3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment
On 15 January 2006, as part of the Army's transformation towards a modular force the 3-504th Infantry was inactivated. Its personnel were reflagged as 1-508th Infantry, and assigned to the Division's newly activated 4th Brigade in June 2006.
As early as 1784, Benjamin Franklin foresaw the potential of parachutists in combat. Though the concept of soldiers descending upon the enemy from above would not become a reality for another 150 years, the half century since the introduction of the paratrooper has seen soldiers of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, Japanese soldiers in the Pacific, communist infantry in Korea, Cuban "advisers" in Grenada, General Manuel Noriega in Panama and General Cedras in Haiti all fall prey to the "vertical envelopment" of the American paratrooper.
The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was one of the 3 infantry regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division and had served as such for more than 50 years. When the 82nd Airborne Division reorganized under the Army's new modular force structure in 2006, the pre-existing 3 Brigade Combat Teams retained their status as the headquarters of their parent regiments, but were expanded to include additional units.
The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated on 1 May 1942 at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Later that same year, the United States War Department announced plans to form an Airborne Division. The 82nd Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Omar Bradley, was selected as the first American Division to wear the Airborne tab and include the term "Airborne" in its official unit designation. Subsequently, the 504th Parachute Infantry became the first Parachute Infantry Regiment in the newly designated 82nd Airborne Division. Relative to other units in the Army, however, the 504th was quite young. Nevertheless, few units were more highly decorated or have a prouder heritage than "The Devils in Baggy Pants" of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
On 29 April 1943, the 504th boarded the troop ship "George Washington" to steam to North Africa and its first overseas port of call, Casablanca. Upon arrival, the troopers marched 8 miles south of the city where they established a cantonment area consisting of a few stone huts and a tent city. Soon, the Regiment was moved by "40 and 8's" northward to Oujda, Algeria. The "40 and 8's" were railroad cars dating from the First World War, so called because they were designed to carry 40 men or 8 horses.
Training intensified and Generals Eisenhower, Clark, and Patton, along with the Sultan of Morocco and officials of every Allied nation watched the 504th go through its paces. Training included many practice jumps, and one conducted in winds of up to 30 miles-per-hour put nearly 30 percent of the unit in the hospital with broken bones, sprains and bruises. Finally, the order came and the Regiment moved by truck to Kairouan, Tunisia, which was to be the 82nd Airborne Division's point of departure for the invasion of Sicily.
Attached to the 505th PIR, the 3rd Battalion of the 504th PIR helped spearhead the airborne invasion of Sicily. The 504th paratroopers crossed over the Sicilian coast on schedule and jumped on their assigned drop zone on 9 July 1943, an event which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill termed, "not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning." For 2 days, 3rd Battalion's troopers fought an enemy superior in numbers and equipment. By D+3, they had accomplished their initial mission and were relieved by the 1st Infantry Division to return to regimental control.
Colonel Tucker's plane, after twice flying the length of the Sicilian coast and with well over 2,000 holes in its fuselage, finally reached the drop zone near Gela. By morning, only 400 of the Regiment's 1600 soldiers had reached the objective area. The others had been dropped in isolated groups on all parts of the island and carried out demolitions, cut lines of communication, established island roadblocks, ambushed German and Italian motorized columns, and caused so much confusion over such an extensive area that initial German radio reports estimated the number of American parachutists dropped to be over 10 times the actual number.
With the return of 3rd Battalion on 13 July 1943, the 504th Infantry moved out in the attack, spearheading the 82nd Airborne Division's drive northwest 150 miles along the southern coast of Sicily. With captured Italian light tanks, trucks, motorcycles, horses, mules, bicycles, and even wheelbarrows pressed into service, the 82nd encountered only light resistance and took 22,000 prisoners in their first contact with Nazi and Fascist forces. Overall, the Sicilian operation proved costly both in lives and equipment, but the unit gained valuable fighting experience and managed to hurt the enemy in the process. It was with this experience and pride that the 504th returned to its base in Kairouan, Tunisia, to prepare for the invasion of mainland Italy.
Back in North Africa, replacements arrived, training resumed, and 3rd Battalion was again detached, this time to Bizerte for special beach assault training with the 325th Glider Infantry and the Rangers. Finally, in early September, the 3rd Battalion rejoined the 325th and the Rangers, boarded landing craft, and set out to sea. The men knew they were going to Italy, but little else. Troopers from H Company, with a group of Rangers, made the initial landing on 9 September 1943 on the Italian coast at Maiori. They quickly advanced inland to seize the Chiunzi Pass and a vital railroad tunnel.
