551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (United States)

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551st Parachute Infantry Battalion
551t-pir-patch.jpg
Shoulder sleeve patch of the GOYA
Active 26 November 1942 – 27 January 1945
Country  United States
Branch United States Army
Type Parachute Infantry
Role Airborne Firefighters
Size Battalion
Garrison/HQ Frying Pan area, Fort Benning, Georgia
Nickname GOYA (Get Off Your Ass)
Motto Aterrice y Ataque
Land and Attack
Mascot Furlough
Engagements

World War II

Decorations Presidential Unit Citation
Disbanded 27 January 1945—absorbed into 82nd Airborne Division
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Lt. Col. Wood Joerg
U.S. Infantry Regiments
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550th Airborne Infantry Battalion 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion

The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (551st PIB) was for many years a little-recognized unit of the United States Army during World War II and the Battle of the Bulge. Originally commissioned to take the French Caribbean island of Martinique during World War II, they were shipped instead to Europe. With an initial strength of 800 officers and enlisted men, the remaining 250 members of the Battalion were ordered on 7 January 1945 to attack the Belgium village of Rochelinval over open ground and without artillery support. During the successful assault the unit lost more than half its remaining men. The Battalion was inactivated on 27 January 1945 and the remaining 110 survivors were absorbed into the 82nd Airborne Division. Virtually nothing of the unit's history was known until the 1990s when renewed interest prompted its veterans to seek recognition for their costly success at Rochelinval. The battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation in 2001 recognizing its accomplishment.

Combat operations[edit]

Activation and training[edit]

The 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated on 26 November 1942 at Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone. It replaced the 501st Parachute Battalion which had been absorbed in the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment.[1] The men were formed up in the Frying Pan Area of Fort Benning, Georgia, on 30 October 1942. Personnel were trained as paratroopers at the Parachute School Replacement Pool in November–December 1942. Leaving Ft. Benning on 11 December, the unit passed through Richmond and ended up at Camp Patrick Henry, near Newport News, Virginia, arriving there on 13 December. While at Camp Patrick Henry, the men picked up a unique mascot, a short-haired black and tan dachshund puppy they stole from the yard of the port commander. They named her Furlough, which was the thing the men most desired. Under strict orders of secrecy, they could not wear their hard-won airborne insignia, had to hide their newly acquired tattoos that revealed their military affiliation, and were prohibited from leaving the base.

Virtually all personnel had completed jump school by this time. The 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment was shipped to the Panama Canal Zone. The first units of the battalion arrived at Fort Kobbe on 26 November 1942; the remainder of the battalion sailed for Panama aboard USS Joseph T. Dickman from Camp Patrick Henry at Newport News the next day.

During training in North Carolina, they were the first American paratroopers to jump out of military gliders.[2] The experiment was a failure as there was no slipstream leading the men to fall straight and the glider's flimsy construction led to the static line ripping out of the inside when the men jumped.[3]

Prepared to take Martinique[edit]

Upon arrival in Panama, they trained for approximately eight months in jungle warfare to prepare for a planned invasion of the Vichy French island of Martinique begun. On 13 May 1943, the Battalion was put on alert for a possible drop on Martinique. The island was being utilized as a re-supply base for German U-boat submarines in the Caribbean Sea. The Battalion's presence in Panama had been kept secret until around that time, when they were part of a special review in Balboa, Panama for the president of Columbia. Publicizing their presence at this point was part of an effort to put psychological pressure on the Vichy administration in Martinique. Before the mission could be initiated, the island government joined the Free French in 1943, and the invasion was canceled.[4]

The battalion left Panama in August 1943. En route, the ship's crew discovered the dog, and the ship's Master-at-Arms ordered the dog thrown overboard. Col. Joerg earned a great deal of his men's loyalty and fierce respect when he successfully faced down the Master, risking a court-martial, and the crew was able to keep their mascot.[4] They arrived at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, the same month. The 551 Parachute Infantry Regiment never gained regimental strength and was re-designated as the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.

