Vincent Speranza didn’t learn he was a folk hero in Belgium until he visited 65 years later for the first time. Screengrab courtesy of YouTube.
Vincent Speranza is well known among fellow paratroopers. In 2016, at the Frederick Army Air Field in Oklahoma, a video of him singing “Blood on the Risers” went viral. In the fall of 2020, at 95 years old, he went skydiving with the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute demonstration team. But what the World War II veteran is most famous for is his act of kindness during the Siege of Bastogne as part of the larger Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
Assigned to Company H, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Speranza had occupied a foxhole on the outskirts of Bastogne, Belgium. On the second day of the siege of the town, his friend Joe Willis was wounded by shrapnel in both legs.
“The Germans had slipped around and they had surrounded the town and we had no place to put the wounded,” Speranza told the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne in 2012. They used a bombed-out church as a makeshift field hospital. Speranza visited Willis and asked if he could do anything for him. His friend requested something to drink. Speranza went into town and searched the taverns. He pulled the nozzle on one of the beer taps at the bar and filled his Army helmet until it was full.
Speranza returned to his friend at the church and showed him the surprise. The other wounded soldiers also took sips from the helmet. When a major asked Speranza what he was doing, his snarky reply was “Giving aid and comfort to the wounded.”
“You stupid bastard, don’t you know I have chest cases and stomach cases in there? You give them beer you’ll kill them,” the major scolded him. Speranza put his helmet on his head as the last dregs of beer sloshed down his uniform, and he ran back to his foxhole.
“End of the story, right?” Speranza rhetorically asked. “Sixty-five years later I came back to Bastogne for the first time.” The year was 2009, and Speranza was shown the outline where their foxholes were once dug in. A stream where Speranza broke the ice to fill his canteen was now covered with grass. The sights brought back emotional memories. He and his daughter went to lunch with some guests, ordered three bottles of wine, and told his beer story to those who accompanied him.
“Don’t you know that you’re famous in Europe?” one of the locals said, then requested that the waiter bring four bottles of Airborne beer.
“The waiter comes with a tray, and he’s got four bottles of beer and four ceramic bowls in the shape of a helmet,” said Speranza. “The label on the bottle shows a paratrooper with beer going like this,” he said, in reference to how he once carried his helmet full of beer.
The origins of the Airborne beer story were viewed as a fairy tale until this Screaming Eagles folk hero paid a visit. Next time you are traveling to Bastogne, stop in to the local restaurant and brewery Brasserie Lamborelle and enjoy it for yourself!
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.