JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska— World War II paratrooper, machine gunner, Bastogne legend, and storyteller, Vincent Speranza, visited the Spartan Brigade this week.
Speranza served with H Company, 501st Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, and fought during the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne and then in Germany before the war ended.
He traveled to JBER to meet with and share stories with the Paratroopers of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, an infantry battalion that traces its roots to Speranza’s unit and is currently part of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, at JBER.
“It’s hard for me, a private first class, to give leadership advice to soldiers that are already more senior,” said Speranza. “But I can share my experiences and tell it like it was on the battlefield.”
Speranza was drafted in 1943 as an infantryman and volunteered for parachute school after seeing an airborne training jump for the first time.
When German forces broke through Allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, Speranza and his fellow Paratroopers were trucked to the front lines.
They faced extreme cold temperatures and frozen ground – something the Paratroopers of the Alaskan-based 1-501st PIR could relate to after months of training in the harsh Alaskan winter.
Like Speranza, Spc. Ryan Lindsley is also a machine gunner, currently assigned to Comanche Company, 1-501st PIR.
“I feel like I relate to him most about the camaraderie and always looking out for each other,” said Lindsley. “No matter how tough things get, there’s always something to look forward to; and in a terrible situation, there’s always some way to find the bright side, to bring out the best in everything.”
Speranza may be best known for bringing his wounded comrades a helmet full of beer while besieged in Bastogne. That story led a local brewery in Belgium to create “Airborne Beer,” served in ceramic mugs shaped like American GI helmets.
“It’s hard to live up to expectations and fill shoes of that size, of a man who left such a big legacy,” said Lindsley. “When your foxhole buddy wants a beer, you get him a damn beer.”
Near the end of the war, Speranza and his fellow paratroopers discovered a Jewish concentration camp that included mass graves and ovens used to cremate the dead.
Speranza said the images and experiences from that day live forever in his mind.
When his unit reached Adolf Hitler’s infamous “Eagle’s Nest,” Speranza saw a map depicting the Axis Powers’ plans for post-war victory where the entire globe was divided amongst the German, Italian and Japanese governments.
“If anybody ever doubted why we had to fight that war, there it was on the wall,” said Speranza.