Origin of their nickname[edit]

One of Col. Joerg's favorite expressions was “Get off your ass!”. Given the Army's penchant for acronyms, soon the men were referring to themselves as “GOYA birds,” or simply GOYAs.[4]

Return to the United States[edit]

Col. Wood Joerg, the popular commanding officer of the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment, World War II. He was killed during the unit's assault on Rochelinval on 7 January 1945.[5]

On 20 August 1943, the Battalion along with their sister unit, the 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion was sent to Camp Mackall, North Carolina for additional training. Lt. Col. Rupert D. Graves replaced Lt. Col. Wood Joerg in October 1943. This including training in night jumping on 16 February 1944. While at Camp Mackall the battalion was under Airborne Command. The unit underwent intense training and were selected to participate in testing the feasibility of using gliders as paratroop transport. The battalion received a personnel commendation from Airborne Commander Major-General Eldridge G. Chapman.

In March 1944, Lt. Col. Joerg rejoined the unit, and on 23 April 1944, the Battalion departed Norfolk, Virginia for Italy. Transiting through Oran, North Africa, the Battalion arrived in Naples on 23 May 1944. They trained at Camp Wright in Trapani and Marsala, Sicily during June 1944, before moving to Lido di Roma, near Rome in July. The 551st was attached to a six different American units during World War II.

Combat in southern France[edit]

Members of the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment on patrol in the French Alps during World War II.

As a non-divisional unit for the entire war, it was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division during the Allied invasion of Italy as part of the provisional 1st Airborne Task Force for the invasion of southern France in August 1944. On 15 August 1944, they finally got into the war with their first combat jump during Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France. They liberated Draguignan, France on 15 August 1944 and on 29 August, they liberated Nice.

From 15 August 1944 through 17 November 1944, the 551st, along with the 509th Infantry Regiment and the 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion, protected the right flank of the 7th Army in the French French-Italian Alps as mountain troops against the Austrian 5th Hocchgebirgesjager Division.[1] On 22 November 1944 the Battalion was attached to the 101st Airborne Division. The Battalion then moved to Laon in northern France on 8 December 1944, and on 19 December 1944 were suddenly summoned to help stem the Ardennes offensive.

The Battle of the Bulge[edit]

Soldiers of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion moving up to the line of battle early in the Battle of the Bulge, before the weather turned.

On 21 December the Battalion was reassigned to the 30th Infantry Division reinforcing their positions in and around Stoumont, La Gleize, Francorchamps, Ster and Stavelot, Belgium. The Battalion arrived in Werbomont, Belgium and entered the Battle of the Bulge on 21 December 1944 with a strength of more than 643 officers and enlisted men. They were the initial spearhead in the XVIII Airborne Corps's counter-offensive on the northern shoulder of the Bulge. Their first days in the Battle of the Bulge were, according to paratrooper Don Garrigues, miserable: "no sleep, frozen feet, trench foot, knee deep snow, cold food and hallucinations." He had a vivid memory of that Christmas Eve:[6]

The attack had been canceled and we were to move back to an area near Ster. Along with my buddies, I wend into one of the houses. Some troopers from another outfit had managed to get some "C" rations and had built a fire under a tub of water in the fireplace of one of the buildings. They offered to share with us so I picked one of the cans out of the hot water. Eating the warm food by the fire and thinking of the mission that had been cancelled, I felt that I had been given one of the best Christmas presents ever.[6]

On 26 December, they reported near Basse Bordeax to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. They received a visit from Major General James M. Gavin, commanding officer of the 82nd Airborne Division, who visited their bivouac at Rahier on 27 December. He told the Battalion that it had been chosen to make the initial "raid in force" against the Germans. He told them they would be the unit who was going to turn the battle around. He stressed that they might take very heavy casualties but that a great deal depended on the outcome. Their task was to would pass through the U.S. Army's forward lines, cross about 4 miles (6.4 km) into German-held territory, and to attack and reduce the German-held village of Noirefontaine. They were then to return to base with prisoners for interrogation.[4]

The evening of the next day they carried out the raid against the Oberst Friederich Kittel’s 62nd Volksgrenadier Division in the tiny hamlet of Noirefontaine, taking 18 casualties in the process.[6] They faced Kittel's stubborn troops again. From 3–8 January 1945, they assaulted the small hamlets of Mont de Fosse, St. Jacques, and Dairomont. According to the unit's Presidential Unit Citation, "On 4 January, the battalion conducted a rare fixed bayonet attack of machine gun nests that killed 64 Germans."[7] Fighting through the thick woods cost the 551st heavy casualties. On the morning of 7 January, down to only 250 men, they were next charged with taking the village of Rochelinval, Belgium, along the Salm River.[8]

