Former paratrooper recalls WWII incident that led to beer fame
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2013
It took 65 years for Vincent Speranza to find out that his actions in Belgium during World War II had been immortalized — for his ingenuity with the beverage that the country is famous for producing.
The Auburn, Ill., native had buried the war — and the pain he endured — deep inside until his wife died four years ago and he began thinking about the past. Visiting his storied 501st Infantry Regiment earlier this month in Alaska to observe readiness training, he shared his rich combat experiences.
Speranza joined the Army in 1943 right after graduating from high school. He was assigned to Company H, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, as a replacement in November 1944 while the unit licked its wounds from the devastating failure of Operation Market-Garden.
Within weeks, Speranza would be in a foxhole in Bastogne, Belgium — cold, running short on supplies and ammo and surrounded by German troops.
“The first eight days we got pounded” by German artillery, he recalled. “But this was the 101st. They could not get past (us). They never set one foot in Bastogne.”
On the second day of the siege, a friend named Joe Willis was wounded with shrapnel in both legs and brought to a makeshift combat hospital in a blown-out church. When Speranza tracked him down, the fellow paratrooper asked him to get him something to drink.
Speranza explained they were surrounded and no supplies were coming in. The soldier asked him to check a devastated tavern nearby.
Speranza found a working beer tap there. He filled his helmet — the same one he had used as a foxhole toilet — and made two trips to the wounded in the church. He was caught by an angry major and told he would be shot if he did not stop, for fear he would kill the wounded.
Visiting Bastogne in 2009, Speranza found his foxhole still there, but Dutch and Belgian military officials told him that the legend of the soldier filling his helmet with beer for the wounded is still told — and had been immortalized on the label of Bastogne’s Airborne beer.
The beer is typically consumed from a ceramic helmet.
So Lt. Col. Tobin Magsig, current commander of 1st Battalion — the only airborne battalion left in the 501st — had a few surprises up his sleeve for Speranza’s recent visit to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Troops showed him a Nazi banner hanging in the Battalion Headquarters that Speranza had signed more than 60 years ago but had never thought about since. They marveled with delight while a rush of names and memories flooded back to him.
Magsig also ordered ceramic helmets and Airborne beer for the regimental ball.
“Mr. Speranza’s visit has been rich and rewarding for every paratrooper in the battalion,” Magsig said. “You can see it on their faces and the way they carry themselves. After talking with him, they stand straighter and stick their chests out. Their faces beam with pride at the opportunity to serve in the 501st — in the shadow of men such as Vincent Speranza.”
The 88-year-old also got a tour of the weapons depot on base, which he called “interesting and informative.” The old machine-gunner beamed as he got to hold current weapons, including the M249 machine gun. He also witnessed four airborne jumps from the inside an Alaska National Guard UH-60 helicopter.
“I wanted to change places with them and do the jump, but they wouldn’t let me,” Speranza said. “They’ve opened up another chapter [in my life]… I feel like I’m home again.”
Much has changed since Speranza wore a uniform. The 501st has since separated from the 101st Airborne Division. Airborne jumps are now done out of helicopters and not just cumbersome transport planes. The enemy is harder to identify, melting into crowds of civilians and launching insider attacks.
Still, Speranza believes the spirit of the men who stood up to seven German divisions while surrounded in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge endures in the soldiers of 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment.
“They sure haven’t let us down as far as the reputation of the 501st goes,” Speranza said. “They don’t wear the screaming eagle patch anymore but they certainly keep the eagle screaming.”
Vincent Speranza, a former infantryman machine gunner with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment during WWII, inspects an M249 machine gun weapon system during an installation visit Oct. 6, 2013, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Speranza was at the base to visit paratroopers with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, and to be a special guest at their regimental ball.
Jeffrey Smith/U.S. Army