The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

by Les Hughes

© by author 2007


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

551st Introduction

Chronology

Roll of Honor

Insignia of the 551st

Joseph Edgerly

Belated Recognition


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Panama

The 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment (Reinf.) was activated 26 November 1942 at Fort Kobbe, Canal Zone.1  No other elements of the Regiment would be activated, and the unit, which would operate as an independent battalion, is generally known as the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB).2

At the time of its activation, the battalion consisted of a single company of men from the 501st PIB. When the 501st left the Canal Zone for Australia (to become the 2nd Battalion, 503rd PIR), Company C remained at Fort Kobbe as Company C, 1st Battalion, 551st PIR.3 At the same time, the balance of the battalion was forming in the “Frying Pan,” and it is there the battalion’s story really begins.

The Frying Pan, a part of Fort Benning separate from the Parachute School, was the home of the Parachute School Replacement Pool. Although a few of its personnel would be jump trained in Panama, and a handful would join the unit later in Sicily, the 551st was formed mainly from graduates of classes 42, 43, and 44 of the First Parachute Training Regiment at Fort Benning. Each weekend a new class graduated from the Parachute School, and a portion of the class joined the growing battalion. In the meantime, life in the Frying Pan consisted mainly of a rigorous program of physical training.

Sgt. Don Garrigues : “It had more or less been expected that the battalion would begin scheduling 10-day furloughs along about this time. This had been pretty much the standard practice for those who had graduated from jump school. As each day passed and no furloughs were given, this became the major topic of every gripe session. It even took precedence over gripes about the food, which was saying a lot because the food was terrible and seemed to be getting worse all the time…

“Our hopes for furloughs went down the drain when, on the morning of December 8th, the entire battalion was called out for formation in the rain and mud where we were told by the commanding officer that we would soon be leaving the continental limits of the United States. The approximately 450 men were told not to write or send anything home, and we were restricted to the limits of our area. Later, when we were allowed to write, all of our outgoing mail was censored.

“We were issued new combat jumpsuits and steel helmets. The helmets had liners and chin straps specially designed for parachutists. We stamped and identified each piece of clothing with the initial of our last name and the last four digits of our Army serial number. Any man with tattoos had to report to the medical area where any markings that would identify them as paratroopers were surgically removed or obliterated with additional tattoos. This was doubly painful to most of the guys as they had just paid to have them put on right after graduating from jump school.

“We left Fort Benning on the night of December 11th , taking one last look at the most predominant feature there—the parachute training towers. The Southern Railway provided our transportation.

“…Our troop train traveled through South Carolina, North Carolina and into Virginia. We passed through Richmond and ended up at Camp Patrick Henry, which was near Newport News, arriving there on December 13.”4

While Camp Patrick Henry served as the port of embarkation, it was, in a practical sense, more of the Frying Pan. A full training schedule was instituted and camp security was rigidly enforced. All members of the battalion were restricted to camp. No one could wear uniforms or special insignia that would identify the wearer as a paratrooper.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “Something special happened to us at Camp Patrick Henry. We could not see it then—it was one of those little things: the addition of ‘Furlough’ to our ranks. She was a shorthaired dachshund, colored black and tan, and just a pup. Some of our men took her out of the yard of the port commander, and Jim Heffernan became her keeper—at risk of court-martial. Furlough would become one of the everlasting bonds that would hold us together, brothers in life and death.”5

Pfc Jim Heffernan: “They swiped her out of somebody's yard. They had been drinking. She couldn't have been but 10 weeks old. I can’t remember who got her. We got to the dock and started loading. Phil Hammack hid my gas mask in his barracks bag and I stuffed Furlough in the empty carrier. I left her nose poking out of the side of it until we started up the gangway, then I pushed her head in and hoped she wouldn't start squealing. She was discovered but the boat had left by then. The Colonel said he would take care of everything and he looked out for her after that...”6

On 27 December, the battalion, with Major Wood Joerg commanding, left Newport News aboard the troop ship USS Joseph T. Dickman and sailed for Fort Kobbe, Canal Zone, where it arrived six days later.

Fort Kobbe was a fairly new facility. Located near the ocean and the Canal's Miraflores Locks, it boasted a new airfield, Howard Field, as well as a battery of 18-inch naval guns. For the next eight months, Fort Kobe would be home for both the 551st and the 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion. (The 550th Airborne Infantry Battalion was not a paratrooper unit. Originally intended to be an air-landed unit, i.e., one that would be flown to, and land on, captured airfields, the unit was used in combat as glider infantry.)  

Drilling in Panama's heat (C. Fairlamb)

Immediately upon the battalion’s arrival at Fort Kobbe, Major Joerg was confronted with a problem. The officers of Company C, 501st PIB, who had remained at Kobbe to be part of the 551st, believing that they were the nucleus of the new battalion and that those coming from the States to join them were, in effect, fillers, had set up a complete battalion organization, from battalion commander on down. Major Joerg, the commanding officer of the “fillers,” had a different view of the situation. (Joerg would rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and is referred to as “the Colonel” by those who served under him.) 

T/5 Dan Morgan: “A few serious mistakes were made at the very outset, the most regrettable of which was probably the Colonel's negative response to preparations made for him in Panama by the officers and men of Company C of the 501st Battalion. This apparent slight may have been caused by feelings of insecurity, for the Colonel was then only 27 and this was his first overseas command. The slight feeling of unease that it generated between the 400 of us newcomers and 125 old guard then at Fort Kobbe was to last until we returned to the States eight months later. From that point on we were as one. Unfortunately, as a result of this incident, we lost one very good and dedicated officer: Bill Hickman. We GOYA's have to remember him because, in addition to been an outstanding officer, he was technically the first commanding officer of the 551st.”7 (The respect that Dan Morgan accords William Hickman is noteworthy in light of the treatment Mr. Hickman receives in Gregory Orfalea’s book.8)

Wood G. Joerg (West Point class of 1937) was a strict disciplinarian who set high standards of performance for the Battalion. Respected by the battalion’s officers, although somewhat aloof from them, he was, in time, revered by the enlisted men.  

The Colonel was given to calling the men his “birds.”  Someone applied the Army's penchant for acronyms to one of the Colonel's favorite expressions, “get off your ass!”, and soon the men were referring to themselves as “GOYA birds,” or simply GOYAs. The nickname stuck.

Almost immediately upon arriving at Fort Kobe, the battalion embarked upon an extensive training program stressing physical conditioning, weapons proficiency, and, especially, jungle warfare and survival. The men were issued machetes and learned to use them for clearing their way through the jungle as well as for weapons.

The mission of the 550th and 551st at Fort Kobe was to provide a mobile strike force to protect the Panama Canal, and to deploy, if necessary, to Central American and Caribbean countries whose governments were at risk of being overthrown by pro-Nazi factions or that were providing aid and comfort to the Nazi’s U-Boat activities in the region.9  Security measures were instituted to minimize publicity regarding the presence of the units and their mission. The men's outgoing mail was censured to remove any indication of their location or their mission. The unit's address during this period was simply APO 832, c/o Postmaster, New Orleans, La.10

But on one occasion it was decided to publicize the battalion's presence and its combat readiness. Near the end of its stay in Panama, the battalion was turned out for a special review in Balboa for the president of Columbia. It was part of an American psychological warfare effort to destabilize the Vichy (pro-Nazi) administration governing the French island of Martinique, where, it was suspected, German U-boats were being resupplied. So serious was the American concern with Martinique that, on 13 May, the 550th and 551st were put on standby for an invasion of the island. The psychological pressure generated by the preparations was enough to topple the Vichy administration of the island, and the invasion was called off.  

