504th PIR
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1942 to December 1944.

 

The 504th PIR was activated on 1 May 1942 at Fort 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 is quite young. Nevertheless, few units are 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. 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. On 13 July, the 504th moved out in the attack, spearheading the 82nd Airborne Division’s drive northwest 150 miles along the southern coast of Sicily. After Sicily campaign, the 504th returned to its base in Kairouan, Tunisia, to prepare for the invasion of mainland Italy.

 

504th Parachute Infantry Regiment

The Devils in Italy:

 

Troopers from H Company, with a group of Rangers, made the initial landing on 9 September 1943 on the Italian coast at Maiori. On 11 September, 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. On 1 October 1943, the 504th became the first infantry unit to enter Naples. Finally, the Regiment was pulled back to Naples on 4 January 1944. The 504th took part to the operation "Shingle," and it involved an airborne assault into a sector behind the coastal town of Anzio, 28 miles south of Rome. 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. 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 and returned to Naples. Shortly thereafter, the 504th boarded the "Capetown Castle" and steamed to England.

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.

 

Holland:

 

On 15 September for the 82nd to jump in ahead of the Second British Army, 57 miles behind enemy lines in the vicinity of Grave, Holland. The operation would require seizing the longest bridge in Europe over the Maas River and several other bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal. On 17 September 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 Engineers, to become the first Allied troops to land in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden -- the largest airborne operation in history. In just four hours, the Regiment had jumped, assembled, engaged the enemy, and seized its objectives. The 504th, tired yet determined, had gallantly kept its commitment to accomplish every mission without ever relinquishing any ground it had once occupied.

 

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 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. The Devils then conducted a night movement on foot for eight miles to take up defensive positions while the 1st Battalion prepared to attack enemy forces two miles north in Cheneux the next day.

At 1400 on 20 December, 1st Battalion (minus A Company) moved out toward Cheneux, where it was immediately engaged by a battalion of the 1st Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 1st SS Division. 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. The Devils pressed forward, and by nightfall had given the Germans their first defeat of the "Battle of the Bulge."

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 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. Viscious 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.

 

The war offically ended in Europe on 5 May 1945 and the 82nd Airborne Division was called upon to serve as the occupation force in the American Sector of 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.

The 504th PIR distinguished themselves as being a force to be reckoned with. They succeeded where others failed. They fought the toughest battles. They became one of the most decorated parachute units of the War. All things considered it is safe to say that the legacy of the
"Devils in Baggy Pants" will live on forever.

 

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