On 11 September 1943, the 3rd Battalion Headquarters and G and I Companies, along with the remainder of the 325th Combat Team, swerved south and landed on bloody Salerno beach. The military situation deteriorated with each passing hour as German tanks and infantry forces tried to push the unit back into the sea. The 3rd Battalion troopers dug in and held on.
On standby at airfields in Sicily, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 504th were alerted, issued chutes, and loaded on aircraft without knowledge of their destination. Receiving their briefing aboard the plane, the men were told that the Fifth Army beachhead was in danger and they were needed to jump in behind friendly lines.
The days that followed were, in the words of General Mark Clark, Commander of the 5th Army, "responsible for saving the Salerno beachhead." As the 504th (minus 3rd Battalion) took the high ground at Altavilla, the enemy counterattacked and the Commander of 6th Corps, General Dawley, suggested the unit withdraw. Epitomizing the determined spirit of the Regiment, Colonel Tucker vehemently replied, "Retreat, Hell! -- Send me my other battalion!" The 3rd Battalion then rejoined the 504th, the enemy was repulsed, and the Salerno beachhead was saved.
The operation secured the flanks of the Fifth Army, allowing it to break out of the coastal plain and drive on to Naples. On 1 October 1943, the 504th became the first infantry unit to enter Naples, which it subsequently garrisoned. The operation was not only a success, but it also stands as one of history's greatest examples of the mobility of the airborne unit: within only 8 hours of notification, the 504th developed and disseminated its tactical plan, prepared for combat, loaded aircraft and jumped onto its assigned drop zone to engage the enemy and turn the tide of battle.
During the next several months in Central Italy, the 504th fought in difficult terrain against a determined enemy. On steep, barren slopes, the Regiment assaulted one hill after another. Mule trains aided in the evacuation of wounded to some extent, but casualties were often carried for hours down the steep hillsides just to reach the road.
Finally, the Regiment was pulled back to Naples on 4 January 1944 as rumors of another parachute mission spread. The operation was to be called "Shingle," and it involved an airborne assault into a sector behind the coastal town of Anzio, 28 miles south of Rome. It seemed, however, that even the locals in Naples knew of the operation, so the 504th was glad that the beach would be assaulted from troop-carrying landing craft.
The landing on Red Beach went smoothly, at least until enemy planes started their strafing runs on the landing craft. The 3rd Battalion was committed with the British First (Guards) Division in the heaviest fighting, with the paratrooper companies reduced in strength to between 20 and 30 men. H Company drove forward to rescue a captured British General and was cut off. I Company broke through to them with their remaining 16 men. For its outstanding performance from 8 to 12 February 1944, the battalion was presented one of the first Presidential Unit Citations awarded in the European Theater of Operations.
For the remainder of their 8 week stay on the Anzio beachhead, the men of the 504th found themselves fighting defensive battles instead of the offensive operations for which they were better suited. For the first time the men were engaged in trench warfare like that of the First World War, with barbed wire entanglements and minefields in front and between alternate positions. It was during this battle that the 504th acquired the nickname "The Devils in Baggy Pants," taken from the following entry found in the diary of a German officer killed at Anzio:
"American parachutists...devils in baggy pants...are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can't sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere..."
On 23 March 1944, the 504th Infantry was pulled out of the beachhead by landing craft and returned to Naples. The campaign had been costly, but enemy losses exceeded those of the Regiment by over tenfold, and the Allies maintained control of the beachhead. Shortly thereafter, the 504th Infantry boarded the "Capetown Castle" and steamed to England.
Although Nazi broadcasters warned the unit by radio that German submarines would never let the "Capetown Castle" past the Straits of Gibraltar, the only danger the ship encountered came when all the troops rushed to the same side of the vessel as it pulled into Liverpool on 22 April 1944. The 82nd Airborne Division band greeted them with "We're All American and proud to be...," and it was assumed that the 504th Infantry would rejoin the 82nd for the upcoming invasion at Normandy. As D-day approached, however, it became apparent that the 504th Infantry would be held back. A lack of replacements prevented the Regiment from participating in the invasion, so only a few dozen 504th troopers were taken as pathfinders.
The 504th Infantry thus remained in England as "Dry Runs" came one after another. Missions were scheduled for France, Belgium, and Holland and then cancelled at the last moment. For 3 days the troopers waited for the fog to lift to allow them to drop into Belgium, but the wait proved long enough for General Patton's Army to overrun the drop zones, thereby returning the 504th to its English garrison.