Gearing up for a practice jump in Panama. (C. Fairlamb)

In July rumors began to circulate that the battalion would be leaving Fort Kobbe. The rumors proved true, and on 20 August 1943 both the 550th and 551st boarded a troop ship and sailed from the Canal Zone. The speculation among the men was that they were bound for New York and then overseas, but the ship steamed into the Pacific and headed north. Ten days later, the battalion disembarked in San Francisco.

The voyage was marked by an incident that served to enhance the Colonel's popularity with the enlisted men. Furlough, the battalion's dachshund mascot, was smuggled aboard the troop ship, but her presence was soon discovered by the crew.

Capt. Ed Hartman: “A crewman, acting on the orders of the Master-at-Arms, attempted to throw Furlough overboard in compliance with Army Transport Service regulations, which prohibited animals accompanying troops. The crewman was immediately surrounded by a group of very quiet but angry troopers who made him realize that if Furlough went over the side, so would he.”11

T/5 Dan Morgan: “At this point our Colonel called on the Master and a face-down and potential mass mutiny were avoided. Feelings were running high at that moment. It is possible that if the master of the vessel had attempted to have furlough thrown over, we would've taken over the ship. We were in no mood for games. So the Master wisely decided to bide his time until we got to San Francisco and then turned the matter over to the port authorities. The Colonel risked a court-martial and the loss of his of command over the incident. These were the things that marked him as our own.”12

Camp Mackall

On 3 September, the 550th and 551st boarded troop trains for a five-day cross-country trip that would take them to their new home, Camp Mackall, North Carolina. Camp Mackall, a temporary facility for airborne troops, was only eight months old when the 551st arrived. (Closed in 1945, Camp Mackall today is again active and serves as a site of US Special Forces training.)

T/5 Dan Morgan: “A few weeks after our arrival, the Colonel arranged for our battalion to do the first experimental mass parachute jumps ever made from gliders. Notices appeared on the Company bulletin board calling for volunteers, and signature sheets immediately filled to overflowing, for we badly needed something to do.”13  

Waiting to board gliders at Laurinburg-Maxton AAB.  (C. Fairlamb)

Major Bill Holm: “Our Battalion pioneered the technique of snatching a glider, with troops, off the ground. And, of course, we tested the concept of jumping the battalion from C-47s and gliders simultaneously, with each C-47 pulling two gliders. We made a close pattern on the ground.”14

S/Sgt Jim Stevens: “We began making glider jumps. One of the problems was that we jumped from both doors of a glider. If one stick went out faster than the other, then the glider tended to heal over on one wing. It was important that both sides went out at the same time. Also, the anchor line fasteners and other pieces of hardware used in the gliders were substandard and would sometimes break loose.”15  (When jumping, the men were organized into groups of about 18 called “sticks.”)  

A pose before boarding gliders, Camp Mackall.

T/Sgt Bob Van Horrsen: “I heard that when Sergeant Blaiszik jumped (he was pretty big) he pulled the anchor line cable right out of the glider with him. I was in that same glider and he was the last man out.”16

T/5 Dan Morgan: “That happened more than once. The cable bracket would pull out of the glider from the bulkhead. Fortunately, the cable bracket U-bolt remained fixed to the anchor line cable end, thus retaining all the anchor-line snap fasteners. When these particular gliders landed, the anchor-line cables were hanging out of their doors with all the static lines bunched at the end of the cable.”17  

Paratrooper-laden gliders being towed from Camp Mackall airstrip.  (C. Fairlamb)

When the 551st left Fort Kobbe, it was a highly-trained, combat-ready unit, and it was into combat the men expected to be sent. Instead, they found themselves at Camp Mackall in what seemed to be an endless training program. Morale deteriorated, and to complicate matters, Lt. Col. Joerg left the battalion early in the fall of 1943 to assume command of the new 542nd PIB, a unit that was intended to become a regiment. His replacement was Lt. Col. Rupert D. Graves, a career soldier and West Point graduate (class of 1925).

As morale continued to deteriorate, the incidence of AWOLs increased. Rumors began to circulate that the battalion would be broken up and the men assigned to other airborne units then at Mackall.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “Colonel Graves decided to correct our bad attitudes by force. ...One of the unusual after effects of Colonel Graves's efforts at reconstructing the 551st has been the dramatic difference in the attitudes towards this well-intentioned commander of his officers on the one hand, and the men on the other...

“... the officers' view of Colonel Graves suggests a very mature, well-intentioned, likable, professional and tough-minded career officer. From our view he was distant, abusive, grossly unfair, inept and probably temporary. He had no charisma and seemed not to care. We could sense the threat we were to his career. We would have shaped up for him had he asked us in the right way, I think, but he was in the saddle and that was evidently not his way. Perhaps too much of the stick and too little of the carrot.”18 

A 5-mile run each morning before breakfast was instituted in an effort, it was believed, to generate sufficient pressure within the ranks to reduce the AWOL rate. The tactic might have been effective with a new unit, but the men the 551st were now a close-knit family, and the resulting hostility was directed a Colonel Graves.19

T/5 Dan Morgan: “In any event, we were restricted, furloughs were abolished, our noncoms were reduced in rank and minor infractions were dealt with summarily and harshly. We finally had over 200 over men in the post stockade.”20

It was during this period the battalion was notified that it would be making a night jump—its first. Such training was considered essential because of the belief that daylight airborne operations in hostile territory would incur unacceptably high casualty rates.  

Before a practice jump, Camp Mackall.

All four companies of the battalion were to jump simultaneously onto a drop zone 1600 feet wide and 2000 feet long, bounded on each side by a small lake or reservoir. Control of the jump was taken from the jumpmasters and given to the pilot or copilot, who would activate a red light and then a green light, indicating stand-by and jump.

At 1915 hrs on 16 February, the planes took off in conditions of light rain and mist. At 2030 hours the battalion began its jump.

Capt. Ed Hartman: “The Troop Carrier unit became disoriented during the final approach to the DZ and dropped the battalion over the western part of North Carolina. A major element of the drop went into a forested area. There was a lake in the center, and due to visibility conditions that night, the lake appeared to be the only cleared area, so the jumpers, as they descended, tried to slip in that direction.”21

1st Sgt. Bill Lumsden: “Well, we made a night jump and I was the last man out of the plane. It was a very, very dark night, and of course, our jump was controlled by the pilot or copilot. They turned on the switch and we went on the buzzer or light or whatever. When we jumped you couldn't see anything on the ground at all. It was absolutely pitch black, so that we were on the ground or in the water, as the case may be, before anyone could even see what was going on, so they didn't have a chance to slip out of their chutes. Being the last man, I landed in fairly shallow water and so I got out OK. So much of the rest of it is rather sketchy. I remember how terrible it was to come back to the barracks afterwards and to realize that much of my platoon was gone.”22

Capt. Jud Chalkey: “It was about day light when we fished the first body out of the water. He was obviously dead, but his buddy was there with him. He kept saying, ‘help him Doc, he ain’t dead.’  I tried to convince him—rigor mortis had already set in—but he was really beside himself. We finally got him calmed down somehow. That was a hard thing to see.”23

T/5 Dan Morgan: “The jump was a sad one for the battalion, for nine very good troopers were lost, eight of them being drowned in Reservoir South and one killed on landing. The jump was made with full combat load, so that the men who hit the reservoir went right to the bottom. One-man landed in about 7 feet of water and survived by repeatedly jumping up, gasping a lung full of air and then taking several steps towards shore along the bottom. At least 40 men landed in Reservoir South, and it is surprising that the cost was not higher.”24

S/Sgt Jim Stevens: “At that time we were probably the oldest airborne unit there at Mackall and they didn't want the younger men to see the bodies, so we took care of everything ourselves. We got them all out and buried them with honors.”25

T/5 Dan Morgan: “Drew Pearson, who for many years wrote a nationally published column called The Washington Merry-Go-Round, was advised of our unfortunate drownings at Camp Mackall. Pearson had been pushing for some time to get the armed services to adopt the British quick-release parachute harness, and in his column dated 17 April 1944 he noted that Colonel C. B. Degavre, second in command at Camp Mackall, came to Washington in March, following our accident. The Colonel's trip was made in order to secure the procurement of the British type harnesses for the U.S. Army paratroopers. Thus, it would seem that our men did not die entirely in vain, for the quick release harness was eventually adopted.”26 (Modification of the T-5 parachute harness to accommodate a quick-release mechanism did not begin until after D-Day and appears to have been driven not by this tragedy but by the experiences of paratroopers who made the Normandy jump.)

