JBER paratroopers welcome special visitor
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 honored guest for a two-day area of operation tour complete with a head-table seat at this year’s regimental ball two weeks ago.
Speranza’s top agenda was visiting paratroopers, he said. 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 Army 1st Lt. Matthew Carstensen, the 1-501st Infantry’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 Infantry Regiment moved to Alaska, and it is the last of the regiment still on jump status. The 1-501st Infantry 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,” Speranza said. “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,” he said. “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 ... when I hear and read about what they have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have talked in depth with some Vietnam boys,” Speranza said. “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 prejudiced I’m sure.”
The 501st Infantry is a proud organization with an extensive history, including being the Army’s first operational airborne unit. The unit’s paratroopers said they 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,” he said. “I love to hunt and fish, and Alaska is the last frontier. I love to be out in the woods. 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.