VINCENT SPERANZA March 23, 1925-Aug. 2, 2023

A footlocker full of WWII memories

When it comes to memorable people in my life, Vince Speranza ranks in the top tier. He was born into a large Italian American family in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan and grew up on Staten Island. During World War II Vince was eager to do his part and enlisted in 1943. After completing basic infantry training, he transferred to the paratroopers. Vince arrived in Europe and joined the 101st Airborne Division just in time for the unit to be trucked into Bastogne. The town was soon surrounded by several German divisions. What Vince did during the Battle of the Bulge became the stuff of legend, not so much because of any heroic exploits at the front, although he quickly proved he was worthy to serve in that elite fighting force. Rather, Vince shot to fame in 2009, 65 years after the battle, when he made his first trip back to Bastogne. A museum curator in Bastogne discovered that Vince was the paratrooper who delivered beer in his helmet to a wounded buddy who lay on the floor in a bombed-out church in the center of town. Unbeknownst to Vince, a Belgium brewery had commemorated that event with a unique brand, Airborne Beer, to be drunk from a ceramic mug in the shape of a helmet. The label portrayed a paratrooper gleefully carrying a helmet full of beer. That 2009 encounter changed Vince's life. "I was an old man sitting around, waiting to die," he later said, but "with this one trip, I'm willing to stay around. I'm having a ball."

Every year after that Vince traveled to Bastogne to help commemorate the battle, and soon added trips to Normandy for D-Day remembrances and to Holland for Market Garden (A Bridge Too Far) events. He became a living embodiment of some of the most decisive events of the war. Wherever he went, Vince enthralled audiences with his captivating stories, then entertained them with song, dance, jokes and sometimes even with his harmonica. Inevitably, Vince became the center of attention. In addition to multiple trips to Europe every year, he also traveled to England, Italy and to countless locations in America, including Pearl Harbor, California, the Pentagon, West Point and repeated trips to Ft. Campell, Kentucky, home of the 101st today. To say that Vince forged a special bond with paratroopers everywhere, and especially with the Screaming Eagles, would be an understatement. He adored them, and they gladly reciprocated.

Vince possessed a phenomenal memory, a memory filled with song lyrics in multiple languages and an expansive catalogue of stories, all delivered with an unmatched zest for life. He coupled these gifts with an old-school sense of honor and was also generous to a fault, typically insisting on picking up a dinner tab and refusing to let anyone pay for his travel.

I once asked Vince at one of his annual birthday bashes, "Vince, what's the secret for a long life?"

"Scotch and a good cigar," was his droll reply. He could just as accurately have recommended that we exercise every day – his daily routine included an early morning swim in his indoor pool – and to find a good woman and love her for the rest of your life. He met the love of his life, the nurse Iva Leftwich, while getting a routine health checkup following the war. He and Iva were soon blessed with three children. He taught American history on Staten Island, imbuing his students with a deep respect for their legacy as Americans, often while regaling them with stories. When he covered the Second World War, he explained that conflict with the aid of a footlocker stuffed with wartime souvenirs. One of his students went on to command the 82nd Airborne Division, proof that Vince didn't just teach his students, he inspired them to strive for excellence.

Every summer the family traveled to their beloved summer cottage situated on a crystal-clear lake in Vermont. More memories were formed there, at the place where his three children "shaped their lives." Sadly, in 2007, while Vince and Iva lived in Auburn, to be close to their daughter Kathy, Iva was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a cruel disease that stole her memories. But every day Vince faithfully visited her in the nursing home and serenaded her with old familiar songs, songs that unlocked precious memories of the life they shared together.

Vince passed away on Aug. 2, surrounded by his family. It is doubtful we'll see the likes of Vince again, especially since so many of the Greatest Generation are now passing from this earth. But before he left this world for the next, Vince left us with a treasure trove of memories, and an example of an exemplary life toward which we all should strive. Well done, Vince. Rest in peace.

Mark DePue is the former director of oral history at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Oral history interviews with Vincent Speranza are available at

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for almost 50 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Your support will help cover the costs of editorial content published each week. Without local news organizations, we would be less informed about the issues that affect our community..

Click here to show your support for community journalism.

Got something to say?

Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

Comments (0)
Add a Comment