News: WWII veteran revisits regiment in the last frontier
Story by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Smith
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Paratroopers with the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment welcomed one of their own as they celebrated their storied unit’s service and history.
Vincent Speranza, an 88-year-old World War II veteran who fought with the regiment in The Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium, was the unit’s honorary guest for a two-day area of operation tour complete with a head-table seat at this year’s regimental ball. Speranza’s top agenda was visiting paratroopers. The spry 88-year-old reveled in storytelling as paratroopers hung on every word about his tales from the front line.
“Mr. Speranza is a real legacy to the 501st, and he took part in the battle at Bastogne, and the fact that he could come here almost 70 years later and really connect with the guys on a level you don’t see very often is amazing to see,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Carstensen, the 1-501’s headquarters company executive officer. “His connection to the airborne community and the 501st is pretty much unbounded.”
Speranza was a paratrooper assigned to H Company, 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during the siege at Bastogne in December 1944. While there, from the snow covered ground at his fighting position, Speranza engaged in his first firefight against German forces.
Since then, the Army’s units have undergone many changes including transitioning the 101st Airborne Division into a unit specializing in helicopter operations. The 1st Battalion of the 501st moved to Alaska, and it is the last of the regiment still on jump status. The 1-501st is now a part of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
“I didn’t keep up with anything for the first 65 years after the war,” said Speranza. “When I went searching finally in 2009 for my friends, I found out that the 501 was the last of the jumpers, and the 101st Airborne Division had become a helicopter unit.”
“I asked where the 501 was, and they told me they’re in Alaska. So, I wanted to visit Alaska and my old regiment of jumpers, and I’m not sorry I came. They are a fine bunch of people.”
“I have been made proud all over again that when I hear and read about what they [501st] have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have talked in depth with some Vietnam boys,” said Speranza. “The idea that paratroopers are a special breed is true. They are. They are America’s pride, and I think more people should know about it.”
“I want to remind America that our military is the best, and the best of the best are the parachute troops!” Speranza said with a laugh. “Although, I’m a bit prejudice I’m sure.”
The 501st is a proud organization with an extensive history, including being the Army’s first operational airborne unit. The unit’s paratroopers were thrilled to have Speranza join them as they conducted an airborne operation aboard Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk Utility Helicopters at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Speranza donned Army extreme cold-weather gear and boarded the aircraft for a scenic flight and a bird’s-eye view of paratroopers leaping off and descending onto JBER’s Malemute Drop Zone.
Familiar with Alaska because his son lived in Wasilla for more than 20 years, Speranza said he was happy to visit the 49th state again.
“I love Alaska because I was always an outdoorsman. I love to hunt and fish, and Alaska is the last frontier. I love to be out in the woods,” said Speranza. “I went out caribou hunting one time and we were 600 miles from civilization. So, we were out in the woods!”
Speranza made the trip to Alaska from Springfield, Ill., accompanied by his granddaughter, Emilie Yeager.
“He really loves doing this, and he is just super-honored to be here,” Yeager said.
The beautiful Alaskan landscape was just icing on the cake for Speranza, as his real reason for visiting was reconnecting with the unit he went to war with nearly 70 years ago. A gifted story teller, Speranza shared some of his thoughts and experiences.
“When the war started, I wanted to get in the fight badly. I was only a 16-year old kid in high school, and in ’41 when the Japanese attacked, I just couldn’t believe it. How dare they attack the United States, and in a sneak attack like that!”
At 18-years-old, Speranza joined the Army as an Infantryman and was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division at Fort Jackson, S.C. While there, he witnessed his first airborne operation when his unit watched a parachute demonstration.
“They marched us all out into a field, and we sat down and waited, and suddenly three C47s came out of the sky, and the doors opened, and it was this brand new thing we had never even heard of. Men came floating out of those airplanes and onto the ground. They came and lined up in front of us, shiny boots, silver wings, and great looking people. The lieutenant came up and said, ‘This is the United States Parachuting Corps and we’re looking for a few good men. Who wants to volunteer? You have to have had full infantry training, plus advanced infantry training, and advanced weapons.’ Well, we were all of that, but we hesitated ... ‘Throw yourself out of an airplane with a piece of silk hanging there?’... and then he said, ‘There’s 50 dollars a month jump pay.’ All hands went up!”
“They selected a few of us, but I saw it as a quicker way to get into the fight, and that it was! Five-weeks of jump school at Fort Benning and over we went.”
Shortly after the war, Pfc. Speranza completed his enlistment and was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. He went on to lead a successful life, getting married, and finding his lifelong profession as a history teacher.
His legacy, along with all paratroopers who have served in the Army stands as a testament in spirit, pride, and accomplishment for others to emulate.
“I think it’s important to understand where we came from and what those guys started with. They were the best of the best, and that’s what it means to be in an airborne community,” said Capt. Andrew Boyd, the company commander for Alpha Company, 725 Brigade Support Battalion, 4-25 IBCT (ABN).
“Mr. Speranza’s visit has been rich and rewarding for every paratrooper in the battalion. You can see it on their faces,” said Lt. Col. Tobin Magsig, commander of the 1-501st. “After talking with him, they stand straighter and stick their chests out.”
“Every paratrooper is a historian in some form or fashion,” said Magsig. “Who doesn’t idolize those who went before them and paved the way for our airborne forces.”
Speranza plans to do more traveling in the future, including another trip to Belgium to visit that frozen piece of battleground where he fought all those years ago. Also on his bucket list is one more jump, and not a tandem one either. He plans to exit the aircraft on his own!