History Wars World War II

Travis Kelce’s grandfather was shot down 3 times during WWII

Both Travis Kelce's and Taylor Swift's grandfathers served during WWII. Kelce's was awarded a Purple Heart after being shot down a third time.
Tessa Robinson Avatar
Left: Sgt. Willis Kelce; Right: Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on December 03, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

If you’re a 92%er or a Swiftie you may already know that Kansas City Chiefs Tight End Travis Kelce and big brother, Philadelphia Eagles Center Jason Kelce, come from a long line of military service. But you might not know their grandfather, Willis Gerald Kelce (affectionately called “Bill”) received the Purple Heart for being shot down during World War II.

Grandpa Kelce served in World War II but passed away in 1975 (before the boys were born), so they never met him. In a recent episode of their incredibly funny New Heights Podcast, Jason and Trav discussed their grandfather’s legacy. What results is, in true Kelce fashion, a hilarious and endearing look into their grandfather’s service.

After calling their dad, Ed, for some fact-checking, the boys summed it all up. Jason shared, “[Bill] was on the planes – some of the bombers and everything – that were overseas. His plane was shot down three times. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, his plane was shot down three times.” Travis piped in, “Guy couldn’t avoid a bullet, man.”

Willis Kelce’s registration card, found by the incredible detectives of the world wide web. Via Reddit.

Jason continued, “The first time it was shot down, he jumped out of the plane with the rest of his crew and they parachuted to safety. The second time it got shot down, he refused to jump and was so terrified of jumping out of the plane again that one of his crewmembers had to grab him and throw him out of the plane.” Travis laughed, and added some context, “This dude is like, listen man, at least if I’m in here I’ve got something between me and these bullets flying past me. You jump out there and the bullets are like pew pew pew pew!”

Jason shared the rest of the story, “And the third time, in true Kelce fashion, he strapped himself in with the seatbelt and decided to go down with the plane, and somehow they landed that sucker. If that’s not a Kelce move, I don’t know what is.”

The resemblance between Travis and Willis is uncanny. Ed recalled, “Mom would refer to Travis as ‘Little Bill.'” Jason asked his dad, “Did [grandpa] get the Purple Heart in the plane or jumping out?” Ed laughed and responded, “He got the Purple Heart for getting shot in the ass. I think he got it in the plane. He also got shot in the arm. I don’t know if he got a second Purple Heart out of it. I’ve got the medal. There may be two, but one may be Uncle Ed’s.”

In a previous episode of New Heights, Ed talked about the importance of service. “First, I tried to join the Marines.” The Marines didn’t want him because of an old high school football injury; he’d had the cartilage removed from his left knee. “Then I went to the Army and tried to enlist in the Army. You gotta remember everybody in my family prior to me was in the service. And everybody in my family lived through World War II. That’s what everybody did; that was the big one. I actually got a little pissed off actually in the recruiter’s office in the Army. I was like, ‘You’ve got people going to Canada to keep from getting drafted and I’m here offering to come in.’ I had some grizzled old sergeant just chew me out and say, ‘What am I going to tell the mother of the guy that dies trying to carry your big ass out of there because you can’t walk?’ Legitimate point.” The recruiter recommended the Navy or Coast Guard but said the Navy would also likely give him a hard time about his knee. Ed ended up going through Basic Training with the Coast Guard but his Chron’s disease prevented him from serving. “They don’t need sick guys in the service,” Ed explained.

Both Travis and Jason Kelce have long been household names in football homes, but Travis’ notoriety has gained all sorts of new heights (see what I did there??) since he started dating the incomparable Taylor Swift. Swift has her own military connection; her grandfather Archie also served in World War II. His experiences during the war so inspired Taylor she wrote the song “Epiphany” about him, which includes the lyrics:

Keep your helmet, keep your life, son
Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifl

Crawling up the beaches now
“Sir, I think he’s bleeding out”
And some things you just can’t speak about

Swift told Entertainment Weekly in 2020:

I wanted to write about him for a while. He died when I was very young, but my dad would always tell this story that the only thing that his dad would ever say about the war was when somebody would ask him, ‘Why do you have such a positive outlook on life?’ My grandfather would reply, ‘Well, I’m not supposed to be here. I shouldn’t be here.’ My dad and his brothers always kind of imagined that what he had experienced was really awful and traumatic and that he’d seen a lot of terrible things. So when they did research, they learned that he had fought at the Battles of Guadalcanal, at Cape Gloucester, at Talasea, at Okinawa. He had seen a lot of heavy fire and casualties — all of the things that nightmares are made of. He was one of the first people to sign up for the war. But you know, these are things that you can only imagine that a lot of people in that generation didn’t speak about because, a) they didn’t want people that they came home to to worry about them, and b) it just was so bad that it was the actual definition of unspeakable.

Follow the New Heights podcast here.