On 23 March, Lt. Col. Joerg returned to take command of the Battalion and Lt. Col. Graves departed. (Graves would rise to the rank of colonel and command the 517th PRCT, which role would again bring him into contact with the 551st.) Almost immediately upon taking command, Joerg paid a visit to the nearly 200 members of his battalion confined to stockade (nearly all of them for having gone AWOL). He spoke to the men, ending his brief speech with a request for a show of hands from those who would pledge on their word of honor not to go AWOL if allowed to return to the battalion. A few minutes later, after gathering their belongings, the men marched back to the battalion.

Italy

The 550th and 551st boarded Liberty ships and sailed east out of Norfolk on 23 April 1944. Accompanying the men of the 551st was the battalion's mascot, Furlough, whose passage had been arranged in advance by Lt. Col. Joerg. By the end the first week of June, the elements of the battalion had assembled in Naples.  

Shortly after arriving in Italy, the battalion underwent a reorganization that converted Headquarters Company into a heavy weapons company; formed a Headquarters Detachment from the battalion’s staff and administrative personnel, and a Service Company Detachment to provide logistical services.27

Initially, the battalion was to join the fighting at the Anzio beachhead, but rather than boarding a troopship, the men were loaded into old 40x8 railcars and soon were rolling south through the Italian countryside, away from the front. The battalion’s destination was Camp Wright, near Trapani, Sicily, and more training. (At least one of the 551st veterans recalled that the battalion was tasked with establishing a jump school at Camp Wright.28 This is an interesting claim, as the Fifth Army had established its jump school near Trapani, at Camp Kurtz, about six months earlier, and moved that facility to a location near Rome at about the same time the 551st relocated to Lido di Roma.29)

Although the battalion did not go to the Anzio front, one of its members did.

Sgt Bill Hatcher: “Joe Edgerly was an unforgettable person. After all, how many of us would go AWOL to the front?  Joe was almost a perfect physical specimen: very muscular, adventuresome, carefree and gung ho. So when we got to Italy Joe went AWOL from the battalion, I think while we were in Naples, before we went to Sicily for training. He was gone a few days, maybe four, and then came back to the battalion. At this time he was not in Company B so I got to see him less frequently. The next time I saw him I mentioned that he had done this and I asked him why. He said he just had to find out what combat was like. He had gone up to the Fifth Army front. That would have been in early June 1944. To me that is derring-do of the highest order.”30 (Edgerly would be killed in action during the Southern France campaign.)

In Sicily the intensity of the training increased.

S/Sgt Charlie Fairlamb: “The training in Sicily was the toughest in the world. They gave us no rest at all. We would go along on a hot night and they would tell you to empty your canteen. Then they would put a guard on any available water and make you hike for eight hours with full load, carrying all equipment, without water. I can recall lying on the ground trying to get dew off the grass, but there wasn't any. You couldn't chew gum or anything, it would just stick. We had pills that would keep you awake for a couple of days—benzedrine—but I never took any because I figured I might get to a place where I would be able to sleep.”31

T/5 Jack Affeck: “The training went along pretty well until they tried an experiment with benzedrine. It was supposed to make you very alert and give you extra strength. So we took one pill each and started out on a 20-mile hike. It was just great, and we were really moving along at a great pace. That was at night, and we were to go the 20 miles and then go into a simulated assault; however, by the time we got there the stuff had worn off and everybody was just completely pooped. I guess they decided the stuff wasn't so great after all.”32

Major Ray Hermann: “After four weeks in Sicily, during which we became brown as natives and hard as nails, we again boarded boxcars and headed for the vicinity of Rome. I missed the train trip that time, having been chosen to take our small convoy to the new base. We had two beautiful camps there—first on the shore of Lake Albano, and then at Lido di Roma, which once was a swanky beach resort southwest of Rome. We had a hotel there, and a couple of villas on the beach for quarters. We cleared a path through the German-laid minefields so we could swim, and we made the occasional trip into Rome. Life was good. It wasn't all play, of course. It was at Lido that we were told we were to jump into South France as part of the First Airborne Task Force. That meant the study of maps and aerial photos, making sand table models of the area we planned to hit, packing of parachutes and equipment, and more training with a specific objective in view.”33

Southern France

After the fall of Sicily in August 1943, the focus of Allied planning fell on Western Europe. A plan was proposed that included two invasions of France, one from the north, Operation OVERLORD, and one from the South, Operation ANVIL. By drawing German troops away from the north of France, ANVIL would help ensure the success of OVERLORD.

Before ANVIL could be implemented, it was first necessary to drive the Germans out of Italy, and that proved to be a much more protracted undertaking than Allied planners had envisioned. As a result, ANVIL was scrapped and OVERLORD proceeded as scheduled but without the aid of a diversionary of invasion of the South of France.

Soon after the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower pressed for the invasion of southern France. President Roosevelt accepted Eisenhower's arguments over the strong dissent of Churchill, who favored a thrust into the Balkans. Thus was ANVIL, now codenamed DRAGOON, resurrected.

DRAGOON, scheduled for 15 August 1944, was to consist of an amphibious landing by three US infantry divisions (the 3rd, 36th , and 45th) and an airborne assault by a new division-size force, the First Airborne Task Force, commanded by Major General Robert T. Frederick and comprising the British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade and all the separate American airborne units in the Mediterranean Theater: the 509th PIB, 517th PRCT, 550th AIB, and the 551st PIB. A platoon from the 887th Engineer Company (Glider) was attached to the 551st for the operation.

Sgt. Don Garrigues: “A unit specially trained in camouflage work set up camp near our building one day and began the task of spray painting every jumpsuit and piece of equipment in colors of green and black. One platoon at a time was taken through the process, which consisted of placing a box over our heads and being spray painted all over. Our weapons and equipment were placed to one side and gone over systematically by two men with spray guns. It was a hurried job, but the effects were very good.”34

Waiting to board aircraft for the invasion of southern France. (C. Fairlamb)

Cpl. John “Mel” Clark: “About a week before South France D-Day we got our clothing, guns and equipment camouflaged and ready. We left our college there in Lido di Roma by truck and went to the airfield north of Rome. Then we spent three days resting up, sleeping, swimming, going to movies and getting the 'big picture'—aerial photos, sand tables, maps, the works! The Colonel made sure every man was familiar with the whole operation. His assembly flag was the flag of the Confederate states. At 1300 we ate a big meal, put on our war paint, donned our camouflage suits and attached everything but the kitchen sink to us and walked about a mile to the planes.”35

With the exception of the 551st, the airborne units of the Task Force (and the pathfinders of the 551st) parachuted into southern France during the predawn hours of 15 August. The men of the 551st jumped from their planes over DZ/LZ A, near Le Motte, at 1809 hrs. The gliders of the 550th soon followed. (Jumping with the 551st was the Red Cross representative to the Task Force, David de Varona, whose daughter Donna would win two swimming gold medals at the 1964 Olympics.)

