The Original Battalion

by John Cole

I was a second lieutenant stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas in the Ninth Infantry Regiment attending the weapons course at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia when I was selected to join the Original Parachute Battalion, the 501. We graduated on Friday the thirteenth, 1940 and reported immediately to the Battalion. There were a number of us in the class selected to join at that time mostly second lieutenants in the Army Reserve. I'm of the opinion I was selected because I had just been kicked out of the Army Air Corps flying cadet program and had been grounded for a post traffic violation. Others, of course, felt they were selected for their outstanding records.
Members of the 501 PB at Fort Benning, Georgia 1941.

I was assigned to C Company under Captain Bill Yarbrough. This was the greatest challenge I had yet been given; coming off of a farm in southeastern South Dakota in the teeth of the Great Depression with two years of small town teaching as my limited experience. I had entered the service as a Thomason Act Officer in July of 1939 at Fort Snelling. Due to the Nazi Poland invasion in September of 1939, our program changed from an academic challenge to a normal tour of active duty. While on maneuvers in South Carolina, I applied for flying cadet status and was excepted. In April of 1940 I was sent to Love Field, Dallas Texas. In July I was kicked out of the Air Corps and sent home. In August, I was called back on active duty and sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. From there to Infantry School and the Original Parachute Battalion.

Wearing T-4 parachutes with the early square-type reserve parachutes, members of the 501 PB prepare for a pre-jump inspection.

I mention this background experience to show the limited training I had had and what a great challenge this was for me. It would have been great to have served and trained there at Fort Benning and developed an expertise in parachute tactics and training. This was not to be. We were sent as the lead unit to Panama in July of 1941 to be a part of a task force to defend the Canal. The classified nature of our mission was to be able to assist the dictator of any of the surrounding countries who were invaded by the Nazis. There were strong German populations in these countries and our government felt a takeover was possible.

Airborne post card purchased by John Cole in 1941.

The plan of operation was this: The country's government would ask us to assist them. We would immediately jump on to the airport, secure it and we would be followed by the 550 Airborne Battalion (Airborne then meant ride in airplane) together we would secure the government with the expectation of the Navy and Marines coming in four or five days later.

I was given Venezuela along with Captain Simpson of the 550th. We flew into Caracas, Venezuela in September of 1941 and made a complete reconnaissance of the country and made our report and recommendations. Other plans were developed by other Officers of both battalions and we began preparations for possible use in the event of implementation.

(L to R)  Captain Yarborough dressed in a pre-M1941 jump suit (note the buttons on the pockets).  John Cole is wearing the early "balloon suit" jump coveralls.  John is also wearing the early jump boots that had straps over the ankles.  Both men are wearing the A-9 pilot's cap. John Cole prior to his 4th jump in Panama.

The rest of the Battalion arrived in Panama in September of 1941 and we continued our preparations for our possible commitment. December 7th came along and our mission immediately changed to direct defense of the canal. This consisted of beach duty, airport protection since we established airfields in the Republic of Panama these airports had to be protected. Our small Battalion became scattered throughout this defense area. Lt. Mel Zais said his platoon was later replaced by a whole National Guard Regiment.

"A Band of Brothers"   John Cole and his brothers Vic and Nester at Fort Kobe, Panama March, 1942

This all ended when the War Department directed that the Original 501st parachute battalion lose our unit designation colors and identity and then became replacements for the second Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Regiment. We were then placed aboard a Dutch ship, the Paule Laut, and sent to Australia.


Written: by John Cole