Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper)It is estimated that about 230 American World War II veterans die every day in the United States. This fact is not surprising as most of them are approaching the century mark. Many served on Belgian soil and with each subsequent demise their wartime memories— the sights, the sounds, the terror, and their triumphs fade into the past. But such is not the case with the passing of Private Vincent (Vince) Speranza. His experience in the Ardennes—specifically around Bastogne –sets his story apart from all others. Let us take a look….
Born (1923) in New York City, Vincent J. Speranza enlisted in the army in 1943 as America entered the nightmare known as World War II. He volunteered for the infantry as a paratrooper/machine gunner. His first combat engagement was during the Siege of Bastogne as part of the infamous Battle of the Bulge. There, during the five weeks from December 16th, 1944 to January 28th, 1945, the outnumbered Americans were able to thwart the German offensive and turn the tide of the war. During that engagement Vince operated a machine gun from a foxhole outside the war-ravaged town of Bastogne. Amid the chaos Vince’s machine gun assistant, a man named Joe Willis, was wounded with shrapnel in both legs. Shortly thereafter Vince, attempted to check- up on the well-being of his friend, went to the makeshift combat field hospital which was, in fact a bombed- out church. He found Willis “begging for water.” Vince, with his canteen empty, made his way into Bastogne and found the rubble of a tavern. There luckily, he found a working beer tap. Looking for a container and finding none, he hastily filled his combat helmet with beer and returned giving Willis and the other wounded a cold brew. He made a second beer run but upon his return he was blocked by an angry surgeon who asked:
“What the HELL are you doing soldier”? ,
“ Giving aid and comfort to the wounded” replied Vince.
“You stupid bastard! Don’t you know I have chest and stomach cases? You give them beer and you are liable to kill them!” countered the officer.
Vince readily complied and the incident at the time, seemed benign . Ultimately, he survived the horrors of Bastogne and World War II. For his service, Vince Speranza was awarded a Purple Heart (for his wounds) ,and a Bronze Star (for his meritorious service). He returned to New York City, earned a college degree, married, became a father, and spent the next 40 years teaching in the city’s public schools. Yet, despite his military recognitions, and his very respectable civilian persona, Vince’s wartime story had just begun.
Astonishingly, the story of Vince’s act of kindness in December of 1944 took on a life of its own as became the stuff of legend in Bastogne. His effort to bring beer to his wounded comrade had become a local folklore within the Bastogne community. Incredibly, in 2009, some 65 years after that “beer in the helmet” incident, Vince had the opportunity to revisit Bastogne—-his first visit since the war. He found his foxhole; he found the church (now rebuilt) that served as the combat hospital. But when the local Belgian hosts told him that the tavern where he had secured the beer for his wounded friend now served a crafted beer which honored him, his helmet, and beer. Vince was astonished! In Bastogne, the Brasserie Lamborelle Brewery had continually crafted a commemorative beer called Aviator Beer but even more astonishing is the fact that it is served in a ceramic cup shaped like an American combat helmet! Vince had no idea his actions had taken on a 60-year beer drinking legacy. Well into his 80’s Vince marveled at the thrilling new twist his life had taken on. He is paraphrased as saying: “ After being a paratrooper, a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge, winning a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a career as a public high school teacher, Airborne Beer served in the replica of an American helmet cup, is what I’m proudly most famous for.” !
Vincent J. Speranza died earlier this month (August 3rd) at the age of 98.
RIP Vince! We thank you for your service and for yet another reason to enjoy our beer!