Capt. Jud Chalkey: “I was jumpmaster of our stick. It consisted mostly of mortar and bazooka men from Battalion HQ. The panorama of the invasion as we flew over the beachhead was a magnificent sight. You could see the assault boats going in and the guys crawling on the beaches. The battleships were firing and the battle was in full swing. We were flying at about 2000 feet but you could smell the cordite. We had just six minutes from the time we got to the shoreline until we were to jump. We got the red light, the plane dropped down some, and then lifted as we came in for the drop. So when the green light came on, the deck was sloping upward and the men had to climb a bit to get to the door. The pilot had to rev up his engines because of the upward slant of the terrain below. We were probably going 120 when we went out the door. That's when just about everything you were carrying that weighed anything tore loose and went flying. Panels blew; men lost their equipment. It was a very hard opening shock.”36

551st jumps into southern France, 15 August 1944.  (Signal Corps)

Lt. Col. (eventually Lt. Gen.) William Yarborough, CO of the 509th PIB: “Your outfit came in at 1800. We got in there about 0430, before dawn. I saw the whole thing and the best drop of all was yours. It was beautifully done, there wasn't any doubt about it. Your battalion's role in the South France operation was a classic. Strategically it was for the purpose of taking the heat off the right flank of the Seventh Army, along with the other units of the First Airborne Task Force. In a larger sense, the operation was intended to keep the German coastal forces from getting north and impeding the movement of Allied forces across northern France. It was a beautiful use of the airborne. Also, the nature of the terrain and the situation in the South of France was such that regular, heavy infantry outfits would have had a lot more difficulty in accomplishing those missions. The airborne was more flexible. For instance, we chased the enemy up into the Maritime Alps and then deployed along the passes in small groups and engaged in mountain warfare. You couldn’t expect a regular infantry outfit to do that to the degree that we did.”37

T/5 Dan Morgan: “It was our moment of glory. We had rolled the dice with the German—a broad daylight jump right in his backyard. We won. It was amazing. We took maybe five serious injuries and two killed, and we had over 800 men, combat ready and in position, waiting for the word to go. All our training was about to pay off.”38

The battalion moved out toward its next objective: the city of Drauguignan, population 10,000. The city, headquarters for a German Army Corps, was garrisoned by a force of about 750 soldiers.

Capt. Ed Hartman: “On D+1 we were visited by a lovely French lady who bicycled in from the town of Drauguignan, which was about six miles to our north. She reported that the German troops who had garrisoned Drauguignan had evacuated the town under FFI sniper fire after observing our parachute landing. She said they had marshaled outside the town and were preparing to move back in, and that severe measures would probably be taken against the population in reprisal for the sniper fire. The Colonel was on a reconnaissance mission then, so the battalion staff relayed the information to HQ, First Airborne Task Force.”39

Major Ray Hermann: “The day after the jump into South France the 551st was able to shift from the defense to the offense. This is the way it happened. Ed Hartman, Battalion S-2, got word that the German troops had pulled out of Drauguignan and that French flags had been unfurled in the city. Now, the S-2 was told, the Germans were returning to the city and the French patriots would be placed in a precarious position. In the absence of the Colonel, the Battalion Executive Officer radioed the information to Task Force Hq. When the Colonel returned to our command post, the order from Task Force was waiting for him: ‘Hold present position with minimum force. Attack and seize Drauguignan.’”40

S/Sgt Charlie Fairlamb: "On D+2 we took Drauguignan in one most grueling marches I've ever been on. Instead of going up the road into the city, which was about mile, we went around on the flank and up and down terraces. We got into the city at 0200 and the men could hardly stand up. It was pitch dark and we hadn't made a sound getting into town. Parties were organized to round up the Krauts and that night we got about 500.

“About 0400 we laid down in the streets to sleep, and imagine the surprise of the inhabitants when they saw their town full of GIs in the morning. The people were wonderful to us. They kissed us, hugged us and cried over us. We were a very sorry-looking sight after only two hours rest. The women came and mended our clothes and brought us water to wash in and did everything they could for us. They had no idea we were coming until the afternoon before, when we had quite a battle on the outskirts of the town.

“We set up our mortars in the town square and fired all day and night. Snipers were very active on the rooftops but no one paid very much attention to them. Most of the mortar platoon was lined up along the curb as the tanks came into town. They were sure they were the first and had quite a good reception, but when they got to the square and saw all of us already there, their faces dropped. We stood there and cheered them just like the civilians.”41

Cpl. Joe Cicchinelli: “The next day the battalion moved in. While we were going to the town I went in a cave behind the German headquarters and found four big burlap bags with German and French currency—it was probably their payroll. There was also some beer and cognac. I told some of the guys who were there with me to take the beer for the officers and keep the cognac for the enlisted men. Then we threw the sacks in a truck and took off down the street. I was in the back and as we drove along, I threw all the money out into the streets of Drauguignan, by the handfuls. People came from all over and picked it up, and that was the end of the German payroll. Boy, were we heroes!”42

The presence of the Americans emboldened the French; everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a part of the act.

Sgt. Carl Noble: “Then we ran into this little French kid about 13 who was carrying a big 10-gauge shotgun. The guys kidded him, saying that if he ever fired it he would wind up over in Italy, so he motioned for us to come with him and shows us an old mattress. He turned the thing over and there was a dead German officer with a big hole in him. That kid had done him in good.”43

A patrol of 14 men was led to a large château by a prisoner who reported that it housed an important headquarters. The squad, which was carrying two machine guns and a bazooka, surprised and overwhelmed the German perimeter defense. After a brief but intense firefight, during which several bazooka rounds were fired into the château, the Germans surrendered. Those captured—Major General Ludwig Bieringer and his entire LXII Wehrmacht Corps staff—were a rich haul for the Allies and an embarrassment for the Germans.

Major Ray Hermann: “This involves the Saturday Evening Post. Sometime in the period 1952-54 that magazine published an article entitled ‘They'll Never forget Mark Clark.’ The article concerned itself primarily with a tiff some members of that fighting Texas outfit, the 36th Infantry Division, had with General Clark over a river crossing in Italy. But the author of the article went beyond that—he gave the 36th the credit for the liberation of Drauguignan. Of course, a division is quite big and a battalion is quite small, so perhaps when the 36th Infantry Division rolled through Drauguignan it did not know that the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was already there. Subsequently, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team was given credit for the liberation of Drauguignan. That was based on the fact that the 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, a part of the 517th was ordered to provide artillery support to the 551st in the attack; but the undeniable truth remains: the 517th Regiment did not participate in the attack.”44

MG R. T. Frederick (center) inspects a group of 551st men led by Major William Holm.  

The Battalion moved on toward Cannes, and Hill 105.

Sgt. Emory Albritton: “Company B was the lead company in a dusk attack, with the 1st Special Service Force on our right. We went up on this hill, before Cannes, in a frontal attack. There was a lot of firing in both directions and then we came back off the hill and went up a draw on the left side. It was a dry creek bed and by then it was dark.

“The artillery was as heavy as you can possibly imagine. …they were traversing up and down the draw and they were getting a lot of the guys. A dud landed right near me and I stuck my handout and touched the nose and got burned good. Everett Debarr was right in front of me, and all at once a shell exploded right by us and he took all the shrapnel. He had big holes in his back, so I figured he was a goner. They were using a lot of white phosphorus and it was almost like daytime—there were a lot of small fires burning around the area and I think Lt. Hecq got some phosphorus in the face. People were moaning and groaning all around.

“Anyway, I had noticed a sort of ledge above us—a bunch of rocks higher up. I asked Debarr if he was all right but all he could do was groan. So I got hold of him (he was one of the bigger guys in the company), and he was mumbling 'Help me, help me!'  Then the two of us sort of climbed up and staggered up there, in all the artillery, and took cover the best we could. The artillery finally let up and soon I heard hobnail boots passing right below us as the Krauts came into the area.

