The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated at Camp Toccoa, Georgia on November 15, 1942. Originally, the 501st was part of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II and during the Vietnam War.
The famous test platoon, the prime ancestor of all American Parachute Units, provided the nucleus of the 1st Parachute Battalion, which in turn provided part of the cadre, the unit number, the genealogical lineage and the heraldic background of the 501st Parachute Regiment. Its initial group of officers were hand picked by its first commander, Colonel Howard "Jumpy" Johnson.
As the first Commander of the 501st PIR, Colonel Johnson was known by his peers as "Skeets". He was very much in the swashbuckling mold of most of the original parachute regimental commanders, of whom the popular saying was "To command a parachute unit, you don't have to be nuts, but it helps!" An Annapolis graduate who had boxed while a midshipman, Johnson had transferred to the Army on graduation and had most recently been at the tank destroyer center before volunteering for parachute duty. To say that he took to parachuting is a gross understatement: he ate, slept, and breathed it, and jumped whenever he possibly could, often jumping many times in a single day. His nickname among his men became "Jumpy Johnson." He was a zealot on physical conditioning, for himself and everyone in his regiment, and personally led calisthenics, running and all other physical activities. He set a record for running up Currahee Mountain (which loomed over Camp Toccoa) and challenged anyone in the regiment to beat his time. A heavy punching bag hung outside his quarters, and when not punching that, Johnson could often be seen throwing his huge knife at hanging plywood replicas of Hitler and Hirohito. All members of the regiment were parachute volunteers, but only a minor fraction were actually qualified jumpers during training at Camp Toccoa, GA.
So, when that very arduous training was over in March 1943, the unit marched to Atlanta, GA, a distance of 105 miles (169 km). They then moved to Fort 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 home base during prolonged maneuvers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, and until January 1944, when the regiment deployed to England, by way of Camp Myles Standish, MA. Once in England the 501st became a permanent attachment of the 101st Airborne Division and was a vital part of that famous unit for the duration of World War II. In England, training was as hard and realistic as ever, and became increasingly oriented toward an airborne assault into German-held Europe. Although none of the soldiers knew this initially, the regiment was actually training for Operation Overlord, the super-secret allied plan for the combined air, naval, amphibious, and airborne operations to breach Hitler's "Atlantic Wall." As D-Day drew closer, a few key commanders and staff were briefed on the part the 101st would play in Operation Overlord.
Then with D-Day just days away, the 501st with the rest of the division, was sequestered in well guarded marshaling camps, where every man finally learned not only his own mission, but the overall mission of the 501st and the 101st Airborne Division. These very extensive and intensive briefings were to pay big dividends during actual operations.
The 501st was assigned to 101st Airborne Division during WWII and Vietnam. In a nutshell, the 501st (less 3rd Battalion) was to take off from Merryfield Airport at 2245, June 5, 1944, 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 bridges over the Douve River, while the third battalion was in division reserve.
The many books written on the night drop into Normandy, all point out the break-up of the troop carrier formations, from a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire. This caused highly scattered drops, in most cases not on or near planned drop zones. Accordingly, actions that night bore little resemblance to those so carefully planned and briefed. Amazingly, the regiment (and the division) accomplished its multiple missions, but none of them as rehearsed. The successes were the result of the initiative, stamina, and daring of the individual parachutists, who each assessed his own situation on landing, decided how best to accomplish some part of the overall mission. Typical was the capture of a key causeway from Utah Beach, at Pouppeville, by a scratch force of about 100 officers and men, formed around a nucleus from the 3rd Battalion (division reserve) of the 501st. Members of this ad hoc force included both General Maxwell Taylor and Assistant Division Commander Gerald Higgins. General Taylor quipped that, "Never were so few led by so many." Fierce fighting in Normandy by no means ended with D-Day, but continued with important results in assisting the amphibious landings and joining the beach at Utah to that at Omaha. The gallant efforts of the 501st were at high cost; the regiment lost 898 men killed, wounded, missing, or captured. Returning to its base in England, in mid-July, the 501st slowly regained its pre D-Day capabilities with many replacements and another round of intensive training. There was good news of a presidential citation for actions in Normandy, and many planned assaults into France, which aborted as the allies overran planned objectives.
