Growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of lower Manhattan during the Great Depression, a young Vince Speranza remembers a couple of guys in the neighborhood who had served in World War I and suffered from “shell shock.”
Years later following his own military service in World War II, Speranza knew that he had to be tough on himself to make sure his experiences overseas did not ruin his life or those around him.
“I talked to myself and I said, ‘Listen, you are not going to be one of these guys that comes home and is shell shocked,’” Speranza said Wednesday during a special virtual presentation arranged for a Philomath audience in recognition of Veterans Day. “You put it back here and lock the door. You can’t forget it but you can isolate it and in time, it will go away.”
Speranza was the program’s featured guest at the invitation of Philomath-based American Legion Marys River Post 100. Former mayor Eric Niemann made the arrangements for the unique event, which was hosted by the city of Philomath through its Facebook page.
Speranza was 20 years old at the time with his whole life ahead of him. He became a school teacher and avoided joining any military organizations. In 2009 at age 85, Speranza decided to go back to Europe. Standing on the soil where he once fought, those memories were indeed still there and they came flooding back.
Speranza, now 96, is one of a dwindling number of living World War II veterans. He was among those who fought in December 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge when the Germans launched a massive offensive and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower rushed in reinforcements and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton counterattacked.
A critical location was Bastogne where American tankers and paratroopers fought off repeated attacks. When Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division was asked to surrender by his German counterpart, he responded, “Nuts!” — a phrase that would become the title of a book Speranza wrote in 2014.
Back at the scene of the battle 12 years ago, Speranza toured the area a bit before seeing enough. He asked a couple of fellas who were with him if they wanted to grab lunch at a dining room located in the hotel where he was staying.
“I ordered three bottles of wine at lunch and I said, ‘I gotta change the mood. I don’t like the way I feel,’” Speranza recalled.
The old soldiers started sharing stories and when it became Speranza’s turn, he told them about the time he brought beer in his helmet to injured soldiers.
Speranza said the conversation went something like this:
“You’re the G.I. who brought beer in the helmet … to the wounded guys in the church?”
“Man, don’t you know you’re famous in Europe?”
The two men then ordered four bottles of Airborne beer — Speranza’s daughter was also there. The waiter came back with the beer and four ceramic “bowls” in the shape of a G.I. helmet.
Many believed the old tale about this act of an American soldier was a myth. But no, it was true and Speranza went home with six bottles of Airborne. Back in the United States, the local newspaper heard about this and published a story. Then it went online. And Speranza became famous, a sort of folk hero.
There is a local connection to the Battle of the Bulge. Corp. Albert Vandersee, who graduated with Philomath High School’s Class of 1939, served with the 101st Airborne, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment — same as Speranza, although they were in different companies.
Vandersee was killed on Christmas Day 1944 in Bastogne and is buried in the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, the same cemetery where Patton is buried.
Among those who served with Patton’s 3rd Army that pushed north to rescue the encircled 101st from annihilation was Sgt. Fran Gerding, a Philomath resident who just celebrated his 100th birthday a few weeks ago.
So what’s this beer-in-the-helmet story all about?
Speranza and the 101st were in Bastogne and casualties were heavy. Many of those wounded had taken shelter inside of a church, including his best friend, Joe Willis, who had taken a couple pieces of shrapnel to a leg.
Speranza said he asked his friend if there was anything he could do for him.
“Go find me something to drink,” Speranza recalled his friend saying, urging him to go take a look in some of the bombed-out taverns in the area.
“(If) Your best friend wants to drink, you go find him a drink,” Speranza said.
Speranza had no luck in the first tavern he visited, but in the second one, the bar was intact.
“I pulled the beer handle and beer came out,” he said. “I looked around for bottles or something to put the beer in and there was nothing.”
That’s when the helmet came into the picture. He filled it up with beer and brought it back to his buddy. Others in the church wanted some, too. So he left again to go get more.
“This time when I stepped out the door of the tavern, a shell landed nearby and knocked me down and I spilled most of the beer but I wasn’t hurt,” he said. “I got up and went back to the church and standing in the doorway was the regimental surgeon — a major and I’m a private, you know.”
The surgeon wanted to know what Speranza was doing.
“Bringing aid and comfort to the wounded,” he replied.
That was not what his superior wanted to hear, telling him, “Don’t you know I’ve got chest cases and stomach cases in here. If you give them beer, you’ll kill them. Get out of here before I have you shot.”
Speranza didn’t take any chances and retreated back to his foxhole on the outskirts of Bastogne.
Speranza’s Philomath program can be seen at this link and he shares a lot of other experiences from the war in his book, “Nuts!: A 101st Airborne Division Machine Gunner at Bastogne.”
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