The defending 183rd Volksgrenadier Regiment was backed up by a regiment of 88mm guns and a battalion of 105mm howitzers. Col Joerg had requested preparatory artillery which was not forthcoming. He requested that the attack be delayed, and his request was denied. He thought the attack, down slope by his un-camouflaged men in the daylight across a half-mile expanse of foot-deep snow at a concealed, alert enemy, to be suicidal.[6] Their only cover would be their 81mm mortars. Paratrooper Don Garrigues wrote:

The riflemen charged out of the woods, down the sloping area and across the cleared field. The Germans were fully awake by that time and had taken positions behind a rock fence. They seemed to have a sizable force, including several machine guns and automatic weapons. Several of our riflemen fell from the hail of enemy bullets. I was firing point blank at a German machine gun and our tracers were crossing. Pascal from Company A was lying beside me feeding the ammunition belt into the machine gun. Soon a burst of bullets tore into his arm and shoulder. He yelled, "I’m hit!" and managed to crawl toward a depressed area behind us while I kept firing. A short time later I felt a jolt like getting hit on the shoulder with a ball bat. At first I thought that was it and then I felt the burning pain and blood. I instinctively yelled "Medic!" and began crawling and pulling myself toward the depression or ditch behind me. It wasn’t long before a medic came to where I was lying and gave me a shot of morphine.[6]

While victorious in capturing Rochelinval and eliminating the last German bridgehead for over 10 miles (16 km) on the Salm River, the unit was virtually decimated, having suffered more than 85% casualties. Relieved on 9 January 1945, of the 643 men who entered the battle on 3 January, only 14 Officers and 96 men remained. "Nowhere were casualties higher than in Wood Joerg's 551st Battalion."[5]:xiv[9] Like the 509th Infantry Regiment, the unit's strength had been decimated by battle, and paratrooper replacements were not in the pipeline.

Battalion disbanded[edit]

On 27 January 1945, in Juslenville, Belgium, General James M. Gavin informed the remaining men that the battalion was being inactivated and all remaining soldiers would be absorbed into the 82nd Airborne Division. The unit records were absorbed into the 82nd Airborne and virtually lost for many years, their sacrifice unknown to many.

Casualties[edit]

Because the unit was disbanded and its remaining men absorbed into various units, U.S. Army records on the number of casualties are conflicting.

KIA: 66, WIA: (TBD); NBC: (TBD)

Citations[edit]

General March presents Pvt Milo Huempfner, 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment, with the Distinguished Service Cross in June 1945 for his action during the Battle of the Bulge.

DSC: (2); Silver Star: (1); Bronze Star: (1)

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of the Bulge to the unit during an official ceremony at the Pentagon on 23 February 2001.

By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, I have today awarded THE PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION (ARMY) FOR EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM TO THE 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion is cited for exceptional heroism in performance of duty in combat against the enemy at the beginning of the American counteroffensive in the Ardennes, Belgium, culminating in its heroic attack and seizure of the critical, heavily fortified, regimental German position of Rochelinval on the Salm River. A separate battalion attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, the 551st began its grueling days as the Division's spearhead by successfully executing a raid on advanced German positions at Noirfontaine on 27 and 28 December1944, delivering to XVIII Airborne Corps vital intelligence for the Allied counteroffensive soon to come. On 3 January 1945, the 551st from the division's line of departure at Basse Bodeux attacked against great odds and secured the imposing ridge of Herispehe. Punished by artillery, mortar and machine gun fire as it moved across open, up slope terrain, the battalion lost its forward artillery observers, causing an acute lack of artillery support for its week-long push against two German regiments. On 4 January, the battalion conducted a rare fixed bayonet attack of machine gun nests that killed 64 Germans. On 5 and 6 January, the 551st captured the towns of Dairomont and Quartiers, parrying German counterattacks while often fighting in hand-to-hand combat. At less than half strength, on 7 January the battalion confronted its final critical objective: Rochelinval on the Salm River. Initially repelled into a hailstorm of artillery and machine gun fire toward a high ridge of entrenched enemy, the 551st finally overwhelmed the defenders and captured Rochelinval, shutting off the last bridge of egress to the Germans in a 10 mile sector of the Salm River. The next day, 8 January, Hitler ordered the German Army's first pullback from the Battle of the Bulge. In fighting a numerically superior foe with dominant high ground advantage, the 551st lost over four-fifths of its men, including the death of its inspirational commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wood Joerg, as he led the last attack. Disbanded a month later, the battalion accounted for 400 German dead, and took over 300 prisoners. The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion fought with a tenacity and fervor that was extraordinary. In what United States Army historian Charles MacDonald called "the greatest battle ever fought by the United States Army," the 551st demonstrated the very best of the Army tradition of performance of duty in spite of great sacrifice and against all odds.[7]

