World War II Army veteran Vincent J. Speranza, who spent 144 days in combat — including the Battle of the Bulge that began in Bastogne, Belgium — jumped out of a plane at Skydive Perris last week with members of the US Golden Knights.
“You know in your advanced age you start reminiscing, and I wanted to make one more jump,” said Speranza, 95. “And of course, I received official clearance from my doctor before the jump.”
The prestigious Golden Knights, in existence for some 60 years, were in Southern California on a recruitment drive for the U.S. Army, and Speranza agreed to the jump as part of an exhibition — and as a tribute to members of the Greatest Generation who never came home. The military veteran connected to the organization via longtime friend CJ Machado, a photo journalist, producer and veterans’ advocate.
“I was just delighted to jump,” he said. “And the Golden Knights took care of all the details and things that were necessary and everything went off beautifully. We had a round table meeting with the boys with a lot of story telling. And it was just great. I was a paratrooper in the war and never lost my love for jumping out the door. It’s something that never leaves you and every jump is the same as the first one – completely exhilarating.”
He explained the training before your first jump that prepares you for the physical part is important — how to leave the door and how to land safely on the ground.
“The mental and physical attitude they teach you leads you to that moment of truth when they ask you to step out the door. And it’s with you forever,” he added.
But the jump wasn’t Speranza’s first since the war.
“In Europe I did two tandem jumps before this one last year in Holland in celebration of the 101st Airborne – Normandy, Holland and Bastone. I visit those places every year. And this was my third tandem jump,” he said. “And I did another in Fort Bragg with Mike Lewis.”
SPERANZA’S LIFE AND CAREER
Speranza rode with the 501st Paratroopers on helicopter jumps. And it took the Port Richmond native — who graduated from Wagner College on the GI Bill before becoming a teacher at Curtis High School — 65 years to recount those bone-chilling events attached to his years in the military.
He returned to Bastogne, Belgium, in 2009, where he searched for the foxhole that bore witness to artillery fire and slaughter.
As a result he was compelled to pen a book titled, “Nuts! A 101st Airborne Division Machine Gunner at Bastogne,” the title of which bears special significance.
The recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, in addition to other medals of distinction, shared his account several years back in person at a North Central Kiwanis Inter-Club dinner meeting at LiGreci’s Staaten in West Brighton.
“I completely buried the military, all the killing and loss of lives and for years. I pursued my profession in education and concentrated on helping kids,” he recalled. “However, after 65 years of non-involvement, I started talking to my daughter, Kathy Wilson, one day and we discussed my writing a book.”
Now an Auburn, Ill. resident, Speranza was a private first class in the U.S. Army in 1943 right after he graduated from high school. He was assigned to Company H, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, as a replacement in November 1944.
After receiving his wings and completing a stint in parachute school, he boarded the Queen Mary en route to Scotland and England and from there to Belgium and France during the Battle of the Bulge, which began on Dec. 16, 1944 and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II launched through the thick Ardennes region in eastern Belgium, Northeast France and Luxembourg.
Speranza continued: “I was in the front lines where you get the full impact,” he said. “When you’re farther back, you see less. The enemy was firing from five miles. The experience in battle is an individual thing and depends on where the enemy hits you.”
DAYS IN COMBAT
Speranza spent 144 days in combat, right through World War II and the Battle of the Bulge.
“We disrupted the Germans’ plan. They were going to go cut across and capture Antwerp and tried to divide the American Army. But we changed the war. We stopped them at Bastogne and they never made it. During Bastogne, things were bad. And we were running out of food and artillery. The Germans came in with their flags and told us we were surrounded. They wanted the Americans to surrender. They thought that maybe we would surrender. The answer our commander, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, gave them was ‘Nuts.’ He was our commander in the Battle of the Bulge.”
In speaking of the Battle of the Bulge, says Speranza: “The surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard. American forces bore the brunt of the attack and sadly, it resulted in the highest casualties of any operation during the war.”
Speranza went on: “It was cold and we were freezing. You never slept. During the night you had to keep moving or you froze solid. There was a barn attached to the house. The sergeant would come around and pull us back to stay in the barn and get a little warmer. We heard a noise. It was a cow in the barn. We thought we would shoot the cow, who was like skin-and-bones. One soldier came back and told me he couldn’t do it. I said I would. But when I looked into the cow’s watery, sad eyes, I couldn’t do it either. He was the luckiest cow in Bastogne.”
HE WAS KNOWN IN EUROPE
In December 1944, Speranza, only 19, raced through the streets of Bastogne, to find water for a group of wounded soldiers.
Climbing over debris he stumbled upon the remnants of a tavern. The proprietors had only beer to offer, so Speranza, without a canteen, pulled off his helmet and filled it to the brim. Returning to the church he passed the helmet around and when it was emptied, he ran back for more, and repeated his mission. But when he returned he encountered the surgeon, who was a major, who asked him what he was doing.
“Giving aid and comfort to the wounded,” he said, to which the doctor replied: “I’ve got chest and stomach cases in here. Get out of here before I have you shot. If you give some of these guys beer, you will kill them.”
The story would have ended if it weren’t for the commemorative in Bastogne at the 65th anniversary of the battle. Speranza traveled there for the events, including visiting the museum dedicated to the battle. There he met two young soldiers — one a Belgian tank commander and the other a Dutch Army officer. As they were having lunch Speranza told the story of his helmet full of beer. They were amazed and proceeded to order Airborne Beer asking if Speranza was the GI who gave beer to the wounded. It seems a Bastogne brewer commemorated the story and produces Airborne Beer with a label showing a soldier carrying a helmet full of beer.
To this day Speranza who continues to inspire and lead by example, travels with family members, friends and companions and veteran’s advocates.
“I always have travel companion. My wife passed in 2017. We were married for 70 years and she was the most magnificent woman.”
The dad of three, grandfather of nine and great-grandfather of five reveals most of his family resides in New York or in Illinois, halfway down the state in Auburn, which is near Springfield.
At the end of November Speranza will be guest speaker at the U.S. Military Academy and next month plans he plans to return to Bastogne to mark the Battle of the Bulge.
“And when I speak at the museum there and at the ceremony, they’ll toss walnuts into the crowd remembering General Anthony McAuliffe,” said Speranza.
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