Saturday, December 22, 2012
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A soldier's World War II Christmas story

By Dr. Mark DePue, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

The following is drawn from an oral history account of Vince Speranza, a resident of Auburn.

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[December 22, 2012] Pvt. Vince Speranza was taking a breather from his training with the 87th Infantry Division in late 1943 when his life changed.

He and his fellow grunts were ordered to take their seats on a grassy bank for a demonstration.

"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 offensive failed.

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 daughter, Ann-Marie.

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 chocolate ration.

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.

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After the Battle of the Bulge, the cruel imperatives of combat and the struggle to survive pushed the meager Christmas gifts out of his mind.

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 further away.

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 Vincent."

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 library's website:

[Text from Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum file received from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency]

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