“When it finally got light, I looked down on the darndest mess you ever saw. The bodies of Company B's 2nd Platoon were strewn all over the area down there. Across the draw was a German machine gun with a three-man crew and a couple of ammunition bearers. I had given Debarr a shot of morphine to keep him quiet so the Germans wouldn't hear us—although he was tough as nails. After I had sized up the situation I said to Debarr, ‘look, I can leave you here and try to get up the mountain or I can take you and try to get back to our lines.’ He just mumbled so I started carrying him out. I just got him up on my shoulder and started down the hill towards the Germans. I came very close to them and they were watching us, but they did not stop us. As we went past, one of them saluted me and I nodded my head.”45

Major Ray Hermann: “On Hill 105, Company B was just simply caught in heavy artillery fire and suffered casualties. I think we may have had about 16 KIAs. That was a single night engagement... for the next few days we maintained steady pressure against the slowly withdrawing Germans, pushing them back toward the Italian border. There was some rather sharp fighting in that phase, but when we finally reached Cannes not a shot was fired as we marched into that beautiful resort city.”46

From Cannes, the battalion proceeded to Nice.

Lt. Dick Durkee: “The S-2 called me in and directed me to take a patrol and find out if Nice was occupied by Germans. I was to go to the edge of the city, report back by radio and then return. When I got to the outskirts of Nice I didn't see any Germans and the city was quiet and appeared deserted, so I said to myself, 'Damned if I'm going to go back. We'll just go on in.'  So we just kept going, right down the main street.

“Well, the first thing that happened was that a little girl came out a one houses, and she was standing there with her finger and her mouth—she was about five years old. She was just looking at me, so I said 'Americans!'  Then she ran into the house crying 'Americaines! Americaines!' Then people started shouting and screaming. They came running out of all the houses by the hundreds. What had been a ghost town as we started in soon changed into a circus. We were joined by some FFIs and some local policeman, and then we found a Frenchman who could speak English and asked him where was the best hotel in town, and then we just moved in. That night the mayor came in—a band came and was playing in the street. They played our national anthem and we all stood out on the balcony and took the cheers of the crowd. Boy, they brought us wine and champagne—flowers—you can't imagine. Well, finally I called up our S-2 and reported in and the next day the battalion marched in. Our battalion was the first to enter Nice, and my patrol was the first American unit.”47  

LT Dick Durkee (far left) and his patrol enter Nice.  (C. Fairlamb)

Lt. Durkee's patrol was welcomed by the people of Nice on the morning of 29 August. The next day, the city turned out to give the GIs a delirious welcomed on what has become the official liberation day of Nice.

Maritime Alps

Early in September, the battalion moved into the Maritime Alps, where, along with the 509th and 550th, it became part of the 509th Task Force, the mission of which was to protect the right flank the 7th Army.

As the 7th Army rapidly advanced, the German forces retreated deeper into the mountains, leaving behind the Austrian 5th High Mountain Assault Division to keep the Task Force occupied. The 551st was responsible for defending a frontline near a 40-mile portion of the Italian border running from St. Etienne de Tinee in the North to St. Martin Vesubie in the South.  

81-mm mortar position near St. Martin Vesubie.  (C. Fairlamb)

The Austrians, by virtue of their position on the heights and their artillery superiority, held a distinct advantage over the elements of 551st in the villages below. But aggressive patrolling by the battalion prevented the Austrians from mounting surprise attacks in strength.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “The patrols they did send down our way came to frequent grief, and so a stalemate of sorts ensued. The 5th held the peaks and ridges, and we held the towns. Without a doubt, we had the best of it.”48

In early September, the battalion’s rear elements, which had come across the beach in the amphibious phase, caught up with the unit. Among them was Furlough.

Sgt. Carl Noble: “Furlough got very combat-conscious while we were in the Maritime Alps. When she moved, if we were expecting action, she would sense the tenseness in the men and would go from cover to cover. She would turnaround and watch the guys, trying to figure out what was going on.”49

Sgt. Don Garrigues: “On 5 October a howling blizzard swept over the entire area, blanketing everything with deep snow. Our patrols used white ski suits for camouflage, the same as the Germans. We also used skis and snowshoes when it was to our advantage. It was by a strange quirk of fate that we were fighting in knee-deep snow thousands of feet up in the Alps when we had been trained for so long in jungle warfare. Sometimes our patrols ambushed the enemy and sometimes we would be ambushed. Although we lost some men, the enemy lost more. They were fighting in their native surroundings but we were still beating them.”50

Sgt. Jim Stevens: “Wintertime caught us then and we kinda suffered because we had our jumpsuits and they were thin. Supply finally came up with some white ponchos but they were just for the patrols, and you couldn't get shot in those because they had to be brought back undamaged for the next patrol.”51

I don't think we're in Panama anymore!  551st troopers on  patrol in Maritime Alps. (C. Fairlamb)

As was so often the case during the war, it was the German artillery and mortars that took the greatest toll, physically and mentally.

Sgt. Charlie Fairlamb: “The shelling is beginning to tell on the men. German patrols have come down into town and we have only about 15 riflemen and 14 mortarmen. We've killed, wounded and captured our share of Germans while we've been here, but I think if the shelling keeps up much longer, some of the guys will go crazy. There is no place to go and nothing to do but wait for them to shell some more.”52

On 18 November, after nearly three months of sparring with the Austrians of the 5th Division, the battalion was relieved and pulled back to St. Jeannet to rest and re-equip before moving north across France.

The Bulge

Sgt. Don Garrigues: “Shortly after the first of December, we boarded 40 and 8 boxcars and departed from St. Jeannet on a French train headed north. The Champagne Campaign, as the invasion of South France was sometimes called, was successfully completed and now we were ready for our next mission. Our battalion had taken over 750 prisoners of war and had inflicted an unknown number of casualties on the enemy. All of our objectives had been accomplished in what historians have stated was the most successful airborne operation of the war. For this, the 551st paid the price of 163 casualties, of which 21 were either killed in action or died of wounds.”53  (The number of casualties suffered by the 551st during the war remains a source of controversy, but Garrigues’s figure for the battalion’s dead in southern France is very close to the figure of 20 the author calculated after examining the battalion’s casualties records in 2006-2007. See Roll of Honor.)

US Airborne units were gathering in the area around Rhiems, where the XVIII Airborne Corps was headquartered, in preparation of a final airborne assault across the Rhine. On 8 December, the battalion arrived at its new home, a military Academy on the outskirts of Laon, 30 miles northwest of Rhiems. It was to be a short stay.

At about 1930 hrs on 17 December, Lt. Col. Joerg was ordered to report immediately to 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters. When he returned, he assembled the officers and informed them that the battalion was to be ready to move out by 1000 on the following day.

