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A helmet full of beer

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Vince Speranza with some bottles of Airborne Beer (Photo: Vince Speranza, Facebook)

During the Battle of the Bulge, machine gunner Vincent Speranza from H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division became a legend for the unlikeliest of reasons – and only learned about it 65 years later.
 
He was born on March 23, 1925, in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and grew up on Staten Island in a large immigrant Italian family from Sicily. He was drafted and entered service at the end of 1943. He got his training at Fort Benning in Georgia with the 87th Infantry Division. After seeing an airborne training jump demonstration, he immediately volunteered to become a paratrooper. He and his comrades were transported to the United Kingdom on board of the RMS Queen Mary, a British ocean liner under American control. They joined the fight as replacements after the disastrous Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

The young Speranza in uniform (Photo: silive.com)
The young Speranza in uniform (Photo: silive.com)

On December 16, 1944, Germany launched a surprise counteroffensive against the Allies through the Ardennes, encircling the town of Bastogne, held by undersupplied American troops. The 101st arrived from France on trucks in a hurry without proper winter equipment. This was Esperanza’s first combat action. With most of their medical supplies and personnel captured in the attack, the defenders set up a small, makeshift aid station in a church, where the wounded were laid out on the floor wrapped in curtains and bedspreads scavenged from all around. The main hospital of the division was at a school on the other end of the main street and at Heinz Barracks (currently Bastogne Barracks). Further down the road, the 10th Armored Division had its aid station where two Belgian nurses, the Angels of Bastogne, worked with Battalion Surgeon Dr. Jack T. Prior (Read our earlier article – The Angels of Bastogne).

The field hospital on the left with vehicles in front of it and the church at the back along the main street of Bastogne (Photo: www.i.pinimg.com)
The field hospital on the left with vehicles in front of it and the church at the back along the main street of Bastogne (Photo: www.i.pinimg.com)

During a lull in the fighting, Speranza was sent back to town by his platoon sergeant for some radio batteries. Once there, he visited his wounded friend Joe Willis in the church, who asked him to go and find him something to drink. Speranza was doubtful he could find any booze in the middle of a siege, but he agreed to go looking in the local abandoned taverns. Eventually, he found a still-working beer tap in the second tavern. There were no intact glasses anywhere though, so he took his helmet (Read our earlier article – The M1 helmet, the 'steel pot') – the same one he would use as a foxhole toilet on the frontline – filled it with beer and took it back to share it with Joe and the other wounded. His comrades quickly urged him to go and get a second round, but once he had a refill, he was stopped in the church door by the regimental surgeon, a major. Speranza said that he was only “bringing aid and comfort to the wounded” but the surgeon berated Speranza for bringing alcohol to people with chest and stomach wounds, who might die from drinking it, and angrily dismissed him. Speranza rapidly saluted, put on his helmet – pouring the beer on himself – and ran back to the front line.

In the final stages of the war, he also participated in the liberation of one of the subcamps of the Dachau concentration camp at Kaufering. According to Speranza, soldiers of H Company were so horrified by what they had experienced there that they had become completely disillusioned by the German armed forces and did not take prisoners until the end of the war. He even made it to the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden. He found a color-coded world map there with different parts of the world divided up between the Axis powers, namely Germany, Italy, and Japan. This was the moment he realized what they had been fighting for all through the war.

The men of the 101st at Berchtesgaden at the end of the war (Photo: U.S. Army)
The men of the 101st at Berchtesgaden at the end of the war (Photo: U.S. Army)

Just like on his way to Europe, he got back to New York on board of the RMS Queen Mary (Read our earlier article - Operation Magic Carpet). After the war, he started a family and became a history teacher and did not think much about anything related to the war. The real twist in the story came 65 year later when he, at the age of 85, met a Belgian woman from Bastogne in a gun store who encouraged him to go back to Bastogne to see for himself that the locals still remember what the 101st did for them during the war. Thus, accompanied by his daughter, he returned to Bastogne for the first time after the war. To their surprise, they found a store with WWII memorabilia, where they met a Dutch and a Belgian soldier who were happy to meet a veteran. They took them to the former battlefields around the city. After visiting the foxholes Speranza and his comrades occupied, they went back to town for a drink with their guides and started sharing war stories with each other. When he told the story of the helmet full of beer, the soldiers were incredulous, exclaiming “Don’t you know you’re famous in Europe?” The story of the G.I. bringing beer in his helmet for the wounded was well-known in Bastogne, but everyone assumed it to be a mere legend. Speranza, in turn, was surprised not only by his new-found fame, but also by what the waiter brought them: a local brew called “Airborne Beer” served in ceramic pots shaped like a helmet.

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The Airborne Beer with the helmet-shaped ceramic pots (Photo: wallux.com)
The Airborne Beer with the helmet-shaped ceramic pots (Photo: wallux.com)

He took home some bottles of the Airborne Beer. When Springfield’s local newspaper did an interview about his experiences and released an article with a photo of him and the beer, the story went viral and changed his life. He started receiving invitations to commemorations and military gatherings. From year to year, he visits Normandy, the Netherlands and Bastogne. He even has a life-sized wax figure with his personal items on display in the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne.

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Speranza explaining what Normandy means to him (Video: YouTube)

He wrote a book titled Nuts! - A 101st Airborne Division Machine Gunner at Bastogne in which, in addition to his military service, he tells about growing up in an immigrant family during the Great Depression and about his later life.

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Speranza signing his book at the Bastogne War Museum in 2021 (Photo: Bastogne War Museum, Facebook)

As for the Airborne Beer, it is brewed by the Brewery deBouillon, based on the recipe of the Lamborelle brewery in Bastogne. You can choose from blond or brown beer. Both have a fairly high alcohol content. According to the brewer, the blond is characterized by a creamy white head, compact, with aromas of barley and hops, a prolonged bitterness and well balanced. The taste continues to develop and becomes rounder and more mature with time. The brown beer has a deep, dark copper color with a nice head. While drinking it presents roasted malt taste with sweet aftertaste. It is brewed as a traditional, though mild, Belgian Double with anise and clove on the nose. You can taste the Airborne Beer in the most authentic place to drink it, the town of Bastogne, on our tours that include it as a stop.
 
Vince Speranza will turn 97 this year, his plan is to go on tirelessly and tell his story and the reason why and for what he fought with his fellow soldiers in the war. Since Speranza stands for hope in Italian, let us express our hope that he will be with us for many more years to educate people about what happened during World War II and why it is important to fight for freedom. In conclusion, let us finish with his words while having a bottle of Airborne Beer: “A toast to all the good people in the world”.

Speranza in a recent interview with a bottle of the iconic Airborne Beer (Photo: YouTube)
Speranza in a recent interview with a bottle of the iconic Airborne Beer (Photo: YouTube)
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