazis from churches, museums and private homes during the war. History records site the amount of stolen art at 6,600 paintings and 140 sculptures with which Adolf Hitler planned to display in an uber-museum he planned for Linz, Austria.
“Fast forward to 2014 and there’s a movie about these sculptures and paintings and the salt mine.” Kelly said.
He’s referring to the new movie ‘Monuments Men’ which follows the men who helped return those art pieces to their rightful owners.
Since Kelly’s son Patrick saw the movie a few weeks ago, Kelly has become a celebrity, even being flown out to California to record some of his memories from the war to be released with the motion picture.
“I came home [from California] and the two kids across the street had made posters for me,” Kelly said. “I’ve been telling my stories for years, it just seems more people want to listen.”
Perhaps one of Kelly’s favorite stories is the one of his travels when he was first deployed. He boarded a ship in Manhattan on Christmas Eve 1944 and set sail for Europe on Christmas Day. Thirteen days Kelly spent on a ship. Only to board a train for four days and four nights in January.
“We were issued one blanket per person, 30 people in a box car for four days and four nights,” he says.
Kelly, who was in charge of 200 men, departed the train at a replacement depot with only 169 men. As he recalls, the others got off the train at pit stops but didn’t make it back on in time. Those 31 men eventually made their way to the depot as well.
Acting with the honor of Lieutenant of the 11th Armored Division of the Third Army, Kelly was stationed after the war to help restore a sense of order and normalcy to the villages that had just been beating down by war. But he is thankful for that, as well as his return to Dansville to work at Kelly Brother’s Nursery on Maple Street. And despite his hearing and eyesight fading, along with his voice after all his interviews, Kelly can still recall his perfectly spoken German at a moment’s notice as well as any number of stories from his lifetime.