At 0400 on 18 December, the battalion was notified that its destination was Bastogne. At 0900, one hour before departure, the battalion was notified that it was reverting back to XVIII Airborne Corps Headquarters under General Ridgway and that it would remain in reserve at Laon. At 1600 hrs the battalion was ordered to be ready to move out at 0200 on 19 December to the headquarters of the 30th Infantry Division at Stavelot, Belgium, for assignment. At 0100 on 19 December, the trucks to be used to transport the battalion were recalled by Corps. Finally, the battalion was loaded aboard 2½-ton quartermaster trucks and set out for the Ardennes. The confusion that would characterize so much of the Battle of the Bulge was already in evidence.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “The trip lasted about two full days for most of the men and at least once and possibly three times the convoy was fragmented and its parts went off in different directions. Although a large part of Eastern Belgium was technically behind the German lines because of von Rundstedt's breakthrough, the roads through the German held area were frequently open, and if you are smart enough and lucky enough to avoid the occasional roadblock, you might travel quite a way—even get where you were going.”54

Capt. Ed Hartman: “We were to link with the 101st Airborne Division and our initial destination was Bastogne, but somewhere during that wild night ride it became obvious that Bastogne had already been surrounded. We were rerouted to the town of Werbomont to link up there with elements of the 82nd. I'm not sure that the 82nd was even there then. The 'Old Hickory' Division (the 30th) was holding the line in that area and conditions were in a state of upheaval at that moment. We did arrive at Werbomont and from there we moved to towns like Spa and Malmedy. Total confusion reigned at that time. Eventually we were 'engulfed' by elements of the 82nd, and from that point on, are fate must be considered as part of the 82nd Division”55

Men of the 551st moving up early in the Bulge, before the weather turned.  (Signal Corps)

A truck loaded with mortar rounds was placed at the end of the convoy to minimize damage to the other vehicles should the load detonate. Its driver was Pfc. Milo Huempfner. Just outside Leignon, Huempfner lost control on the icy road and the truck plunged upright into a deep ditch. The cargo was off-loaded to another truck with the help of civilians from Leignon, and Huempfner was ordered to remain with his truck until a wrecker could get to him. It would be two weeks before Huempfner rejoined the battalion.

Provided with food by local civilians, Huempfner stayed with his vehicle for several days, until a German tank column approached, heading for Leignon. Huempfner destroyed his truck and entered the town where, for the next two days, he conducted a one-man war against the Germans, venturing out at night to shoot German soldiers or to destroy their armored vehicles, and warning approaching Allied columns of the German armor present. When elements of the 2nd Armored Division entered Leignon, they found Huempfner with 18 German prisoners. For his actions in Leignon, Huempfner was awarded, at the recommendation of the 2nd Armored Division, the DSC.

Fragmented during the trip to the front (a front that seemed to be everywhere), the battalion regrouped during the period 22-25 December in a series of bivouacs around Ster, Stavelot, and Werbomont. The scene in the area was one of complete devastation. Nighttime temperatures near zero (°F) and nearly a half-foot of snow on the ground drove the men to seek shelter in abandoned buildings and with civilian families.

The confusion generated by the rapid German advance created a near vacuum where hard information was concerned. The vacuum was soon filled with rumors, and this in turn fed the confusion.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “Major General Jim Gavin, commanding the 82nd Airborne Division, visited our bivouac at Rahier on 27 December. He gave the battalion a pep talk after the style of General Eisenhower on the eve of the Normandy invasion. Gavin announced that the 551st had been selected to make the initial ‘raid in force’ against the Germans in the Bulge. We were going to turn it around and start things going the other way. He stressed that we were receiving a signal honor and that we might take very heavy casualties but our mission was vital, and a great deal depended on the outcome. In short, we would pass through the US forward lines, penetrate about four miles into German-held territory, attack and reduce the German-held village of Noirefontaine, and then return to base with prisoners for interrogation.”56

Capt. Ed Hartman: “On 27 December General Gavin came to the command post of the 551st, walking across the snow-covered fields unaccompanied, his rifle over his shoulder. There, in late evening, he proposed that the battalion make an attack in order to determine whether conditions were right for an Allied counter-offensive. So he had, in effect, selected us to be his ‘pigeon’ for the testing of German mettle.”57

Major Ray Hermann: “We were to pass through the lines of the 508th Regiment and stage a night raid in battalion strength. We weren’t too confident. Taking six or seven hundred men into enemy lines is one thing, but getting them back after the fight has started and your presence is known is something else. Just before we jumped off, General Gavin called on us. He squatted down in the snow with us and talked over our plans. Things like that make a general a General. The realization that a two-star general was interested in our raid made us all feel better; we were eager to go.  

Snapshot taken during night assault on Noirefontaine.  (C. Fairlamb)

“It turned out amazingly well. We penetrated about 5,000 yards into the German lines, burned some buildings which they were using for barracks, and caught a lot of them with our surprise rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire. We had a few casualties, of course, but we made an orderly withdrawal as planned, carrying our wounded out with us, and from then on we definitely belong to the 82nd Airborne family.”58

After the attack, the battalion pulled back, through the lines of the 508th, to Rahier, where it remained for the next six days. German artillery activity continued at a high level; it was not a peaceful six days.  

VIII Corps Headquarter's war room situation map on 2 January 1945 showing the Bastogne pocket 

in the shape of a man's head, his nose pointing at Koblenz. The 551st was located about 25 miles 

north northeast of Bastogne, in the direction of the red arrow; the 550th AIB, sister battalion of the

551st, was six miles west of Bastogne, at the red X. This section of map is about 30 miles on a side.

At 0430 hrs on the morning of 3 January, the battalion moved to the road that ran from Trois-Ponts to Basse Bodeux. The road would serve as the Line of Departure (LD) for an attack by the battalion on elements of the 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions, the 164th SS Regiment, and the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division. Companies A and C would participate in the attack with Company B in reserve.  

As the battalion made its way along an icy road to the forward assembly area, a gap opened between the command group and the leading rifle company. The gap was of little concern to LTC Joerg, because he planned to pause at the turnoff to the assembly area. Besides, on the previous day, the Assistant S-3 had briefed one NCO from each company on the assembly area and the route to it, and afterwards each company commander was to have performed his own reconnaissance of both. But the Asst. S-3 had reconnoitered the wrong area, as had the NCOs who followed his directions, and the first rifle company took the wrong turnoff. An officer was dispatched to return the column to the proper track. But the battalion was late to the final assembly area and 45 minutes late crossing the LD.59

In an effort to allow the men to advance as rapidly as possible while carrying equipment and ammunition, they were ordered to leave their heavy overcoats and overshoes behind, to be brought up later that day.

Capt. Tims Quinn: “Upon the recommendation of all company commanders, heavy overcoats and overshoes were to be left in the company piles during the initial phases of the attack and then brought up on the afternoon of 3 January. This decision was made due to the equipment and ammunition we would be caring. We considered that the attack could be pushed forward more rapidly with such bulky and cumbersome items disposed of.”60

Major Ray Hermann: “Doughboys couldn't fight, we decided, loaded down with blanket rolls and overcoats, so we stripped for action.  We would have the blankets and overcoats sent forward later when trucks were able to get through...  At the end of the first day the trucks couldn’t get through because there were mines on the road.”61

It would be days before the men would see their cold-weather gear again; some would freeze to death before they did. (Gregory Orfalea believes that the high number of weather-related casualties suffered by the 551st in the Ardennes was the result of General Gavin’s orders.62 The statements of 551st veterans, such as those quoted above, contradict this. The broader truth is that there was a general failure on the part of unit commanders to appreciate the debilitating power of the bitter weather in which their men were fighting.)

