Local legends of the "greatest generation"

Three World War II veterans who departed this year


Veterans Day has always held a special meaning for me, having served 25 years in the U.S. Army, and another 16 years interviewing scores of veterans while working as the oral historian for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. This Veterans Day is especially poignant, however, for in the past few months three members of America's "greatest generation," men I was honored to interview during the autumn of their lives, have passed away.

The legendary Vincent Speranza was the first to go, dying on Aug. 2 at age 98. He grew up in Staten Island and served with the 101st Airborne Division during its heroic defense of Bastogne while the Battle of the Bulge swirled around the besieged paratroopers. Sixty-five years later, in 2009, Vince returned to Bastogne, discovering that, unknown to him, he had been memorialized by a Belgium brewery. This was because of a wartime exploit where he delivered beer in his helmet to a wounded comrade who lay in a bombed-out church while recovering from an injury. After a tour of the battlefield, Vince's guide bought him a bottle of Airborne Beer, to be drunk from a ceramic mug fashioned after a helmet. Vince shot to fame throughout northern Europe after that trip, and it wasn't long before he was feted in places like West Point, the Pentagon and especially at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Division today.

Ninety-seven-year-old Frank Moscardelli, Springfield born and bred, was the next to pass away just five days later, on Aug. 7. He joined the Army in 1943 and following basic training was assigned to the 89th Division. The unit soon shipped overseas and joined Patton's Third Army in time to cross the Moselle and Rhine rivers before pushing on toward the center of Germany. Moscardelli returned to Springfield after the war and in 1948 helped establish Moscardelli and Son Delivery Service. A year later he co-founded Pleasant Nursery, staying active in that business well into his nineties.

On Oct. 18 Gerald Raschke passed away peacefully at 99, telling friends and relatives he was ready for the next journey. Omaha, Nebraska, native Jerry was drafted just days after high school graduation and served in the Army Air Force, drawing one of the most dangerous assignments going, tail gunner on a twin-engine B-26 bomber. He flew 61 missions over Italy, southern France and Germany, and survived without a scratch, but with plenty of close calls to go along with a bevy of medals. Twenty-six years after the war, in 1971, he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and spent his last years serving the congregation at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Springfield.

The funerals for these three men, local legends all, were every bit as memorable as were their remarkable lives.

Vince Speranza's visitation in Auburn was a simple affair, but unique for those who attended. A phalanx of paratroopers stood guard at the entry of the funeral home, and inside, next to the open casket, proudly stood a 101st Division Honor Guard. And illustrating the special bond Vince had forged with the 101st over the years, the division commander was also on hand, along with a small cluster of other paratroopers who, to a man, were proud to proclaim their connection with Vince. For his burial next day, the 101st also provided a firing squad, a bugler and a platoon of paratroopers who finished the service with a rendition of "Blood on the Risers," a ballad Vince sang countless times in Europe and America, always amid an adoring group of soldiers.

Frank Moscardelli's visitation at Staab Funeral Home was equally memorable. Those who waited in line enjoyed viewing scores of photos of Frank and his family, shown on screens throughout the home, all while conversation filled the air. The line of those waiting to offer condolences stretched around the perimeter of the viewing room, then across the hall before wrapping its way through two more rooms. It was a fitting tribute to a man who touched countless lives.

Jerry Raschke's funeral was one befitting a deacon of the church, and was also well attended, celebrated in the beautifully ornate sanctuary St. Paul's Cathedral. The bishop officiated and was ably assisted by several other clergy. Jerry loved the church, but he especially loved its members and cheerfully devoted his life to their service as deacon. That day, however, was the time for those he served to pay their respects and show their appreciation for a life well lived.

It's far too easy for us in our comfortable lives today to take for granted the world these three men helped create for us, to forget the sacrifices that they and millions more men and women like them made. That is what Veterans Day is about – to remember our veterans and give thanks for what they did on our behalf.

Thankfully, their stories of wartime service are now preserved for posterity, and can be found at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.

Mark DePue graduated from West Point in 1976 and spent the next five years in the U.S. Army, retiring in April 2001 from the Illinois Army National Guard, where he worked full time. He earned a Ph.D. in Contemporary U.S. and Military History from the University of Iowa in 2004, and from 2006 to the end of 2021 he worked at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum as the oral historian, where he interviewed over 150 war veterans, scores of Illinois retired politicians and many more.

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