The 504th PIR was constituted two months after Pearl Harbor in February of 1942. It was Activated on 1 May 1942 at Fort Benning Georgia, consisting of 1st Battalion (A,B, and C Companies), 2nd Battalion (D, E, and F Companies), and 3rd Battalion (G,H and I Companies). Upon completion of regimental training in September of 1942, the 504th was assigned to the 82nd Airborne and stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in preparation for deployment to the Mediteranian Theater of Operations (MTO).
On 10 May 1943, the 504th sailed for North Africa to begin training for the invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky. 3rd Battalion jumped into Sicily on the night of 9 July 1943, and although widely scattered, formed small groups and harassed the enemy in preparation for the Allied invasion from the sea. On the following night, anti-aircraft gunners on US Navy ships off the coast of Sicily shot down 23 of the 144 planes carrying the rest of the 504th after confusing them with enemy aircraft. Despite this tragedy, the regiment reconsolidated and completed its objective of disrupting German operations. The 504th was so effective that the enemy estimated their force at ten times its actual strength. The regiment would go on to spearhead the advance up the Sicilian coast and take 22,000 prisoners.
On 9 September 1943, the 504th took part in the amphibious landings at Salerno, Italy during 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 the tenuous Allied beachhead. As the regiment 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 504th, Col. Tucker vehemently replied, “Retreat, Hell! — Send me my other battalion!” The 3rd Battalion then rejoined the 504th, repulsed the assault, and secured the Salerno Beachhead.
The fight up the Italian peninsula was a slow and hard slog that approached a stalemate. 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 to this day. By early February, the Germans renewed their counterattacks and H Company was sent to fill a breach in the line. 25 enlisted men and two officers with no food, little water, and ammunition managed to hold the Germans off for over 24 hours with only one casualty. Once again, these brave paratroopers saved the Allies from being pushed back into the sea.
In late March of 1944, the 504th was ordered back to England to join the rest of the division to prepare for Operation Overloard. As D-Day approached, it became apparent that the 504th would be held back. Too many casualties from the Italian Campaign and not enough replacements prevented them from participating in the invasion, except for a few dozen 504th Pathfinders. The Pathfinders were paratroopers who prepared landing zones for the main invasion force and suffered significant casualties on D-Day.
The 504th would return to combat as part of 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, thus enabling the Allies to strike at the heart of Germany in the hopes of ending the war by Christmas. The 504th’s mission was to capture two strategic bridges near Nijmeigen. Capturing the bridges involved crossing a 400 yard river completely exposed to German fire in flimsy canvas boats. Despite suffering nearly fifty percent 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 reconsolidate.
Germany launched a surprise offensive through Belgium on 16 December 1944 and caught the Allies completely by surprise. Two days later, the 82nd Airborne Division joined the fight and blunted German progress north of Bastogne. Despite Germans moving to the north and south of their lines, the 504th held their position and gave the Germans their first defeat of 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 officially ended. Following the surrender, the 82nd Airborne Division was reassigned as an occupation force in the American Sector of Berlin. Here, the division earned the nickname, “America’s Guard of Honor.”
Throughout World War II the 504th PIR distinguished themselves as a force to be reckoned with; they succeeded where others failed, fought in the toughest battles, and became one of the most decorated Infantry units of the entire war. 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.)