WWII Legend Vince Speranza's Extended Lyrics to the Paratrooper Anthem 'Blood on the Risers'

WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran Vincent Speranza salutes the U.S. flag at the 17th Airborne Division Memorial in Bertogne, Belgium, during a ceremony to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 13, 2015. ((U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)

NORMANDY, France -- For some, the lyrics to "Blood on the Risers" might be a little disconcerting. It's the story of a new paratrooper whose primary and reserve chute fail during a training jump, resulting in a "splat" when he hit the ground, one that made his fellow soldiers say, "What a helluva way to die." The whole song is actually much more poetic, but that's the gist. Its refrain is especially memorable.

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

He ain't gonna jump no more.

WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran Vincent Speranza lets a little girl borrow his garrison cap during celebrations for the 71st anniversary of the battle in Bastogne, Belgium, Dec. 12, 2015. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller)

"It was sung to essentially make people quit, to rethink their selection to be a paratrooper in World War II when the airborne started," Darren Cinatl, president of the nonprofit All Airborne Battalion who served 13 years in the U.S. Army and nine in the Airborne, told Military.com in Normandy during festivities commemorating the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

"This was a new concept and many people were unsure of the safety of it, so the song was a way to tell the dangers paratroopers faced and the pride they had at the same time, in this new system of warfare."

Pride is a bit of an understatement. The song, sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," quickly became the unofficial anthem of the U.S. Army Airborne. But in the years and decades that followed, it became a song for any trooper, from any nation, who jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.

Vince Speranza, a legendary World War II veteran who served as a machine gunner at the Battle of the Bulge, had a particular fondness for the song and would sing it, generating a rousing chorus.

"Vince was extremely charismatic and always well-dressed," said Cinatl, who became close friends with Speranza before his death in 2023. "He was sharp as a tack and known for his trademark cigars and his Red Label scotch. He never claimed to be an entertainer, but he sang and played the harmonica. Vince was routinely sought after to sing and to tell his story. So he would visit various locations to talk about his experience. Inevitably, after a few scotches, [he] would end up singing 'Blood on the Risers.'"

Speranza joined the Army at age 18, intending to become a line infantryman. After seeing an airborne demonstration at Fort Benning, Georgia, however, he joined the paratroopers. He wasn't a Normandy veteran, but was a replacement who landed in France in time to fight in the defense of Bastogne during the 1944-1945 Battle of the Bulge. He always quipped that he was less famous for being a machine gunner, and more famous for his epic beer run.

Vince Speranza during World War II. (U.S. Army)

On the second day of the siege, Speranza's buddy Joe Willis was wounded by shrapnel and sent to an aid station in one of the town's blasted-out churches. When Speranza finally found him, Willis asked his comrade to get him something to drink. Speranza began searching an abandoned tavern and found a working beer tap; the only problem was that he had nothing to carry the beer in. Like most World War II soldiers, he used his helmet as a catch-all, making two trips to the aid station before he was stopped by an angry officer. His beer run was immortalized by a Belgian brewing company, creating Bastogne's Airborne beer, served in ceramic helmets.

"He basically buried the war, became a teacher and taught history," Cinatl said. "He told me the only time he ever talked about the war was when it came to teaching his students about World War II, where he'd bring his equipment in and tell everyone about it. I believe it was around 2012 that he actually came back to Bastogne for the first time. Vince was one hell of a paratrooper and an inspiration to all those in terms of tenacity, grit and truly a storyteller."

After returning to Bastogne, Speranza became heavily invested in honoring veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, whom he believed didn't get enough support. He was a vocal proponent of the idea that the United States is as ready to fight the good fight as it was in the 1940s. So when it came to his favorite song, he added some more lyrics and built a musical bridge to the paratroopers of today. One YouTuber compiled a number of Speranza clips into a single video of the song.

"Vince said the Americans will always be ready to stand up, especially the U.S. Army Airborne," Cinatl recalled. "I think it does more to bring in the current generation and allow them to also experience a little bit of what the original song did, which is to bring a close-knit group of paratroopers in World War II closer together. Now, it's more inclusive, all the way up until the Global War on Terror. And who knows for the future where warfare will take us, but I'm sure there'll be more verses added later down the road."

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