"All of a sudden, three C-47s come zooming over the sky, and when
they get out where we can see them, the doors open and parachute
after parachute," Speranza said. "Here these guys come vrooming on
down. ... Brilliant, shining boots, silver wings, pants bloused into
those jump boots, and, oh, those jaunty caps."
Soon, an officer stood in front of the men from the 87th. "We're
taking recruits for the parachute troops," he explained "We're
looking for a few good men. And there's $50 extra a month jump pay."
For Vince, that was the clincher -- a chance to fight with the
best, and extra pay to boot.
Speranza arrived in Europe too late to jump into Normandy and
also missed Operation Market Garden. He got to France in November
1944 and was assigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part
of the fabled 101st Airborne Division, just in time for the Battle
of the Bulge. On Dec. 17, General Eisenhower sent them to Belgium
and the important crossroad town of Bastogne, hopefully to blunt the
massive German offensive.
By Dec. 20 the Screaming Eagles had been cut off by rapidly
advancing Panzer units. There they stayed, outnumbered and outgunned
by seven enemy divisions, resisting repeated and deadly attacks.
They held out against all odds. Because they did, the German
Speranza was only 19 at the time, but combat has a way of aging a
man very quickly. He was also wiry and fleet of foot, so his
commander often sent him into the ruins of Bastogne to carry
messages to headquarters.
On one of those trips, he saw a destitute family huddled on the
sidewalk outside their bombed-out home, tears streaming down one
man's face. Speranza discovered the man was a Dr. Govaerts, and with
him were his wife, another couple and the doctor's 12-year-old
Speranza knew he couldn't leave them there -- Bastogne was still
under artillery attack. He convinced them to move into the cellar
and helped move debris around to create a makeshift shelter. He gave
each man a cigarette and to Ann-Marie a D bar, the soldier's prized
He returned when he could over the next few days, bringing them
K-rations, a can of beans and some carrots he had scrounged.
On Christmas he came bearing gifts, such as they were. For the
men, he had two packets of cigarettes wrapped in yellow parachute
cloth. The ladies received beaded bracelets he had rummaged out of a
bombed-out store, and Ann-Marie got a coloring book and crayons. It
seemed like such a little thing at the time, but he knew he had to
do something for them.
[to top of second column]
After the Battle of the Bulge, the cruel imperatives of combat
and the struggle to survive pushed the meager Christmas gifts out of
Speranza finished the war near Berchtesgaden, the site of Adolf
Hitler's favorite retreat, the Eagle's Nest. After the war, he
returned to his home on Staten Island, N.Y., where he became a history
teacher, making a point of teaching his students about the war. And
with each passing year, his memories of the Govaerts family slipped
He returned to Bastogne in December 2011 and was speaking to a
group of visitors at the town's museum when a man approached him.
"Are you Vincent?" the man asked.
"Yes," Vince replied.
"Are you Vincent who was here in Bastogne during the war?" he
asked again, tears filling up his eyes. "I'm Dr. Govaerts," he said.
And with that, the two men embraced.
The man, Vince discovered, was the son of the Govaerts couple he
had helped some 67 years earlier.
"Before (Dad) died," explained the son, "he gave me a blue bag.
'You must find Vincent and thank him.'"
Then he dug into the bag and handed Vince a piece of yellow
parachute cloth. Written on it were the words "Merry Christmas, from
Speranza was overcome with emotion. The memory of that destitute
family and his Christmas gift was restored. The circle was complete.
Vince Speranza now calls Auburn, Ill., his home.
Mark DePue is the director of oral history at the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library. You can listen to Speranza's entire story, and
those of many other veterans, at the oral history section of the
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
file received from the