99-year-old Lower Moyamensing resident and World War II veteran reflects on nearly 100 years of life

    Charles “Charlie” Leuzzi was recently honored at the city’s Centenarian Celebration. He will be 100 in December.

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    99-year-old Lower Moyamensing resident Charles “Charlie” Leuzzi, fought in combat across Europe during World War II, earning two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars and marksmanship badges. The approaching centenarian was recently honored alongside more than 120 fellow Philadelphians at the city’s Centenarian Celebration in late May when the class of senior citizens were honored for their longevity and accomplishments. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

    Over the past century, several populations have come and gone throughout South Philadelphia.

    Some folks, though, have stayed through every changing moment of these last 100 years.

    One lifelong resident in particular, 99-year-old Lower Moyamensing resident Charles “Charlie” Leuzzi, ventured in combat across Europe during World War II, earning two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars and marksmanship badges, only to find himself returning to his South Philly roots.

    The approaching centenarian was recently honored alongside more than 120 fellow Philadelphians at the city’s Centenarian Celebration in late May when the class of senior citizens were honored for their longevity and accomplishments.  

    On the eve of D-Day last week, Leuzzi, who has resided on the 2600 block of S. Warnock St. since 1949, reflected on surviving the Great Depression, serving in the war, starting a lineage in South Philly and, somewhere along, uncovering the key to a long life.

    “I’ve lived a very good life,” he said.

    After being born around 4th and Fitzwater streets, Leuzzi grew up around 7th and Jackson, where he spent his childhood with neighborhood friends playing sports, riding bikes and going out dancing – a pastime, he says, trumps the rest.

    “I was always outside playing,” Leuzzi recalled. “I was a little kid who liked to be outside playing.”

    Following his attendance at Francis Scott Key, Leuzzi continued his education at South Philadelphia High School. But, as the Great Depression transpired, he left school for a job with local business Wricley Nut Products in an effort to help his father make ends meet.

    By the time he reached his early 20s, the Second World War was underway, and Leuzzi was inevitably drafted.

    After traveling across the United States for combat training, Leuzzi arrived in Normandy just 28 days after D-Day in 1944, sacrificing the next nine months of his life battling against the German Army and eventually rising to the ranks of a sergeant.

    Leuzzi at Camp Laguna, a military training center, in Arizona (1943.) (Photo special to SPR)

    “Somebody had to do it, and we all had to go,” he said.

    The 75 years that have passed since his service have not washed away Leuzzi’s memory of the war, as he vividly shares stories of bloody confrontations around the continent, including his heroism escaping bombs and bullets during the Battle for Brest and the particularly calamitous Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which is estimated to have killed or wounded up to 55,000 American soldiers.

    Having to swiftly take on leadership roles as American casualties climbed, Leuzzi says he guided inexperienced soldiers through the catastrophic three-month battle on the Western Front.

    “(Hürtgen Forest) is a bad place. It’s a place we didn’t need,” he said. “All of our people were getting killed by the Germans..See, the Germans were pretty smart. There was a place that they surrounded. We were in a place to hold.”

    Following the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, Leuzzi was on the frontline through April 1945, when his duties were abruptly ended after being severely injured during a conflict in Germany.

    While leading a unit of men on a high hill, Leuzzi ordered his troops to dig trenches, as the army suspected the Germans were on the verge of attacking.

    Suddenly, chaos had struck only for a few moments before Leuzzi felt excruciating pain.

    “When the bombs started coming in, one of them hit the tree right above us…it exploded, and when it exploded, it came down,” Leuzzi said. “That’s how we got hit. I got hit in my right leg…I still wanted to dance. I used to go out dancing a lot when I was younger.”

    With nine pieces of shrapnel penetrating his leg, Leuzzi risked being paralyzed.

    Hours later, after passing out, Leuzzi woke up in a nearby house, which was transformed into a hospital, where he eventually recovered before returning to South Philadelphia.

    While the occurrence led to one of his two Purple Hearts, Leuzzi says, such recognitions are not particularly important to him, as his convictions of the war rest in the passing of friends and fellow soldiers.

    “I lost a lot of friends. There were a lot of friends that I lost, and they don’t mean nothing to me – whatever I got…I didn’t talk about (the war), because it was really something bad,” he said. “All my guys, out of my whole company, 80 percent of them got killed. So, I’m lucky.”

    Leuzzi’s good fortune continued after arriving home, as he then met his wife through mutual friends while dancing out on the town one evening. The couple, who has three daughters and five grandchildren, celebrated their 70-year anniversary in early June.

    Leuzzi spent the following 45 years after the war working as a supervisor with After Six formalwear 22nd and Market streets, where he says he assisted a few celebrities, including Arnold Palmer and Sammy Davis Jr., in finding the perfect suit.

    Throughout their childhoods, daughters Maria, Debbie and Beverly recall their father taking them to watch planes take off at the airport, helping them with homework and always teaching them to be honest individuals.

    My dad always taught me never to be a liar, never to be a thief,” Beverly Pinterelli said. “He said that went to the core of your being. Once you lie and once you steal from someone, you can’t make that up in life. People won’t ever trust you again.”

    “I like people,” Leuzzi added. “I like people to be nice. I like all types of people. I don’t begrudge any of them.”

    Perhaps, Leuzzi’s wholesome heart has contributed to his astonishing health, as the 99-year-old performs exercises every morning, including lifting weights, which is followed by daily golf rounds at FDR Park and weekly trips to the Penrose Diner.

    He even drives himself to the courses.

    Just two years ago, at the age of 97, Leuzzi “graduated” from high school, as he was bestowed with an honorary high school diploma from the School District of Philadelphia. His surprise graduation party was even featured on 6ABC.

    Now turning 100 years old in December, he says not finishing high school was his only regret.

    For those seeking similar longevity, Leuzzi suggests harboring no such regrets, prioritizing family and friends, and, finding time for fitness.

    “You can’t stop. If you want to last long, you can’t stop,” Leuzzi said. “You gotta keep doing. You gotta keep moving. You have to do everything. Because, once you stop, you get used to it, and you like it. You like the rest, and the more you like resting, the more you’re staying. And the more you stay, the more pain you’re going to get.”

    gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com 

    Twitter: @gracemaiorano