When watchmaker Praesidus reached out to us about their watches I had to admit I was intrigued. They didn’t just have a watch they wanted us to see, they wanted to tell us a story about the watch and the paratroopers who inspired Praesidus to make them.
Tom Rice was an accomplished athlete at San Diego State living in what was then the small town of Coronado California when World War II broke out. Not waiting to finish his degree and seek a commission as an officer, he enlisted and volunteered to be a paratrooper, a new concept in warfare as yet untested in the US. At age 22, Tom would be sent to Fort Bragg for training and become a “Toccoa Man” at Camp Toccoa of Band of Brothers fame.
As it would happen, Tom would end up in the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. By the time the 501st was ready to jump into Normandy for the invasion, Tom Rice was a platoon Sergeant and was responsible for the lives of 12 other men in a mortar section. On the eve of the invasion, Tom was number three in the door when the green light came on to jump over France.
In an effort to avoid intense flak coming up from the ground the pilots had the C-47 going far in excess of the maximum safe speed to jump of 110 mph, As Tom got to the door as number three, the six bundles full of equipment released from under the wings and the plane suddenly climbed about 50ft just as Tom leaned out to jump. As a result of the fast Windstream and the sudden ascent Tom was ripped out of the door and he caught the sleeve of his left arm on the frame and got hung up. He banged against the side of the aircraft several times and then was free and falling. He was injured by the ordeal and missing from his wrist was his gold and engraved $285 Hamilton wristwatch, his prized possession. Tom was injured in the drop but would fight for 37 days on the ground in France during the invasion. Missing his gold watch very much.
Vince Sperenza was born in Hells Kitchen in Manhatten and grew up on Staten Island. He had three brothers and four sisters. When he turned eighteen he joined the army in 1943(perhaps in the hope of having a bed all to himself?). He was in the 501st PIR of the 101 Airborne Division and dropped into Normandy and managed to survive it. Vince wrote a modest tale of his experiences in WWII called, “Nuts! A 101st Airborne Division Machine Gunner at Bastogne,” and he had quite an eventful war with the 501st PIR, even freeing nazi concentration camp victims. The measure of the man was during the grueling battle for Bastogne during the Ardennes offensive late in the war.
n a battle that broke many men sleeping in frozen foxholes that December of 1944, Vince was the guy who helped hold his platoon together, as the “Funny Guy” in the unit. Always there with a joke and some help. Sperenza became something of a legend in his outfit. When his assistant gunner was taken out by shrapnel to the legs, Sperenza attempted to cheer him up by making a beer run. He scoured the taverns in the small town until he found one open with some beer available but no bottles to put in it. Having nothing but his helmet to carry it in, Speranza brought his guys back a sloshing helmet full of beer. Then he returned to do it again for them. This time he was caught by an officer who ordered him to leave the Off-Limits establishment and return to his unit. The people of Bastogne never forgot him though. To this very day, there are pubs that serve their local “Airborne Beer” in both lager and blond versions. It comes in a signature ceramic mug in the shape of the GI helmet Vince Speranza wore in Bastogne that day in 1944.
That brings us to Praesidus and their watches dedicated to these two paratroopers from WWII. Most of the time, it’s the old watches that come with a history, but in this case, the history is built into these new watches themselves.
Praesidus decided to remake a classic of American watchmaking, the A-2 and A-11 general purpose watches. Wristwatches tended to be pretty expensive items in the 1940s, the cheap ones wouldn’t last you a week. They had mechanical jeweled movements and had to be wound manually. They also could be pretty sloppy about keeping time. A good watch would only be off about 30 seconds a day. The military lives and dies on timetables and soldiers’ pay couldn’t afford a decent timepiece and those who did own a good watch were a bit reluctant to subject it to the beating that a war could give it, especially when they were made to look good and not for durability. Enter Bulova and the A-11 watch, which is not a model name but rather denotes a standard of production.
The A-11 Standard featured a 15 jewel movement, all-metal construction, a white face with black hands, ten-minute demarcations on the face, and the ability to stop the second hand by pulling out the crown. This allowed several watches to all to be synchronized to the same time, also called a “Hack.” This was an important feature in a watch that cost less than $30 to make back then. That’s almost $600 today. It instantly became the standard for both Army Air Corps pilots and Navy Aviators. It wasn’t too long before the A-11 switched to a black dial, white numbers, and white hands that could be read in low light. versions were made that were dustproof and water-resistant, and some came with luminous dials which the Navy specifically requested.
Given that US manufacturing had gone over to war production the A-11 type was made by Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham here in the states in the millions. They even found their way into service with the British, Canadian, and Soviet militaries.
This is the watch Praesidus decided to recreate with some modern touches. It retains the manual winding feature of the original A-11 but includes an automatic movement, the Seiko NH35 type which is one of the most widely used automatic watch movements in the world. If you ever need a part for this movement, it’ll be easy to get.
The case is sandblasted surgical stainless steel rather than the plated brass used in WWII when steel was being carefully rationed. The original A-11 mass-produced for the military wasn’t expected to serve the wearer forever, just to get them through the war hopefully but the Praesidus A-11 recreation in look and feel is obviously made to last a long time.
They also sent over a preproduction model of the Vince Sperenza Editon they launched on Kickstarter, meeting their goal in a single day I hear. This watch features either a Swiss or Seiko movement and comes with two Italian leather bands, one of which is stamped like a. 30 cal machine gun barrel.
These watches feature double domed Sapphire glass that has a slightly blue tint depending on how the light catches it, it’s pretty cool. As you can see in the photo below they come in 38mm and 42mm sizes.
They come in an elegantly simple cardboard presentation box with a slide-over cover that reminds you of the very basic packaging the original would have come in. Inside the watch is nicely affixed to the box but easy to remove. There are also a couple of small paper envelopes that included a fold-out instruction sheet and an extra leather band for the Tom Rice Edition we received or extra the machine gun barrel stamped band for the Vince Speranza edition. The bands feature quick-release band pins that make swapping the straps a piece of cake.
The presentation case makes for a nice gift.
A nice little extra is a miniature dog tag with a QR code that your cell phone camera can scan to take you to their website to register your watch for the standard two-year warranty.
Winding and setting the watch is a snap, and the movement of the crown feels smooth and sturdy. Even though this watch models a utilitarian timepiece meant for the military the Praesidus recreations have a high-quality look and feel to the bands, case, and hardware. They didn’t go cheap on any of it. The best way to say it I guess is that these are watches that look like you paid a decent amount to get good quality without spending ridiculous money on something you’d be afraid to mow the lawn wearing.
It is also admirable that Praesidus didn’t let their brand image take over the product. They didn’t slap their name on the face of the watch spoiling its authentic look and feel as a timepiece from WWII.
We invite you to go check out Praesidus and these recreations of the A-11 and let us know what you think in the comments below. If you end up getting one, let us know if you like wearing their historic recreation of the Watch That Won The War as much as we do.