Members of the battalion's Mortar Platoon, Battle of the Bulge.  (C. Fairlamb)

Capt. Tims Quinn: “We had to pass across the highway and over an open field approximately 5,000 yards wide and 700 yards deep to get to the edge of the wood held by the enemy. I then began to look for Company I [of the 508th, on the flank] on my right but could find no sign of them. Because of the delay, we were now about 30 minutes late in crossing—we were waiting for Company A to get in position and for the artillery concentration. Then I heard fighting on our right front, and I found out later that the 3rd Battalion of the 505th, on our right, had pushed a platoon up across the field before daylight and it had become engaged and this later involved the entire company. This meant there was no coordinated attack but instead individual elements were fighting separate engagements. About this time, four rounds of fire from Division Artillery came in and struck the edge of the wood to our front. I turned to the FO and exclaimed, ‘that's perfect!  Now, give us the concentration.’  He answered, ‘that is the concentration.’  Due to the shortage of ammunition, he said, they could only fire at definite targets. By now we were receiving mortar fire and also long-range small-arms fire.”63

Sgt. Bill Hatcher: “When we went into the attack on the 3rd, I couldn't believe my ears—there was actual shouting—the battle yell. I thought that went out with the Civil War—the Rebel yell. But here was the 551st, this spirited outfit, going into the attack yelling. I remember all the cooks and bookkeepers and others coming up to the front, being called up as replacements, but mostly I remember that particular scene of the attack and in the yelling, like something out of the 19th century or like the Marines with John Wayne.”64

S/Sgt. Jim Stevens: “We had to cover this open ground—the Germans let us get all the way in, just about up to their positions—and naturally, we didn't have any white suits or anything for camouflage in that snow so we stood out real good—and then they just opened up on us with machine guns and everything. They chewed up Company A quite a bit.”65  

Lt. Dick Durkee: “...Company A strength was 142 enlisted men and eight officers. Few realized that only six men and one officer would reach the last phase line. ... Attacking toward PL2, our company was working itself up a draw when we came to an open field. Two hundred yards beyond was a patch of woods, and by the looks and sounds of it we could tell Jerry was digging in. Our company commander asked for artillery support on the objective and receive some, but as usual, it didn't hit where you wanted it, even though we had a forward observer with us. The attack order was then given and the platoons advanced over the open ground with 1st and 3rd on line and mine in support. A hundred yards from our objective the Krauts opened up with all their automatic weapons and we hit the ground and started to crawl. As if that wasn't bad enough, a German 88 opened up on us from our left flank and started searching up and down our positions. The wounded were screaming and the medics were heroes as usual and were crawling back-and-forth administering first aid to the wounded.

“Thinking it best to get out of the area the 88 was hitting, I jumped up, called to the men to follow me and led them around the right flank to a patch of woods. Then I set up my machine guns and fired on the left flank of the Jerry. They withdrew...

“Germans were still around the area when darkness fell, and we went out to get the wounded. The snow was falling and did a good job of hiding the bodies of the men. It was hard to tell the wounded from the dead. We finally managed to get all our wounded out onto the road and started back to Fosse where they would get medical attention...

“At we staggered down the road, I happened to look back at the battlefield, and the sight will never leave me. The bodies of our comrades were strewn about where they had fallen and were practically covered with snow. I could see one-man leaning against a fence post—he apparently was going to climb over it but just didn't quite make it...

“By 2400 all companies were going into the battalion assembly area, and it was there that Lt. Booth regrouped Company A, which was by then up to a strength of 79 men and five officers. In the first day of the push we had lost our company commander, two platoon leaders and 68 men...

“The night was about over. At 0300 the men tried to get some sleep but it was impossible. The temperature was 10° Fahrenheit and the snow was about a foot deep. They tried to get some rest by scraping the snow away and line on the bare ground, covered with their gas capes (a thin piece of cellophane). The noncoms were told to go around and wake up anybody who fell asleep because it was very easy to fall asleep and never wake up.”66

Command Post of Company C during the Battle of the Bulge.  (C. Fairlamb)

Sgt. Bill Dean: “I was assigned to Company A and we had 18 men. Lt. Lawler was in charge and I was Section Sergeant. We had four machine guns in that section when we made contact with the enemy on the morning of 3 January. They pinned us down with machine guns set in a fence row. It was very cold, lots of snow—probably knee deep. I saw the Col. there among us when we engaged the enemy in heavy battle. He had several men with him and he was there, right in the midst of the battle.

“He was speaking to us and encouraging us. He was very kind and manifesting real leadership as he always did. That morning was the last time I saw him alive. He was standing out there directing that attack. He wasn't lying down, trying to hide or take cover. It was an inspiration for his men to watch him.”67

T/5 Dan Morgan: “The evening of 3 January found Company A in a state of shock, attempting to sort itself out and regroup for the renewed attack that was scheduled for the morning. The Colonel had done his best to have the Battalion taken out of the battle and placed in reserve, but he had been refused and ordered to continue the attack. We were then attached to the 517th Regiment.”68 (According to Orfalea, Joerg’s request that the battalion be relieved was not made until the evening of 6 January.69)

At 0630 on 4 January, the battalion left the next Phase Line. Although this was only the second day, lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, and poor clothing coupled with near-zero temperatures were beginning to take their toll, and there was no end in sight.

Lt. Dick Durkee: “Company A, because it had taken a great many casualties, had been placed in the rear of the battalion. At about 1600, the leading company ran into some very heavy sniper fire and the Colonel ordered Lt. Booth to send one platoon up on the right flank of the battalion to see if they could knock out the enemy. My platoon was selected and divided into two patrols, one led by Lt. Jerry Quinn and the other by me. We had progressed about 200 yards into the woods where the snipers were when all hell broke loose. The Krauts were dug in about 50 yards to our right front and were laying down all their fire on my patrol. They apparently were not aware of Jerry Quinn's patrol coming up on the left, so it was a perfect set up—Jerry practically had his back turned. Meanwhile, it was no darned picnic for us. We were helpless and several of our men were severely wounded. Too late, the Krauts saw Lt. Quinn, and their fire was lifted as they tried to turn their machine guns around. We attacked and they were caught in a hopeless situation. They never had a chance. The men, having seen so many of their buddies killed and wounded during the last 24 hours, were not in a forgiving mood, and every Kraut was killed to a count of 64. They all died in their foxholes—some probably tried to surrender but couldn't seem to convince us of their intention—so the German army with short 64 supermen.”70

Lt. Dick Goins: “We moved into a defensive position that night and awaited orders from Division. By this time the cold weather was taking its toll. Trenchfoot and frozen feet or hurting the battalion as much as the enemy. That night we got orders to attack the town of Dairomont, clear it, and then advance to a position just west of the town of Rochelinval. There we were to dig in and wait for further orders.”71

On 5 and 6 January, the battalion was resupplied and moved into position for the final assault of Rochelinval.

T/5 Dan Morgan: “The stage was finally set for the battle of Rochelinval. The German garrison, some 700 strong, settled down for the night in their warm quarters in the town. The approximately 250 men who were what was left of the 551st, their feet frozen and their stomachs empty, slept in the snow.”72

Once again the 551st was to attack across open ground with minimal artillery support against an enemy that was dug in and waiting.

Lt. Dick Durkee: “We arrived at our Line of Departure and sent up a yellow flare so the other companies would know we were there. Booth then had our attached Forward Observer call for the concentration to be laid down on the objective. There was plenty of static on our SCR-300 radio, and contact was very poor. We finally got two salvos after one artillery unit argued with our Forward Observer, claiming that the target was out of their area. After considerable discussion and the intervention of the Colonel, they finally consented. The artillery didn't do much good: it only warned the Germans that they were about to be attacked.

“By that time it had started to get light. All the time we were waiting we could hear the Germans preparing their defenses. Sgt. (Robert) Hill told me it was going to be a bloody fight and a hell of a lot of our men would never get there. He hardly realized that not one of us would get there. Our route of attack was a little country lane with scattered brush on each side. We were about 250 yards from the town and there was a fence to our right.

“The Germans were setting up there in the town, just waiting for us. But orders were orders, so when Booth gave the nod we went. I had one squad, led by Sgt. Hill, to go down the lane on the left side by the fence, and the other squad, led by Sgt. Courtney, to go down the right. Lt. Dahl and I were in the lane behind the two scouts, leading. One scout, Pvt. Robert Mowery, was carrying the BAR and he was the first to be hit; he got it in the stomach and once in the head. I immediately had our machine guns emplaced behind the stump, but they no sooner got set up than the Jerries opened up on our left flank and then those men were directly in the crossfire. Before they got off their second burst, they were both dead.

