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HISTORY OF THE 501(PIR)

 


 

When the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, on 15 November 1942, it began life with a rich airborne heritage. The famous test platoon, the prime ancestor of all American Parachute Units, provided the nucleus of the 501st Parachute Battalion, which in turn provided part of the cadre, the unit number, the genealogical lineage and the heraldic background of the 501st Parachute Regiment. Its' initial group of officers were hand picked by its first commander, Colonel Howard Johnson, known by his peers as "Skeets". He was very much in the swashbuckling mold of most of the original parachute regimental commanders, of whom the popular saying was, "To command a parachute unit, you don't have to be nuts, but it helps!"

An Annapolis graduate, who had boxed while a midshipman, Johnson had transferred to the Army on graduation and had most recently been at the tank destroyer center before volunteering for parachute duty. To say that he took to parachuting is a gross understatement; he ate, slept, and breathed it, and jumped whenever he possibly could, often jumping many times in a single day. His nickname among his men became "Jumpy Johnson". He was a zealot on physical conditioning, for himself and everyone in his regiment, and personally led calisthenics, running and all other physical activities. He set a record for running up Currahee Mountain (which loomed over Camp Toccoa) and challenged anyone in the regiment to beat his time. A heavy punching bag hung outside his quarters, and when not punching that, Johnson could often be seen throwing his huge knife at hanging plywood replicas of Hitler and Hirohito. Johnson was no less attentive to the mental conditioning of his new men, ensuring their mental toughness and imbuing them with his own intense dedication to fighting and to defeating our enemies, truly, Johnson created a regiment in his own image.

All members of the regiment were parachute volunteers, but only a minor fraction were actually qualified jumpers during training at Camp Toccoa. So, when that very arduous training was over, in March 1943, the unit moved to Ft.. Benning, GA to jump train all members not previously qualified.

With jump training over, the regiment was assigned to the Airborne Command at Camp MacKall, NC. This was its' homebase during prolonged maneuvers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, and until January 1944, when the regiment deployed to England, by way of Camp Myles Standish, MA. Once in England the 501st became a permanent attachment of the 101st Airborne Division and was a vital part of that famous unit for the duration of World War II.

In England, training was as hard and realistic as ever, and became increasingly oriented toward an airborne assault into German held Europe. Though none of us knew it initially, the regiment was actually training for Operation Overlord, the super-secret allied plan for the combined air, naval, amphibious, and airborne operations to breach  Hitler's "Atlantic Wall". As D-Day drew closer, a few key commanders and staff were briefed on the part the 101st would play in Operation Overlord.

Then, with D-Day just days away, the 501st, with the rest of the division, was sequestered in well guarded marshaling camps, where every man finally learned not only his own mission, but the overall mission of the 501st, and the 101st Airborne Division (These very extensive and intensive briefings were to pay big dividends during actual operations). In a nutshell, the 501st (less 3rd Battalion) was to take off from Merryfield Airport at 2245hrs, 5 June 1944, 3rd Battalion was to depart at the same time from Welford. All units were to fly across the English Channel and drop into Normandy, five hours prior to the seaborne landing. The 501st drop zones were north and east of the town of the town of Carentan. Two battalions were to seize key canal locks at La Barquette and destroy the bridges over the Douve River, while the third battalion was in division reserve.

The many books written on the night drop into Normandy, all point out the break-up of the troop carrier formations, from a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire. This caused highly scattered drops, in most cases not on or near planned drop zones. Accordingly, actions that night bore little resemblance to those so carefully planned and briefed. Amazingly, the regiment (and the division) accomplished its multiple missions, but none of them as rehearsed.

The successes were the result of the initiative, stamina, and daring of the individual parachutists, who each assessed his own situation on landing, and decided how best to accomplish some part of the overall mission- recalled from his detailed briefings. Typical was the capture of a key causeway from Utah Beach, at Poupeville, by a scratch force of about 100 officers and men, formed around a nucleus from the third battalion (division reserve) of the 501st. Members of this ad hoc force included both General Maxwell Taylor and Assistant Division Commander Gerald Higgins. General Taylor quipped that, "Never were so few led by so many".

Fierce fighting in Normandy by no means ended with D-Day, but continued with important results in assisting the amphibious landings and joining the beach at Utah to that at Omaha. The gallant efforts of the 501st were at high cost; the regiment lost 898 men killed, wounded, and missing or captured.

