Vincent Speranza, the American paratrooper who became known as the soldier who doled out beer to his wounded comrades during the Battle of the Bulge, died Wednesday at the age of 98, the 18th Airborne Corps announced on Twitter.
The New York native was drafted out of high school in 1943 to Company H, 501st Parachutist Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and slotted in as an incredibly green replacement in November 1944 as the unit regrouped following the failure of Operation Market Garden earlier that fall.
Within weeks, Speranza found himself among 600,000 GIs engaged in the bitter, nearly six-week campaign against approximately 500,000 Nazis.
On the second day of the fierce fighting, Company H found itself surrounded, its supplies waning rapidly.
“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.
The men found a bombed-out church and used it as a makeshift field hospital. Amid the chaos and carnage, Speranza heard his friend Joe Willis — who was wounded with shrapnel in both legs — begging for water.
His own canteen empty, Speranza checked a devastated tavern close by and found, to his delight, a working beer tap. Filling his helmet, which also served as his foxhole toilet, Speranza returned to the field hospital and gave Willis and other wounded soldiers the cold brew.
“I was like an old cow you know, feeding everybody with the beer,” Speranza cheekily recounted.
The helmet soon ran dry, so Speranza made another run but soon found his exit blocked by the regimental surgeon.
“What the hell are you doing, soldier?” groused the major.
”Giving aid and comfort to the wounded,” came Speranza’s insolent reply.
“He goes, ‘You stupid bastard, don’t you know I have chest cases and stomach cases in there? You give them beer you’ll kill them.’”
Speranza quickly placed the helmet back on his head, the vestiges of beer leaking down his cheeks as he ran back to his foxhole. Speranza went on to survive Bastogne and the war, but upon returning home the former paratrooper largely attempted avoiding the memories of his service, becoming a history teacher and a father in the years that followed.
Unbeknownst to him, however, the private’s act of kindness on December 17, 1944, became the stuff of legend in the town of Bastogne. Brasserie Lamborelle, a brewery in Bastogne, even created Airborne Beer that was served in helmet-shaped ceramic bowls to commemorate the paratrooper’s beer-carrying mission, Speranza’s VA biography said.
Incredibly, Speranza did not become aware of his fame until 2009, when he returned to the once-besieged town for the first time since the war.
“After being a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge, winning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and (spending) two decades as a public school teacher, Airborne Beer is what I’m famous for,” Speranza told Stars and Stripes.
In subsequent years, Speranza traveled across the U.S. and Europe, recounting his wartime stories to soldiers and veterans alike — even going viral in 2016 for his rendition of “Blood on the Risers” at the Frederick Army Air Field in Oklahoma.
This past March, the 98-year-old veteran skydived as part of a ceremony commemorating WWII paratroopers.
“Jumping is the most fantastic thing in the world,” he told Staten Island Live. “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.’”
Claire Barrett is a digital media editor at HistoryNet and a World War II researcher with an unparalleled affinity for Sir Winston Churchill and Michigan football.