So, when the word came on 15 September 1944 for the 82nd to jump in ahead of the Second British Army, 57 miles behind enemy lines in the vicinity of Grave, Holland, few believed the mission would actually be conducted. The operation would require seizing the longest bridge in Europe over the Maas River and several other bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal. The men of the 504th Infantry became even more doubtful the mission would go when told that the planned flight was through the Scheldt Estuary (nicknamed "Flak Alley" by Allied bomber pilots) and that they were reportedly outnumbered by 4,000 of Hitler's Schutzstaffel (SS) troops and an unknown number of German tanks.
No cancellation was received, however, and on 17 September at 1231 hours, the pathfinders of the 504th Infantry landed on the drop zone, followed 30 minutes later by the rest of the Regiment and C Company, 307th Engineers, to become the first Allied troops to land in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation in history. By 1800 hours, the 504th Infantry had accomplished its assigned mission (although the enemy had managed to destroy one of the bridges). In just 4 hours, the Regiment had jumped, assembled, engaged the enemy, and seized its objectives.
For the next 2 days, the Regiment held its ground and conducted aggressive combat and reconnaissance patrols until the Irish guards made the ground link-up, spearheading the advance of the 30th Corps of the Second British Army. However, the Nijmegen road and rail bridges, which were the last remaining link to British Airborne forces in Arnhem, remained in enemy hands, and the far bank was heavily defended by the Germans. An assault crossing of the river was necessary, but it was a seemingly impossible task because it required moving in boats across the 400-yard wide river against German 88's, flak wagons, 20mm cannons, machine guns and riflemen. Nonetheless, the crossing was launched. However, only 11 of the 26 boats that comprised the initial wave were in condition to return across the river to deliver succeeding waves. 3rd Battalion crossed first, followed by 1st Battalion, and they established a firm bridgehead from which the units carried the battle to the enemy and captured the bridge from the far side. A British General, after witnessing the crossing, characterized the attack with a single word as he shook his head and said, "Unbelievable."
The Regimental motto, "Strike Hold," had never before been more forcefully demonstrated on the battlefield. The 504th, tired yet determined, had gallantly kept its commitment to accomplish every mission without ever relinquishing any ground it had once occupied.
On 16 November 1944, the 504th Infantry arrived at Camp Sissone near Rheims in Northern France on British lorries, greeted again by the traditional "We're All American..." of the 82nd band. Soon after, the Division moved to Camp Laon and began training with the new C-46 Commando aircraft, the first aircraft with two troop doors for parachute exits.
At 2100 hours on the night of 17 December 1944, Colonel Tucker was summoned to the 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters. There he learned that the Germans had broken through into Belgium and Luxembourg with a powerful armored thrust launched south of Aachen. The next morning the 504th paratroopers started for Bastogne, not in airplanes, but in large trucks. Along the way, their destination was changed to Werbomont, Belgium, a point more seriously threatened.
Throughout the initial days of battle with experienced German troops during the Battle of the Bulge, the Regiment wore down the enemy and discovered the Germans had only poorly organized and inadequately equipped follow-on forces. Soon thereafter, the paratroopers received the orders they had been expecting, to attack the Siegfried Line. The 504th Infantry was positioned on the right flank of the 1st Army, and on 28 January the 504th advanced through the Belgian forest of Bullingen in columns of 2 along a deep snowy trail, meeting only spotty resistance along the way.
While approaching Herresbach, the 504th Infantry encountered an enemy battalion in a head-on engagement that surprised both elements. The battle-wise paratroopers, without hesitation, accelerated their pace and moved on the enemy. The machine guns of the lead tank opened up on the Germans, while the men of the 504th fired their weapons from the hip at shooting-gallery speed. Within ten minutes, the enemy was overrun with more than 100 killed and 180 captured. Not a single 504th paratrooper was killed or wounded.
Finally, on 1 February 1945, the order came to conduct the assault on the Siegfried Line through the Belgian Fort Gerolstein. The following day the 1st and 2nd Battalions jumped off on the attack. Moving cautiously from bunker to bunker, the troopers encountered heavy machine gun and small arms fire at all points. Ironically, the German Army's own Panzerfaust (a light anti-tank weapon with which the 504th Infantry was well-equipped) was the Regiment's most effective weapon against the German pillboxes. Despite the presence of thousands of mines and booby traps, only a small number of those disturbed actually detonated. Freezing temperatures, snow, ice and years of exposure had corroded the detonators. Viscious enemy counterattacks on 3 and 4 February 1945 were repulsed, and the unit was relieved. The 504th Infantry moved back to Grand Halleux where it spent several days before being trucked across the Belgian-German border. From Aachen, it moved by train back to Laon, France to await orders.
