The regiment was initially constituted on 24 February 1942 in the Army of the United States as the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The First, Second and Third Battalions were constituted on 24 February 1942 as Company A, B, and C, respectively, of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and were activated 1 May 1942 at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was assigned to the United States Army Airborne Command. When it completed its regimental training, it was assigned on 15 August 1942 to the 82nd Airborne Division.
World War II
The regiment moved from Fort Benning to Fort Bragg on 30 September 1942 to finish its training, fill its Table of Organization and Equipment, and prepare for its Staging Call. When the call came, it Staged at Camp Edwards on 18 April 1943, and it made its Port Call on 10 May 1943, when it departed the New York Port of Embarkation.
North Africa, April 1943
On 29 April 1943, the 504th boarded the troop ship USS George Washington which steamed to North Africa and the regiment’s first overseas port of call,Casablanca. Upon arrival on 10 May 1943, the troops marnd eight 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, Morocco. 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% 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.
Sicily, July 1943
General James M. Gavin led the division during Operation Husky, and on 9 July 1943, the 504th PIR helped spearhead the invasion of Sicily in the first airborne military offensive of the history of the United States of America. The 504th paratroopers crossed over the Sicilian coast on schedule. Despite extensive precautions to avoid an incident, near the Sicilian coast a nervous Allied naval vessel suddenly fired upon the formation. Immediately, all other naval vessels and shore troops joined in, downing friendly aircraft and forcing planeloads of paratroopers to exit far from their intended drop zones in one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. US Navy ships had been under intense Axis aerial attacks, and many were unaware of the impending jump. Twenty-three planes were destroyed, thirty-seven were damaged, and over 400 casualties were confirmed. 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, Sicily. 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 ten times the actual number.
On 13 July 1943, the 504th moved out, spearheading the 82nd Airborne Division’s drive northwest 150 miles (240 km) 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 enemy 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 to prepare for the invasion of mainland Italy.
Devils in 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. The 1st and 2nd Battalions moved back to Sicily and trained for a drop at Capua —in vain, however, because the enemy had been tipped off and was waiting on the drop zone. Another disappointment followed with the cancellation of the drop on Rome. Last minute intelligence disclosed that “negotiations” between General Taylor and Marshal Badoglio were a trap. 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 5th Army beachhead was in danger and they were needed to jump in behind friendly lines. Flying in columns of battalions, they exited over the barrels of gasoline-soaked sand that formed a flaming “T” in the center of the drop zone. The regiment assembled quickly and moved to the sounds of cannon and small arms fire within the hour. By dawn, the unit was firmly set in defensive positions.
The days that followed were, in the words of General Mark W. 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 5th 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 eight 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, 35 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 unit disembarked under fire and was sent shortly thereafter to patrol in force along the Mussolini Canal. After several days of intense German artillery fire, the enemy launched his main drive to push the Allies back into the sea. 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 eight 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 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 boarded the Capetown Castle and steamed to England.
From England to the Netherlands
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 would rejoin the 82nd for the upcoming invasion at Normandy. As D-day approached, however, it became apparent that the 504th 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 thus remained in England as “Dry Runs” came one after another. Missions were scheduled for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and then canceled at the last moment. For three 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 for the 82nd to jump in ahead of the Second Army, 57 miles behind enemy lines in the vicinity of Grave, 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 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 Schutzstaffeln(SS) troops and an unknown number of German tanks.
No cancellation was received, however, and on 17 September 1944 at 1231 hours, the pathfinders of the 504th landed on the drop zone, followed thirty minutes later by the rest of the regiment and C Company, 307th Engineer Battalion, to become the first Allied troops to land in the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden—the largest airborne operation in history. By 1800 hours, the 504th had accomplished its assigned mission (although the enemy had managed to destroy one of the bridges). In just four hours, the regiment had jumped, assembled, engaged the enemy, and seized its objectives.
For the next two 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. Gavin intended to make a pre-dawn crossing:103 after consulting with British Generals Brian Horrocks and Frederick Browning in the presence of senior officers of the Guards Armoured and 82nd Airborne divisions, and Colonel Reuben Tucker of the 504th PIR, and during the night he drew up a plan, and alerted the troops at 0600 in the expectation of the boats to be provided by the British XXX Corps.
