This page has been made possible with the help of Erwin Janssen from Eerde – Holland. Erwin has specialized in the history of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Erwin is also a member of the “Ww2 Airborne Demonstration Team”.
The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (501st PIR) was activated in Toccoa, Georgia in November 1942 where the young paratroopers were being 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 in North Carolina. They participated in the Tennessee manouvers.
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. Although Lt Colonel Kinnard’s 1st Battalion landed wide of their mark, they landed all together and were quickly able to seize two railroad bridges to the west of Veghel. Meanwhile, the other two battalions were able to seize intact 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. After a few days, it became clear that they would not be withdrawn from Holland as had been planned, because their combat skills were sorely needed by the British.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 fatally wounded Colonel Johnson on 8 October 1944. As he was being evacuated, his last words to Lt Colonel Ewell were, “Take care of my boys”.
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 they paratroopers were jammed into trucks and rushed through the night to the town of Bastogne in Belgium, where they arrived 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 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 26th.
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, only on 60% strength, occupied defensive positions there until they returned to Camp Mourmelon, France in early 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 home to be deactivated at Fort Benning in 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”.