In the early fall of 1944, plans were made for what was not a "dry run," the airborne assault into occupied Holland. Code-named "Market Garden," it combined a deep airborne thrust through western Holland by the 1st Allied Airborne Army, with an overland drive by the British 2nd Army. The plan visualized airborne forces seizing key bridges over rivers and canals so 2nd Army could move very deep and fast over a distance of more than 100 miles (160 km), past the Rhine River, the last major water obstacle short of Berlin. This airborne assault would be made in daylight. The 101st Airborne Division was assigned the southernmost bridges at Eindhoven, Zon, Saint Oedenrode and Veghel, with the 501st assigned the Veghel Bridges. The airborne assault went as scheduled on 17 September 1944, with an improved performance by troop carrier units. Most drop zones were hit with good drop patterns. 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, however, was dropped some 5 miles (8.0 km) east of its planned drop zone. In spite of this, the four bridges in Veghel were captured intact. Then began the really difficult part of the operation, keeping open the highway over which 2nd Army must pass to reach the British 1st Airborne Division, which was fighting for its life at the northern end of the airborne corridor. The fatal flaw in the plan became more evident each day as the forces proved too few to both keep open the key highway and also fight on to a linkup with the British Airborne across the Rhine. The 1st Airborne Division paid the full price for this flaw as they went down fighting against overwhelming odds; less than two thousand men escaped death or capture.
The 501st, 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 they had been told; their combat skills were too much needed by the British. The prolonged fighting on "the island" was anything but the way to use an airborne unit. After the initial hard fighting it became a static war of patrolling and attrition, principally by artillery and mortars. One such mortar attack, near Heteran, on 8 October 1944, fatally wounded Colonel Johnson.
As he was being evacuated, his last words to LTC Ewell were, "Take care of my boys." Colonel Johnson was the best-known loss, but with him they lost 661 other fine soldiers. LTC Julian Ewell, a taciturn West Pointer, succeeded COL 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.
After 72 days of combat in Holland the division returned to a new staging area in Mourmelon, France, for what everyone thought would be a long, well-deserved rest. Accordingly, many men were on leave or pass, the Division Commander was in the United States, the Assistant Division Commander was in England (leaving the Artillery Commander, General McAuliffe, in command), and there still were major shortages of equipment and supplies that had not been replaced after Holland. To put it mildly, the division was ill-prepared for the word they received in the late evening of December 17th. The Germans had launched a major offensive at dawn on 16 December through the Ardennes in the lightly-held sector of VII Corps. At that time Shears Reserve consisted of the 101st and the 82nd. The 101st was ordered to move "truckborne" to Bastogne, the hub town of a major radial road net, to stem the oncoming Germans. General McAuliffe ordered the move by regimental combat teams without waiting for any absentees. The 501st was the lead combat team in the division move, and after a grueling truck ride, reached Bastogne at about 2230 hrs. Thus, by midnight, the 501st was the first and only regiment combat team ready for action. Ewell asked McAuliffe for a definite assignment and was ordered to move out on the eastern road through Longvilly and seize and hold a key road junction beyond Longvilly. The 501st was the first to fight at Bastogne when one of its battalions ran into the enemy near Neffe, a few kilometers out of Bastogne. Thus began the heroic defense of Bastogne in which the 501st gave up not one foot of ground, and in which the division, and its comrades in arms, stopped cold everything the Germans could throw at them, ruined Hitler's offensive time table and eventually won the 101st the first presidential unit citation ever awarded to a full division. Once again, 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 20 August 1945, the 501st was disbanded, ahead of the inactivation of the 101st Division in November 1945.