During the intense fighting at Bastogne in 1944, Vincent Speranza went to visit a fellow 101st Airborne Division paratrooper in a makeshift hospital. Speranza asked the man what he could do to help, and the man asked for a drink. Speranza set out to find something for his friend and came across a bombed-out tavern that, improbably enough, still had a functioning beer tap.

He filled up his helmet with some Belgian ale and returned to the field hospital.

Not surprisingly, other wounded GIs asked Speranza to bring another round, and he continued tending bar for the wounded soldiers, running to refill his helmet until a doctor put a stop to it.

The combat beer run became a legend in the 101st Airborne, and — to Speranza’s shock later in life — in the town of Bastogne. On a return trip to the town decades later, he discovered that his beer had inspired a local brand of ale, “Airborne Beer.” Its label depicted an American paratrooper carrying a helmet full of beer. In local bars, it was often served in a miniature helmet.

Speranza, who spent his later decades as a fixture of 101st Airborne reunions and memorials, died on August 2.

After Bastogne, Speranza continued to fight with the 101st across Europe, liberating concentration camps and spending 144 days in combat. He received the Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star medal for valor. He was discharged in 1946 and returned to his home of Staten Island to become a high school teacher. 

Army photo

Whether it was stories of Speranza going on a now infamous beer run, or leading a rousing rendition of “Blood Upon the Risers” with fellow soldiers in his later years, Speranza was a paratrooper’s paratrooper. 

Speranza grew up in Staten Island, New York, and enlisted in the Army in 1943. As he recounted to the 101st Airborne Division, a demonstration of the then-fairly new airborne infantry concept — and of course the promise of extra pay — inspired him to volunteer as a paratrooper. 

Digital photograph of a photograph provided by World War II veteran Vincent Speranza, 88, from Auburn Ill., taken of him in Scotland during World War II. Speranza visited soldiers of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, part of U.S. Army Alaska's 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 6. Speranza, a combat veteran of H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, then part of the 101st Airborne Division, fought at Bastogne, was wounded in combat shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, and when the 101st Airborne deactivated after the war was transferred to the 82nd Airborne for a brief period. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Connaher/Released)
Vincent Speranza as a young paratrooper. (U.S. Air Force photo)

He joined the 101st in Europe in November 1944, just a month before Bastogne, and quickly found himself thrown into combat. 

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Speranza would also spend his later years returning to his roots, interacting with soldiers, and even, at this point well past retirement age, continuing to jump. 

“Jumping is the most fantastic thing in the world,” Speranza told the Staten Island Advance earlier this year. “The last jump I made was in 1945, and when I reached about age 80, I started training for another jump. I said, ‘I’m going to be gone soon, and I gotta just do it one more time.’”

In keeping with his initial airborne training, Speranza told the Advance that he had initially hoped to make static line jumps instead of a tandem skydive. 

“I said, ‘That’s not a jump; that’s skydiving. You’re a message on a passenger pigeon’s leg going out the door,’” Speranza said

Static line or not, Speranza’s jumps became an annual tradition. He made one earlier this year, in March, with members of the Round Canopy Parachuting Team. 

Army photo

“Hung like a Buffalo, always quick with a mint, and spoke Dutch with the best of them. He came, he saw, he rollerbladed the seven seas. All Hail Sir Vince,” said retired Army Ranger Jariko Denman about Speranza and the time he spent with him during a Round Canopy Parachute Team – USA Foundation event earlier this year.

Speranza’s former unit, the 101st Airborne Division, said of his passing, “Once a Screaming Eagle, always a Screaming Eagle. Until our next Rendezvous With Destiny, farewell Vinny.”

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