The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (501 PIR) lineage can be traced back to the 29th Infantry Regiment which spawned a volunteer group known as the Parachute Test Platoon on June 26, 1940. Eventually, these parachute-trained volunteers would comprise the Army's first regular all-parachute tactical outfit, the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion under the command of Major William M. Miley who later commanded the 17th Airborne Division. The nucleus of this unit provided part of the cadre, the unit number, the genealogical lineage and the heraldic background of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment which was activated in Toccoa, GA on 15 November 1942 under the command of Colonel Howard R Johnson.
All members of the regiment were parachute volunteers, but only a minor fraction were actually qualified jumpers during training at Camp Toccoa. 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. In January 1944, the regiment deployed to England, by way of Camp Myles Standish, MA. Once in England the 501st PIR became permanently attached to the 101st Airborne Division and was a vital part of that famous unit for the duration of World War II.
In June 1944, the SHAEF decided to drop both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions simultaneously into Normandy. The 501st PIR (less 3rd Battalion) took off for their first combat jump from Merryfield Airport at 2245hrs, 5 June 1944. The 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 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
In the predawn hours of D-Day a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire caused the break-up of the troop carrier formations. Consequently, the sporadic jump patterns caused highly scattered drops. Most of the troopers landed far afield of their designated drop zones. The actions that night bore little resemblance to those so carefully planned and briefed. Amazingly, this unanticipated misstep confused the Germans and allowed the airborne units time to regroup. Unfortunately those that were dropped accurately encountered stiff German resistance. 1st Battalion commander, Lt Col Robert C Carroll was killed and his exec Maj Philip S Gage was wounded and captured. Nevertheless, Col Johnson collected a small force and by nightfall of the first day the beach exits in their zone had been secured along with the control of the la Barquette lock. Because of its proximity to Carentan the 101st was given the additional task of capturing the town. In spite of the initial confusion, the indomitable spirit of the regiment (and the division) enabled it to accomplish its multiple missions, but none of them as rehearsed.
On 27 June the 83d Infantry Division arrived and relieved the 101st. Two days later the 101st was relieved from the VIII Corps and sent to Cherbourg to relieve the 4th Infantry Division. The 101st remained as a First Army reserve until mid-July, when it returned to England for rest and training. At about the same time General Eisenhower called for a headquarters that would oversee the Allies' airborne troops. In August 1944 he established the First Allied Airborne Army, controlling elements of the American and British (and Polish) Armies. The new army was put to the test in September 1944 during the Allied thrust in northern Europe: Operation Market-Garden.
Operation Market Garden This was an audacious plan concocted by British Field Marshal Montgomery that would be the first major daylight air assault attempted by a military power since Germany's attack on Crete. Similar to the Germans assault of four years earlier, the Allies initial plan for September 17,1944 was to use the paratroopers and glidermen of the 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions and England's First Airborne Division in a daring daylight drop into Holland. The airborne Allied troops were to seize roads, bridges and the key communication cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, thus cutting Holland in half and clearing a corridor for British armoured and motorized columns all the way to the German border.
The 101st mission was to secure the fifteen miles of Hell's Highway stretching from Eindhoven north to Veghel. The 501st was specifically tasked to drop 4 miles south of Veghel and seize railroad and highway bridges over the Aa River and the Willems Canal. Though Lt Col Kinnard's 1st Battalion landed wide of their mark, they landed all together and were were quickly able to seize two railroad bridges to the west of Veghel. Meanwhile, the other two battalions were able to seize intact the road bridges over the Willems Canal and Aa River.
The 501st, along 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 they would not be withdrawn from Holland after a few days, as had been planned because their combat skills were sorely needed by the British. However, the prolonged fighting on "the island" was contrary to airborne tactics and strategy. 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 Lt Col Ewell were, "Take care of my boys". Lt Col 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.
The Ardennes - Battle of the Bulge On 16 December, 1944, The Germans had launched a major offensive at dawn on 16 December, west through the Ardennes Forest, in the lightly held sector of our VII Corps. At that time Shaef's Reserve consisted of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The 101st was ordered to the vitally important town of Bastogne which was the key to the German counteroffensive and had to be held at all cost by the 101st. The division was jammed into trucks for an overnight rush to Bastogne in Belgium on Dec. 18th. Since the 501st PIR was the first unit to arrive, Col Ewell (picture left) was ordered to move out on the eastern road, through Longvilly and seize and hold a key road junction beyond Longvilly. The regiment moved out at dawn to meet the approaching German column three miles beyond the town when its first battalion ran into the enemy near Neffe, a few kilometers out of Bastogne. It stopped the enemy cold and held until the rest of the division could arrive. The "Battered Bastards" staved off elements of seven German divisions before Patton broke through the encirclement on December 26th.
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.
On January 20, 1945 the now tattered Airborne division was hurried to Alsace where Hitler's "Operation Nordwind" offensive, under the personal direction of Heinrich Himmler, was threatening a sector of the Seventh Army front. The 501st PIR, now to 60% strength, occupied defensive positions there until returning to France early in March.
As the war in Europe was nearing its end, the 101st division was sent to the Ruhr pocket to help in mop-up operations. The 501st returned to billets in Joigny and Auxerre, France, preparing to jump on POW camps if deemed necessary to rescue American prisoners. On 25 August 1945 the regiment was detached from the 101st and sailed for home to be deactivated at Fort Benning, GA.