By Michelle SchneiderJanuary 13, 2020
The ground was frozen. A World War II Soldier pounded icy mud and shoveled tree roots away. He was completely exhausted and his stomach growled endlessly, but he kept digging into the night. The fear of what's to come grew during the four hours it took to dig his shelter against enemy fire.
As the rising sun burned away the dense fog, his view of the Belgium countryside was cleared just before the war began to surround him. The ground shook as Nazi German tanks drove through, causing a once peaceful morning to erupt with the thunderous sounds of bombs smashing into the earth while deafening machine guns shot off in every direction.
The Battle of the Bulge made history as one of the deadliest, bloodiest campaigns seen throughout World War II. Vince Speranza, 94, a former paratrooper from the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, lived to tell the tale of surviving combat during that record-low, brutal winter.
"Freedom's not free. Someone will always have to pay the price and thank God we still have men like this who are willing to pay the price to keep America free," Speranza said. "There's still a hostile world out there. We want world peace, but it's not there."
You may recognize his name as the inspiration behind the production of "Airborne Beer." The bottle's label depicts a rosy cheeked American GI marching along with a helmet full of beer. If you order one in the town Bastogne, Belgium, it is served in a ceramic bowl shaped like the helmet Speranza used to bring beer to his injured comrades after the fight.
Speranza was miraculously unwounded after the Battle of the Bulge but served as a morale booster, visiting his injured brothers in arms and asking how they're doing. He tended to what he described as a pitiful scene in a church that was used as shelter for the remaining Soldiers. Only one doctor and nurse worked around the clock tending to them. The rest of the medical personnel were murdered by the Nazis.
His friend and assistant machine gunner Joe had shrapnel in both legs. In a tough demeanor, Joe told him not to worry about it, but Speranza was still concerned. He asked if there was anything he could do, and Joe told him to go find something to drink. Speranza tried to but everything in the immediate area was bombed to pieces, but Joe suggested he find a tavern.
Among the heap of crumbled buildings, broken glass and furniture, Speranza came upon a tavern that still had a bar. When he pulled the handle, beer came out. He could not find a bottle or a jar, so he used his helmet to bring beer back to the church. Everyone wanted a sip, so he left to supply a refill.
Upon his second return, the regimental surgeon, a major, was waiting for him. Speranza recalled the interaction between him and the officer.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Soldier?"
"Err, ah... Giving aid and comfort to the wounded, Sir?"
"You stupid jackass, don't you know that I have chest cases and stomach cases in there, that if you give them beer, you'll kill them? Get out of here before I have you shot."
"Put that helmet on."
And with beer pouring down all over himself, he ran as fast as he could to his foxhole in case the major decided to change his mind.
Sixty-five years later, Speranza returned to the battlefields in Bastogne. During his trip, he met some people who helped him discover he is a living legend. Speranza went most of his life never knowing that his actions were considered a well-loved story among locals or that he was famous in Europe.
Many of Speranza's stories are delivered in a humorous and light-hearted way. Aside from his ability to engage listeners, there are darker stories that revealed the unmet needs of Soldiers downrange and divulged a realistic perspective of the horrors of war.
He visited the Modern Warfare Institute at the U.S. Military Academy as a guest speaker Dec. 6 and shared his stories with cadets.
"We're really focused on helping cadets understand the importance that an individual can have," Capt. Ed Olson, an instructor at West Point, said. "We also want them to understand what it was like to fight and provide some realism to what we read, see and hear about in their history classes to show what it was like to go through the trials and tribulations from a Soldier's standpoint."
Even though the 101st Airborne Division was victorious over the Nazi Germans, they still managed to bomb most of Bastogne to pieces, destroy their field hospital and steal medical supplies. The fresh snow was stained crimson after the fight; a lot of men valiantly fought to win while others died from their injuries. Aside from the Battle of the Bulge, there were other war stories Speranza talked about.
He said the most terrible experience he encountered was when his men liberated a concentration camp. As they marched into the forest, the smell of burned skin became denser as smoke grew thicker. Eventually they discovered a compound without any Germans around. There were two gates, 12-foot-high fences, dead bodies piled in a heap like garbage and an oven with human bones in it that was still hot.
They found skeletal victims with flesh clenching to their bones who looked more dead than alive. Weak from starvation, they used their elbows and knees to get around. One crawled up to Speranza's dirty boots and said, "thank you, thank you," while he kissed them. As Speranza began to lift him up from the ground, the man groaned in pain. He was told by leadership not to give them any food because they needed special diets and to leave them be.
"Some of the guys with me sat on the ground crying, others threw their hands in the air, others were shaking their head back and forth," Speranza said in describing the anger and disgust he felt. Seventy years later, he vividly remembers that day and still feels a rush of blood to his head. Sometimes, when he's alone and thinks about it, he said he lashes out in all directions but finds nothing but air to stab at.
"We found out these people had not done anything. They had not revolted, they were only there because they were Jews. And to think, six million of them were put in places like this. That day, whatever respect we had for the German Army and people disappeared. We could not believe...," Speranza said as his voice started trailing as he was caught in the trauma of that day.
World War II Vet Speranza shares more of his war stories in his book, "Nuts! A 101st Airborne Division Machine Gunner at Bastogne." Cadets were able to hear accounts from his memoirs in person at the Modern War Institute and met with him afterward. Each cadet individually expressed his or her gratitude for his visit, asked questions and took pictures with him.
"Bringing in people like this is probably the best thing that West Point can do, especially listening to veterans that have fought in wars other than Iraq and Afghanistan and their experiences," Class of 2021 Cadet Joseph Canterbury said. "We grew up watching Saving Private Ryan and they were our heroes but bringing in people like that who are super motivated gives a whole other education than what we get in our day to day basis."