Colonel Tucker and the advance detail left Laon on 1 April 1945 and traveled by jeep 270 miles to Cologne (Koln), Germany. Three days later the 504th Infantry arrived, mostly in "40 and 8s," and immediately took up positions along the West Bank of the Rhine River. 504th patrols crossed nightly in small boats, engaging in brisk fire-fights almost every patrol. The enemy made a few attempts to cross to the Regiment's side of the river, but all efforts were turned back.
On 6 April 1945, A Company crossed the Rhine at 0230 hours and immediately made contact with the enemy. Under heavy fire and in a minefield, the first wave of 504th troopers was split into 2 elements, each of which fought its way independently to the predesignated objective. There they rejoined forces, knocked out several machine gun nests, and established a roadblock. Using similar tactics, succeeding waves infiltrated the enemy and set up a defense in the village of Hitsdorf. For a short time, all was calm.
Then came the enemy counterattacks. The first was broken less than 50 yards from the perimeter, and the second was preceded by heavy artillery preparation. As enemy tanks and infantry closed in, the outnumbered and outgunned A Company fought its way back to the beach. The Regiment sent I Company across to support the withdrawal. The 504th had lost only 9 men to the enemy's 150, but whether the 2 companies achieved the higher aim of diverting enemy forces from a more important sector upstream is unknown. For the men involved, it was a small-scale "Dunkirk" with a hollow satisfaction achieved.
The 504th was then relieved of its active defense of the Rhine and was directed to patrol the area north of Cologne until 1 May 1945. With little resistance to slow it down, the 504th Infantry established its command post in the town of Breetze, Germany on the west bank of the Elbe River. Although tanks had been attached to the unit, the 504th was outnumbered 100 to 1 by German troops clogging every road. Nevertheless, throughout the next several days, the Americans stood at 100-yard intervals collecting souvenirs by the jeep-load as almost never-ending columns of enemy forces poured through the Regiment's lines to surrender.
At 1000 hours on 3 May 1945, a jeep full of I Company men grew tired of waiting for a Russian element to link up with them, so they drove down the south side of the Neue Elde Canal and then 12 more miles to the town of Eldenburg. There they were entertained by a company of Cossacks, whose specific unit designation none of the men could recall after partaking of the various toasts offered in honor of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
The war officially ended in Europe on 5 May 1945. The 504th returned briefly to Nancy, France until the 82nd Airborne Division, the British 11th Armored Division and the Russian 5th Cossack Division were called upon to serve as the occupation forces in Berlin. Here the 82nd Airborne Division earned the name, "America's Guard of Honor," as a fitting end to hostilities in which the 504th had chased the German Army some 14,000 miles across the European Theater.
Following their occupation duty with the 82nd Airborne Division in Berlin, the Devils reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Regiment remained at Fort Bragg until 1957, when it reorganized into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Airborne Battle Groups, 504th Infantry. The 3rd Airborne Battle Group was inactivated.
It was redesignated on 3 July 1968 as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Infantry, with its organic elements concurrently constituted. It was Assigned on 15 July 1968 to the 82d Airborne Division and activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This unit was inactivated on 15 December 1969 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and relieved from assignment to the 82d Airborne Division.
It was again assigned on 1 May 1986 to the 82d Airborne Division and activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
On 2 August 1990, the Iraqi Army (the world's fourth largest) attacked Kuwait with a visciousness that angered the world. Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were quickly committed to the defense of Saudi Arabia and were positioned against an enemy that greatly outnumbered them. As diplomatic efforts failed, it became clear that the Iraqi Army would not withdraw. Plans were thus developed for the liberation of Kuwait. President Bush's warning to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1990 went unheeded, and on 17 January 1990 the air war began. Allied sorties pounded the enemy for more than a month as the XVIII Airborne Corps made a rapid movement westward to position its units to roll up the flank of the multi-echeloned Iraqi defense. In a powerful offensive lasting only 100 hours, the Allied forces, with the 82nd Airborne on the far western flank, crossed into Iraqi territory, devastated the Iraqi Army and captured thousands of enemy soldiers. The dangerous task of clearing countless enemy bunkers was quickly completed by the 82nd troopers, and the 504th Infantry returned to Fort Bragg in April 1991.
In 2005, 3rd Battalion, 504th Infantry deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They served there until returning to Fort Bragg in 2006.
In 2006 the unit was again inactivated, its personnel reflagged as 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the newly activated 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. This was part of the transformation of the entire 82nd Airborne Division to the US Army's new modular force structure.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|