American Legion Riders Gather in Honor of 100th Birthday and Service of World War II Veteran


Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. Peter D'Elia (seated) shakes hands with a participant of the American Legion motorcycle ride, organized for Mr. D'Elia's 100th birthday.

Westwood resident and World War II Navy veteran Peter D’Elia was honored on Saturday afternoon, July 23, 2022, for his 100th birthday. A group of approximately thirty American Legion motorcycle riders arrived, escorted by Westwood Police, at the D’Elia home to present him with gifts, accolades and thanks for his service.

Mr. D’Elia and his wife, Peg D’Elia, sat in seats of honor outside their home as the riders celebrated Mr. D’Elia with some words. Each then took turns approaching him with individual greetings. 

Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. Peter D'Elia receives a birthday card from an American Legion member.

The riders came from seven or eight different chapters located in places including Auburn, Worcester, Oxford, Sutton and Webster/Dudley in Massachusetts. This was only the second time the several groups had come together to do a large ride for a veteran.

“This is once in a lifetime experience,” notes Lori Zybas, secretary of the Worcester chapter. It doesn’t faze her that her ride from Worcester took about one hour to get to Westwood, with no stops. She recognizes that not many World War II veterans remain, and not many people have the good fortune to celebrate a 100th birthday. 

Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. Pictured are two ride organizers, David Gallant (president of his American Legion chapter) and Lori Zybas (secretary of her American Legion chapter).

Ms. Zybas explains that American Legion Riders support World War II veterans, and look for ways to do help them, by undertaking projects for the vets, visiting them if they are homebound, and offering financial assistance if needed.

The spark for the idea of an American Legion ride for Mr. D’Elia was lit by his daughter. She had spoken about her father’s upcoming birthday to a colleague at work. The colleague passed to members of the American Legion the idea of getting a group of riders together to thank Mr. D’Elia for his service and to honor his birthday.

“This was just beautiful,” says Mrs. D’Elia. “It’s quite an honor for him.” She notes that his family had told him to be in front of the house at 2:30 p.m. and to wait and see. Motorcycles would be the last thing he would think of, said Mrs. D’Elia, so he was quite surprised.

Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. The jackets bearing the names and numbers of the American Legion chapters represented on this motorcycle ride are displayed.

Service in the military and a few lucky breaks

Mr. D’Elia waited only a few months after graduating from high school in 1941 to join the military. War had just broken out.

“My dad served in 1917 and gave half his arm to the United States,” said Mr. D’Elia. “He came from Italy. He always told me, ‘Peter, you are living in one of the best countries in the world,’ and ‘Don’t abuse it. Love it.’  And World War II came, and I says, ‘Dad, I’m joining the Navy, not the Army. I don’t want to sleep in the mud. If the ship goes under, we go under with it.'”

Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. A member of American Legion Post 279 gifts Peter D'Elia with an honorary member jacket.

He was assigned to the USS Renshaw. It had many military successes before it was torpedoed by an enemy submarine. The ship didn’t go under, but it did suffer serious casualties. However, while some people may get lucky breaks, Peter D’Elia takes lucky breaks. A break to take a shower one day and another break for coffee on subsequent day made fortunate and lasting differences in his life.

“I was in charge of the emergency radio, which is mid ship. . . . And at the time, I was going to relieve the watch. And I was in the shower, taking a shower when the torpedo hit mid ship. If I were where the emergency radio was, I wouldn’t be here today, because it just opened up a thing like a whole truck could go through,” Mr. D’Elia explains.

He remembers the aftermath of the attack and burying sailors at sea – his good friends who went through boot camp with him. “To this day, February 21st, I always pray for them,” he says, with visible emotion.

After the torpedo attack, the Renshaw received repairs in Seattle, Washington. It was during this time that the Japanese surrendered, says Mr. D’Elia. The ship then took a canal to the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River where it pulled alongside the USS Missouri.

Photo by Darlene Wong Cancell. Peter D'Elia shakes hands with a well-wisher.

“And we picked up President Truman, his family, admirals, Secretary of the Navy – all came aboard the Renshaw, our ship,” he says. It was a cold day in October 1945, and Mr. D’Elia went below deck for a coffee break.

He heard someone say, “Hey, Sailor? Come down here,” and then, “I mean you, Sailor!” Mr. D’Elia turned around to see the President of the United States.

“He told me to come over. He wanted to know, ‘How long were you on the ship? Were you there when it was torpedoed?’ He wanted to know everything that happened. And then he says, ‘Have a cup of coffee.’ And everyone else was looking at me, ‘There’s a seaman over here talking to the President of the United States!’ So, as I was going back, President Truman said, ‘Peter, a job well done.’ And to this day, when I go somewhere and someone’s done a beautiful job, my answer is, ‘A job well done,’” says Mr. D’Elia with a smile.

"So it's just been wonderful, wonderful. I love the Navy," remarks Mr. D'Elia. He also observes,"So I spent a wonderful life. I have a beautiful family. My wife is a beautiful woman. And what more can I say? What more can I ask for?" 

Thanks to Peter D'Elia, Peg D'Elia, Lori Zybas and David Gallant for speaking with Westwood Minute.

Updated 7/25/2022 at 2:10 p.m. A correction has been made to the spelling of Peter D'Elia's name, to include a capital "E."

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Great article, thank you for the write up of my Grandpa. He is a tremendous person and an extremely creative individual. I’d just like to point out the correct spelling is D’Elia, with a capital ‘E’. Thanks again and thank you to the wonderful people of the AL for making the day that much more special. 

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Thank you very much, Adam, for your comment and the correction! My sincere apologies for missing the capital "E" in spelling your family's name. I have made corrections throughout the article. It was a pleasure speaking with your grandfather and grandmother, and I'm sorry for that error. May you and your family celebrate many more happy birthdays, and I hope you feel free in the future to reach out with any news you have to share!

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