STONE HARBOR — This Veterans Day means a little more to Frank D’Elia.
Not only will the Stone Harbor resident be honored for his service in the Army during World War II, Nov. 11 is also his 100th birthday.
“I’ve been very lucky and fortunate,” he said.
A series of strokes suffered last year robbed Frank of some of his memory, but he vividly recalled some experiences during his years overseas from 1942 to 1945.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Frank left his job as a carpenter and enlisted in the Army along with some buddies from his neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia.
He completed basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, then was sent to Europe, where he served as a tank commander.
“My favorite part of the Army was Fort Knox because of all the pretty girls around town,” he said with a smile. “That’s where they keep all the gold, but they didn’t give me any of it.”
When talk turned to the war and his involvement in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the smile faded and his eyes glistened.
He was among the approximately 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops who landed on five beaches on June 6, 1944. According to published reports, there were more than 2,000 American casualties at Omaha Beach.
Frank and three other men were inside a light tank that sported a spiked, barrel-like weapon on the front. They rumbled over the sand and through the fields of France, using the weapon to rip up barbed wire and unearth mines that had been placed underground.
“I remember looking through massive hedges with a pair of field glasses in France,” he said. “We basically would go looking for trouble in order to help the troops on foot.”
When necessary, Frank and his buddies would sleep under the tank rather than dig foxholes because they considered it safer.
Inside the tank was a small burner that they would use to heat K-rations — the food provided by the Army — and occasionally boil water.
“They didn’t want us drinking from wells in case the water was poisoned,” he said. “Sometimes we drank out of horse troughs.”
The outside of the tank was fortified with metal to prevent enemy bullets from piercing its facade. Sometimes the bullets would get through, but their impact was dramatically reduced by the extra protection.
“You could hear bullets pinging against the tank,” he said. “Sometimes they would rattle around inside, but no one was seriously hurt by them.”Frank’s most painful memory of World War II, however, had nothing to do battles, tanks or friends who didn’t make it back. His father, Gaetano, and mother, Chiarina, both died while he was overseas.
“They didn’t tell me my father died for six months,” he said. “When my mom passed away a few months later, they arranged for my brother (Gaetano, who was in the Army) and me to come home to bury her. They kept her in the basement of the cemetery until I could get there. I was very close to my mom. To see her in that casket that way, it really hurt.”
Frank was discharged from the Army on Dec. 7, 1945, and was awarded several medals, including honors for good conduct, meritorious service and distinguished service. Upon returning home, he married his wife, Pauline, in 1946 and started his own carpentry business called Frank D’Elia & Sons.
While he grew up and lived in Philadelphia, he spent his summers at his family home in Stone Harbor on 81st Street, before it was washed away in the March Storm of 1962. In 1977, Frank and Pauline bought a house on Charles Street, where he lives today with daughter Pauline and son-in-law E.J. Tate.
He credits his strong Catholic faith and service with St. Paul’s Church in Stone Harbor — he was honored by Pope Benedict in 2015 — for seeing him through the war and various family tragedies, including the death of his wife in 2003.
“When you work for the Lord, the pay isn’t much,” he said, the smile returning. “But the retirement is out of this world.”