Cultural legacy[edit]

Many WWII momentos and memorabilia including uniforms, helmets, equipment are on display at December 44 Museum, at La Gleize, Belgium. It includes the unit commander Lt. Col. Wood G. Joerg's beret (killed on 7 January 1945 at Rochelinval)

A monument was built at Leignon, Belgium, to memorialize Pfc Milo Huempfner, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action there on 23 December 1944.[10]

A plaque was dedicated in Noirefontaine, Belgium to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion and the civilians of the area.[10]

A plaque dedicated in La Chapelle, Belgium in the town hall to the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment.[10]

A memorial stone was placed at Fort Benning, Georgia, honoring the Battalion. It is notable because it includes a statue of their dog mascot, Furlough.[11]

In Rochelinval, Belgium a plaque was dedicated on 20 August 1989 to the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion from the Belgian people. A Stele to Lt. Col. Wood G. Joerg who was killed on 7 January 1945, and to the 551st Parachute Battalion Combat Team. On 18 February 2001, a plaque was added to the stele with the Presidential Unit Citation. In February 2000, a plaque was dedicated to Bill Tucker, "Tucker's House," and to his I Company, 505th Parachute Regiment.[10] In 2010 another plaque was added in memory of Sgt. Robert Hill, who was killed on 7 January 1945 in Rochelinval. For his heroïc actions on that day he was awarded the DSC.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Attached Units – The U.S. Airborne during World War II". Archived from the original on 27 February 2009. Retrieved 1 March 2009. 
  2. ^ http://www3.ausa.org/webint/DeptArmyMagazine.nsf/byid/CCRN-6CCRWK
  3. ^ Orfalea, Gregory Messengers of the Lost Battalion 1999 Touchstone
  4. ^ a b c d "History of the 551st PIB". Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Gary Orfalea (1997). Messengers of the Lost Battalion. The Free Press.  Quoting Ridgeways' Paratroopers by Clay Blair.
  6. ^ a b c d e "National Infantry Museum, 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion Monument". Retrieved 2008-12-03. 
  7. ^ a b "Text of the Presidential Unit Citation". Retrieved 27 February 2009. 
  8. ^ "551st Parachute Infantry Battalion Monument". National Infantry Museum. Retrieved 27 February 2009. 
  9. ^ "Chronology of the 551st PIB". Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Centre de Recherches et d'Informations sur la Bataille des Ardennes". Monuments of the World War II (in French). Retrieved 1 March 2009. [dead link]
  11. ^ National Infantry Museum 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion Monument

Further reading[edit]

  • De Trez, Michel; First Airborne Task Force, Brussels, Belgium; D-Day Publishing, 1998.
  • Dillard, Doug, COL (USA Ret); USA Airborne, 50th Anniversary: The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, Paducah, Kentucky, Turner Publishing Company, 1990.
  • Hughes, Lee; The 551st Infantry Battalion 2007
  • Morgan, Dan; Left Corner of My Heart, Wauconda, Washington; Alder Enterprises, 1984.
  • Orflea, Gregg; Messengers of the Lost Battalion, Free Press, New York, New York, 1997.
  • Tucker, Bill; Rendezvous at Rochelinval, Harwichport, Massachusetts; International Airborne Books, 1999.
  • The History Channel, Suicide Missions: Winter Warriors, 2000

External links[edit]