History of H Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
The story of the 504th begins in February of 1942 when the unit was created. In the following months troopers of the 504th went through regimental training at Fort Benning but were moved to Fort Bragg after the regiment was added to the 82nd Airborne Division. On 10 May 1943 the 504th sailed for north Africa to begin preparations for OPERATION HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily. 3rd Battalion jumped into Sicily on the night of 9 July and, although widely scattered, formed small groups and harassed the enemy in preparation for the next morning’s invasion from the sea. On the following night anti-aircraft gunners on US Navy ships below shot down 23 of the 144 planes carrying the rest of the 504th. Despite this tragedy, the regiment regrouped and completed its objective of disrupting German operations so effectively that the enemy estimated their force at ten times their actual numbers. The 504th would go on to spearhead the advance up the Sicilian coast and take 22,000 prisoners.
Months later the 504th would be put into action again when the amphibious landings at Salerno, Italy began on 9 September 1943 in OPERATION AVALANCHE. H Company was separated from the rest of the 504th and made an amphibious landing behind Army Rangers at Maiori, 9 miles west of the main invasion force. They remained there for 18 days, single-handedly defending a hill and earning a Presidential Unit Citation in the process. Meanwhile the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 504th parachuted into the Salerno region to reinforce a tenuous beachhead. As they took the high ground at Altavilla, the enemy counterattacked with such ferocity that a general suggested the unit withdraw. Epitomizing the determined spirit of the Regiment, Col. Tucker vehemently replied, “Retreat, Hell! — Send me my other battalion!” The 3rd Battalion then rejoined the 504th, the enemy was repulsed, and the Salerno beachhead was saved.
The fight up the Italian peninsula was a slow and hard one that approached stalemate status. In order to hasten the liberation of Rome, Allied planners devised OPERATION SHINGLE – a plan to bypass the German defenses across the peninsula with an amphibious landing north of the German line near Anzio. The 504th successfully took their objective but were later driven out by German tanks and artillery. They then held a defensive position along the Mussolini Canal until relieved on 28 January 1944. During this time a German officer referred to the 504th in his diary as “Devils in Baggy Pants,” a name proudly carried by the 504th until this day. In early February the Germans renewed their counterattacks and H Company was sent to stand in the breach. 25 enlisted men and 2 officers with no food, little water, and little ammunition managed to hold them off for over 24 hours with only one casualty. Once again these brave paratroopers saved the Allies from being pushed back to the sea.
In late March the 504th was ordered back to England to join the rest of the division to prepare for D-Day. As D-Day approached it became apparent that the 504th would be held back. Too many casualties and not enough replacements prevented them from participating in the invasion except for a few dozen 504th Pathfinders (paratroopers who prepared landing zones for the main invasion force).
The 504th would return to combat in OPERATION MARKET GARDEN on 17 September 1944. The operation called for a combined armor and airborne force to seize and hold key bridges and roads deep behind German lines in Holland, enabling the Allies to strike at the heart of Germany and end the war by Christmas. The 504th’s mission was to capture two strategic bridges. Capturing the bridges involved crossing a 400 yard river completely exposed to German fire in flimsy canvas boats. Despite suffering nearly 50% casualties in the crossing, enough troopers made it across to allow the bridge to be seized from both ends simultaneously. Unfortunately other Allied forces weren’t as successful and MARKET GARDEN failed to open up a direct line into Germany. The 504th was later taken off the line and sent back to France to reequip.
On 16 December 1944, the Germans launched a surprise offensive through Belgium which caught the Allies completely by surprise. Two days later the 82nd joined the fight and blunted German progress. On the morning of 19 December the 504th was getting into position north of Bastogne. Despite Germans moving to the north and south of their position, the 504th held their position and gave the Germans their first defeat in the battle.
The Battle of the Bulge would prove to be Germany’s last major action as Allied forces began driving deep into Germany. In May of 1945 Germany surrendered and the war in Europe was officially ended. Following the surrender, the 82nd Airborne Division was reassigned as an occupation force in the American Sector of Berlin. Here the 82nd Airborne Division earned another nickname, “America’s Guard of Honor.”
Throughout WWII the 504th PIR distinguished themselves as a force to be reckoned with: they succeeded where others failed, they fought the toughest battles, and 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.
- “The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment – Unit History”
- All American, All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II by Phil Nordyke
- More than Courage: The Combat History of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II by Phil Nordyke
- All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe by James Megellas (Megellas was a platoon in and then company commander of H Co. from late 1943 to the end of the war)
Other suggested reading about the 504th:
- Strike and Hold: A Memoir of the 82nd Airborne in World War II by T. Moffatt Burriss (Buriss was also a platoon/company commander in I Co.)
- Those Devils in Baggy Pants by Ross S. Carter (Carter was a rifleman in C Co.)