The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (501st PIR) was activated in Toccoa, Georgia
in November 1942 where the young paratroopers to be were given basic Infantry training.
In May 1943 they earned their jump wings at Fort Benning. Shortly after Jump School
and throughout the summer the Regiment undertook Company, Battalion and Regimental
training at Camp MaCall, North Carolina, and participated in the Tennessee maneuvers.
The 501stPIR, commanded by Colonel Howard Johnson (Jumpy Johnson), was attached to
the 101st Airborne Division just before the Regiment departed for England in December
of 1943. They made their first jump into Normandy in the early morning hours of D-Day,
June 6, 1944. In July of '44 the Regiment returned from Normandy and began to re-fit
and train for the next operation.
After several false starts the 501st PIR, along with the entire 101st Airborne, was
alerted for Operation Market Garden Holland on September 17, 1944.
On 17 September 1944 Operation Market Garden, Montgomery's ambitious plan to perform
an end run around the retreating German Army, began with the largest Airborne operation
As part of the 101st Airborne the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment parachuted near
the town of Veghel, 25 miles behind the German front lines. 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 Colonel 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 result
was the rapid taking of one of the first major barriers on the route of Montgomery's
Second British Army to Arnhem.
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they would not be withdrawn from Holland after a few days, as had been planned because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 8 October 1944, fatally wounded Colonel
Johnson. As he was being evacuated, his last words to Lt Colonel Ewell were, "Take
care of my boys" at son bridge.
In late November 1944, the 101st division was returned to France to receive replacements,
re-train, re-equip and prepare for additional operations after the new year. Three
weeks after arriving at Camp Mourmelon, France the Germans launched the offensive
in the Belgian region known as the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The
101st Airborne was alerted and within hours was jammed into trucks and rushing through
the night to the town of Bastogne, Belgium arriving in the predawn morning of Dec.
18th. The 501st PIR was the first unit to arrive and moved through the town as dawn
broke to meet the approaching German's three miles beyond the town. The Regiment
fought the enemy to a stand still and held kept the Germans at bay until the rest
of the division could arrive.
The 101st Airborne Division, "Battered Bastards of Bastogne " fought off elements
of seven German divisions before Patton broke through the encirclement on December
On January 20, 1945 "Operation Nordwind", the last offensive action by the Germans
during WWII was launched. The 101st Airborne, tattered and worn from fighting in
the "Bulge" was rushed to Alsace to bolster the defense of the Seventh Army. The
501st PIR, of only 60% strong, occupied defensive positions there until returning
to Camp Mourmelon, France early in March 1945.
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 remained in France, preparing to jump
on Prisoner Of War camps if necessary to rescue and free American POW's.
In August 1945 the regiment was detached from the 101st and sailed for home to be
deactivated at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the course of the three campaigns through January 14 1945, 517 paratroopers of
the regiment were killed or died of wounds in action, 1639 were wounded or injured,
and 328 were captured or missing, according to the 101'st Airborne Division History,
"Rendezvous with Destiny".