However, the crossing did not commence until 1500 after the guns of 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and 153rd Field Regiment Royal Artillery, and two troops of the Grenadier Guards Sherman tanks opened fire on the northern (Lent) bank. The British provided 26 canvas boats, each 19 feet (5.8 m) long, that the 504th used to cross the 400 yards (370 m)-wide river. The 3rd Battalion’s H and I companies, and some engineers from the 307th Engineer Battalion crossed in the first wave, 15 men to a boat, and they were immediately on leaving the far shore the target of German 88mm cannons, 20mm cannons, flak wagons, machine guns and riflemen. Nonetheless, the crossing was launched. With only 2-4 oars in each boat, the remaining men rowed with the rifle butts. Only 13 boats made it across, and only 11 of those were in condition to return across the river to deliver succeeding waves.
The 1st Battalion formed the second wave, and they established a firm bridgehead from which the units carried the battle to the enemy defending the old Fort Belvedere and captured the bridge from the north side. Dempsey, commander of the Second British Army, after witnessing the crossing, characterized the attack with a single word as he shook his head and said, “Unbelievable.” Six crossings were made by 1900. It was there that Dempsey called the 82nd Division the greatest in the world. Because only 11 boats returned from the first crossing, eight from the second and five from the third, A Company that followed used locally sourced wooden fishing boats.
France and Belgium, November 1944
On 16 November 1944, the 504th 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 Luxembourgwith a powerful armored thrust launched south of Aachen in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
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—a point more seriously threatened. The Devils conducted a night movement on foot for eight miles to take up defensive positions. On 19 December Colonel Tucker was ordered to Rahier and Cheneux to link up with the 505th at Trois Ponts. The 1st Battalion was ordered to take the towns Brume, Rhier, and Cheneux. At 1400 on 20 December 1944, 1st Battalion (less A Company) moved out toward Cheneux, where it was immediately engaged by a battalion of the SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper‘s KampfgruppePeiper of the I SS Panzer Corps. Crossing an open 400-yard field laced every fifteen yards with barbed wire, the 1st Battalion faced the heaviest enemy fire the 504th had ever encountered, including heavy machine-guns, a 20mm gun, and a half-dozen German armored vehicles. Captain Jack M. Bartley was killed on December 21, 1944:201–203
The 504th deployed a captured German halftrack armed with a 70mm gun manned by two paratroopers with no training in its use. They were successful in knocking out several enemy positions. Still, the 504th took very heavy losses crossing the open field, and at 1700 were ordered to withdraw 200 yards (180 m) to the edge of a wood. Col. Tucker ordered the 1st Battalion to engage in an assault on the German forces in Cheneux that night. The Devils pressed forward, and by nightfall had given the Germans their first defeat of the Battle of the Bulge. Through heavy fire, Companies B and C wiped out an estimated five companies of German forces, as well as fourteen flak-wagons, six half-tracks, four trucks, and four 105mm howitzers. However, the two companies were decimated, with 23 killed and 202 wounded; eighteen enlisted men remained in Company B, and thirty-eight men and three officers in Company C. Minus Company A, the 1st Battalion of the 504, as well as the first platoon, Company C, 307th Engineer Battalion, were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their outstanding performance during this action.
Throughout the initial days of battle with experienced German troops, 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 regiment was positioned on the right flank of the 1st Army, and on 28 January 1945 the 504th advanced through the Belgian forest of Bullingen in columns of two along a deep snowy trail, meeting only spotty resistance along the way.
While approaching Herresbach, the regiment 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 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. Vicious enemy counterattacks on 3 and 4 February were repulsed, and the unit was relieved. The regiment 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.
On to Berlin
Colonel Tucker and the advance detail left Laon on 1 April 1945 and traveled by jeep 270 miles to Cologne (Köln), Germany. Three days later the regiment 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 two 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 Hitdorf. For a short time, all was calm.Company A was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its action during this engagement.
Then the enemy counterattacked. The first counterattack was broken less than fifty yards from the perimeter, while 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 river’s edge. The regiment sent I Company across to support the withdrawal. The 504th had lost only nine men to the enemy’s 150, but whether the two 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 regiment 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 Elde and then twelve more miles to the town ofEldenburg. 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 8 May 1945. The 504th returned briefly to Nancy, France until the 82nd Airborne Division, the 11th Armoured Division (United Kingdom) and the 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 (23,000 km) across the European Theater.
Following their occupation duty with the 82nd Airborne Division in Berlin, the Devils reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.