Returning to its base in England, in mid-July, the 501st slowly regained its' pre D-Day capabilities with many replacements and another round of intensive training. There was good news of a Presidential Citation for actions in Normandy, and many planned assaults into France, which aborted as the allies overran planned objectives. Then, in the early fall of 1944, plans were made for what was not a "dry run", the airborne assault into occupied Holland.

Code named "Market Garden", it combined a deep airborne thrust, through western Holland, by the 1st Allied Airborne Army, with an overland drive by the British 2nd Army. The plan visualized airborne forces seizing key bridges over rivers and canals, so 2nd Army could move very deep, very fast, a distance over 100 miles, past the Rhine River, the last major water obstacle short of Berlin. This airborne assault would be made in daylight. The 101st Airborne Division was assigned the southernmost bridges at Eindhoven, Zon, St.. Oedenrode and Vechel, with the 501st assigned the Vechel Bridges.

The airborne assault went as scheduled, on 17 September 1944, with a much improved performance by troop carrier units. Most drop zones were hit, with good drop patterns. 1st Battalion, 501st, however, was dropped some 5 miles east of its planned drop zone. In spite of this, the four bridges in Vechel were captured intact. Then began the really difficult part of the operation, keeping open the highway over which 2nd Army must pass to reach the 1st British Airborne Division, which was fighting for its life at the northern end of the airborne corridor. The fatal flaw in the plan became more evident each day as the forces proved too few, to both keep open the key highway and also fight on to a linkup with the 1st British Airborne, across the Rhine. The 1st British Airborne Division paid the full price for this flaw as they went down fighting against overwhelming odds; less than two thousand men escaped death or capture.

The 501st, with the rest of the division, moved from initial objective areas to positions on "the island" between the Waal and Rhine Rivers; it became clear that we would not be withdrawn from Holland after a few days, as we had been told; our combat skills were too much needed by the British. The prolonged fighting on "the island" was anything but the way to use an airborne unit. After the initial hard fighting it became a static war of patrolling and attrition, principally by artillery and mortars. One such mortar attack, near Heteren, on 08 October 1944, fatally wounded Colonel Johnson. As he was being evacuated, his last words to LTC Ewell were, "Take care of my boys". Colonel Johnson was our best known loss, but with him we lost 661 other fine soldiers. LTC Ewell, a taciturn West Pointer, succeeded Colonel Johnson. Much less an extrovert than Johnson, he more than made up for any lack of "flash and dash" with a keen mind, tactical prescience and all around professional competence.

After 72 days of combat in Holland the division returned to a new staging area, in Mourmelon, France, for what everyone thought would be a long, well deserved rest. Accordingly, many men were on leave or pass, the Division Commander was in the United States, the Assistant Division Commander was in England (leaving the Artillery Commander, General McAuliffe, in command), and there still were major shortages of equipment and supplies, not replaced after Holland.

To put it mildly, the division was ill prepared for the word we got in the late evening of December 17th. The Germans had launched a major offensive at dawn on 16 December, through the Ardennes, in the lightly held sector of our VII Corps. At that time Shaef's Reserve consisted of our division and the 82nd. We were ordered to move "truckborne" to Bastogne, the hub town of a major radial road net, to stem the oncoming Germans. General McAuliffe ordered the move by regimental combat teams, without waiting for any absentees. The 501st was the lead combat team in the division move, and after a grueling truck ride, reached Bastogne about 2230hrs. Thus, by midnight, the 501st was the first and only regimental combat team ready for action. Ewell asked McAuliffe for a definite assignment and was ordered  to move out on the eastern road, through Longvilly and seize and hold a key road junction beyond Longvilly. Thus, the 501st was the first to fight at Bastogne, when its first battalion ran into the enemy near Neffe, a few kilometers out of Bastogne.

Thus began the heroic defense of Bastogne in which the 501st gave up not one foot of ground, and in which the division, and its comrades in arms, stopped cold everything the Germans could throw at us, ruined Hitler's offensive time table and eventually won for the 101st, the first Presidential Unit Citation ever awarded to a full division.

Once again, the 501st paid a dear price of 580 killed, wounded or captured. One casualty was Colonel Ewell, who was badly wounded and relinquished command to LTC Robert Ballard, who had commanded 2nd Battalion from the beginning . Bob Ballard was a quiet, Floridian, who was not a professional soldier like Johnson or Ewell, but a fine officer who had learned how to command quietly and effectively while winning the admiration and respect of his men.  Ballard continued in command of the 501st until the end of World War II.

Operations after Bastogne would have been anti-climactic under almost any circumstances, and the light skirmishing in Alsace, and the drive into Germany's last redoubt, in Bavaria, truly seemed like a cakewalk. The living in Germany after V-day was good indeed, but rudely interrupted by orders to move back to billets in Joigny and Auxerre, France. (And P.S., don't try to take any of those captured cars or loot with you!!)

Once in France we tried to get enthused about training for an invasion of Japan, but quite honestly, our hearts were not in it; we felt we had done our share, and that Japan should be finished off by someone else, on 20 August 1945, the 501st was disbanded, ahead of the inactivation of the 101st Airborne Division in November 1945.

The 501st was reconstituted 01 August 1946 as the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion, at Fort Benning, GA., but was inactivated at Fort Benning, 23 November 1948. Then, between 1951 and 1956 the 501st served with the 101st as a regular army training unit on two occasions, once at Camp Breckinridge, KY, where they were activated as a provisional organization to test the "Pentomic" concept. The word pentomic referred to the five battle groups which were in lieu of regiments and to the division's organic atomic weapon capability. One of the five battle groups was the First Airborne Battle Group, 501st Infantry. Its' first commander was COL Harry Kinnard, who had been a member of the WWII regiment and also G-3 of the division from Holland on. As to matters of lineage, on 25 April 1957, the 501st Regiment ceased to exist as a tactical unit and was redesignated as the 501st Infantry, a parent regiment under the combat arms regimental system. Simultaneously, on the same date, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry was reorganized and redesignated as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 501st Infantry, and remained assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (organic elements were concurrently constituted and activated).

Believe it or not, one element of the 501st actually served with the 82nd Airborne Division when the 82nd reconfigured in the pentomic format. On 01 September 1957, the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry was reorganized and redesignated as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Airborne Battle Group, 501st Infantry as an organic element of the 82nd Airborne Division, and activated at Ft. Bragg, NC (concurrently, organic elements constituted and activated at Ft. Bragg).

When the pentomic concept gave way to the road division, (with brigades and battalions instead of battle groups), the 2nd Airborne Battle Group, 501sr Infantry became the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry. On 01 February 1964, it was relieved from assignment to the 82nd and assigned to the 101st at Ft. Campbell, KY. The 101st was also becoming a road type airborne division, and the 1st Airborne Battle Group, 501st Infantry became the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, of the 101st.

Thus, when the 101st fought again, in south Vietnam, it included the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 501st. The division participated in twelve campaigns and was decorated by the Republic of Vietnam on three occasions. The 2nd Battalion, 501st, while attached to the 3rd Brigade, 101st, received a Presidential Unit Citation for heroic actions of all elements of that brigade, in the bloody fight at Hill #937, in the Ashau Valley. The news media called it "Hamburger Hill", but the battle streamer is embroidered: Dong Ap Bia Mountain. (Because the 501st Regiment automatically shared this honor with the 2nd Battalion, it became one of very few army regiments able to display three Presidential Unit Citation streamers on its colors). In all this unusual and difficult combat, both 501st units acquitted themselves as bravely as their predecessors had in WWII.

As part of the post Vietnam reorganization, the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry was inactivated on 31 July 1972, and in the restructuring to the U.S. Army regimental system, the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry was inactivated at Ft. Campbell on 05 June 1984. Then, in October 1989 the 501st Regiment was reorganized under the U.S. Army regimental system with Headquarters at Ft. Richardson, Alaska. Simultaneously, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry was assigned to the 6th Infantry Division and activated at Ft. Richardson. There it remains as the sole active part of the 501st, but what a worthy representative it is. Wonderfully well trained in both airborne and arctic operations, it is the fire brigade for that theater and the only Arctic Airborne Battalion in the U.S. Army.

Whenever and wherever all or part of the "Geronimo" 501st may again be called to take up the tomahawk- Let the enemy beware!!!

This unit history was provided to 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, currently stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska, by their Honorary Regimental Colonel, LTG (Ret) Harry W. O. Kinnard.
Submitted by CSM Michael Kelso and CPT Todd Lowell
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Copyright 1997 Patrick O'Donnell