“I was then on the very outskirts of the town. I had one bazookaman left, the other having been killed right after Dahl. Then I saw one man about 50 yards back down to draw and recognized him as my runner, Pvt. Pat Casanova, and I yelled at him to get the riflemen up to me so we could continue the attack, and his answer is something I will never forget. He shouted back, 'Sir, they're all dead.'

“Well, I figured we had had it. I told the bazookaman to crawl back down the draw and I would cover him. I figured there wasn't any sense in attacking the town with two men. He got about three feet when a machine gun opened up on him and put about a quarter of a box of ammunition into him. I crawled around the bend in the lane, moving back, and I saw the reason for Casanova's answer: there at our machine guns were the men who had been having such a great time the night before eating steak sandwiches. They were lying this way and that, some face up staring at the sky with sightless eyes, and others face down in the snow. Looking on down the lane I could see men sprawled every two or three yards. They were not wounded because they were in plain view of the Krauts, who had been using them for target practice or something because they had been hit many times. How I ever got out of that alive, God only knows...

“I found out I was now company commander of a company of nine men...”73

The man Dick Durkee remembers as Sgt. Hill was Cpl. Robert H. Hill. Assuming leadership of his squad when the squad leader was killed, Hill stood and fired on the German machine gun positions with his BAR to cover the withdrawal of what was left of the squad. Though severely wounded, he changed clips and maintained fire, knocking out one of the German machine guns. Wounded again, he fell to his knees but continued firing until a German Sniper’s bullet ended his life. For his bravery, Cpl. Hill was recommended for the Silver Star. But General Ridgway interceded and personally signed the endorsement upgrading the award to a DSC.  Hill’s having won the DSC was unknown to the battalion’s survivors until 2006, when 551st veteran Col. Douglas Dillard located the documentation at the National Archives.74

“Pvt. Roger Carqueville: “That morning they had us pinned down with small arms fire and they were throwing artillery on us. There was a big firefight, but the whole time I never saw a target to shoot at. I was only 10 feet from the Colonel when a shell came in, a tree burst. It blew above us and a piece went through the Colonel's helmet. That was about 0800. There was nothing we could do for him.”75

Lt. Col. Joerg was carried to an aid station where he died a few hours later. Major Bill Holm assumed command of the battalion.

T/4 Harry Renick: “... After we [Company A] pulled back, the other company went in and took the town with the help of a light tank. There were 250 prisoners and we had only 60 men in our whole company at the start of the attack. After it was over, there were only four or five of us left.”76

Rochelinval fell on 7 January 1945. The battalion held the town for two days before being relieved.  

Furlough

T/5 Dan Morgan: “Furlough was probably left behind at Laon when the Battalion convoyed to the front, but no one seems to know for sure... Only two of our men claim to have seen her during the period 3-7 January, up front in the Bulge. Knowing the resourceful nature of our men, I'm inclined to believe she may have made it. I know the GOYAs would have wanted it that way.”77  

Disbandment

On 10 January, the battalion was withdrawn to the Stavelot/Juslenville area and quartered with civilian families. Near the end of January, the battalion was assembled and the men informed that the U.S. Army had done what the German army could not do: destroy the 551st.

T/5 Jack Affleck: “On the 27th General Gavin came down and there were about a hundred surviving officers and men of the battalion gathered. Major Holm was in command. Gavin gave a little speech: he was sorry the Battalion was being broken up; he understood we had been together; he regretted our high casualties. Then we went down to Personnel and were assigned to the different regiments of the 82nd Airborne.”78 [The number of casualties the battalion suffered during the Battle of the Bulge, as well as the number of survivors, is a source of controversy. For a discussion of both, see Roll of Honor.]

The 551st was officially disbanded on 10 February 1945. Three weeks later, two other independent battalions—the 509th PIB and 550th AIB—were disbanded. Most of the men remaining in the two paratrooper battalions were dispersed among the regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division (men with high points were assigned to the 17th Airborne Division, which was slated for return to the States). The 550th was kept intact and became the 3rd Battalion of the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 17th Airborne Division.

Although its official lineage indicates that the 551st was reconstituted in 1947, this was a reconstitution only on paper. When the 551st PIB was disbanded in 1945, it ceased to exist as operational unit.

Why was the 551st disbanded?

Each of the three independent battalions disbanded during or immediately following the Battle of the Bulge, by virtue of its size and independence, was especially close-knit, and there was widespread dismay—and in many instances anger—among the men when they learned of their battalion's demise. It did not help that the reasons for disbandment were never explained. While veterans of the 551st have posited a number of reasons for the break-up of the battalion, few, even today, understand what actually happened. They are not alone. LTG William P. Yarborough, the first commanding officer of the 509th (though not its CO at the time of its disbandment) is quoted as saying he had been told by the War Department that General Mathew Ridgway had ordered the disbandment of the 509th.79 Yarborough’s source was wrong: not even Eisenhower had the power to inactivate these battalions. Only the War Department wielded such power.

The single official document I have seen that relates to the disbandment of the 551st is one dated 15 January 1945 from the Office of the Adjutant General, War Department, to the Commanding General, US Forces in the ETO. Within Paragraph 2 of the document it states that the 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry is to be inactivated, and that concurrent to the Battalion's inactivation, the 551st Parachute Infantry is to be disbanded. At the top of the document is the notation "Immediate Action." Given the date of this order, it is tempting to conclude that the casualties suffered by the battalion during the Bulge were the reason for its disbandment. Other evidence, however, argues against this view.

In the case of the 509th, the order authorizing its disbandment, issued by the Adjutant General's Office of the War Department, reads, in part: “TO: Commanding General, USF in the European Theater of Operations. 1. The 509th parachute infantry Battalion will be disbanded at the earliest practicable date. 2. a. Personnel rendered surplus by this action will be absorbed within the replacement system and reflected in future requisitions... by order of the Secretary of War.”80 The order is dated 1 December 1944, two weeks before the Germans' Ardennes offensive.

There was no reason to single out the 509th (the most battle-experienced of the three battalions) for disbandment. Almost certainly, a similar, if not identical, order was issued for the 550th and 551st. This is supported by a statement of William Holm, Commanding Officer of the 551st at the time of its disbandment: “General Ridgway also said he had had orders to break up the separate parachute and glider battalions earlier, from the War Department, but he had held up the action when the Ardennes offensive started.”81 (A former historian for the Army’s Center of Military History attributed the inactivation of the battalions to a systematic adjustment to the troop basis to correct a shortage of combat replacements and an excess of small specialty units.)  

Based on the evidence, I am drawn to the conclusion that casualties, while undoubtedly an important factor in determining when the independent battalions were disbanded, was not the reason why they were disbanded. Indeed, had it not been for the Battle of the Bulge, these battalions probably would have been disbanded earlier than they actually were.

Was the 551st nearly wiped out?

No, the battalion was not nearly wiped out, though readers of Gregory Orfalea’s history of the unit may believe that it was. Mr. Orfalea wrote: “Of 643 officers and men who went into the counteroffensive on January 3, 110 (96 men in 14 officers) were left at the end of January 8.  All the rest were killed, wounded, or missing [emphasis mine]; at least 60 were killed in action or died of wounds from the Ardennes's counteroffensive, bringing the number of 551st dead to just over a hundred.”82 This statement, in one form or another, appears to have served as the literary equivalent of a soundbite for many who reviewed Mr. Orfalea’s book and for many of the press who covered the award of a Presidential Unit Citation to the battalion in 2001. Apparently, these individuals did not know—and some, I suspect, would not have cared had they known—that the statement is as inaccurate as it is dramatic.

Mr. Orfalea’s statement is inaccurate for three reasons. First, in the Ardennes the battalion suffered a significant number of nonbattle casualties (most of them weather-related)casualties that were not counted as killed, wounded, or missing. How many nonbattle casualties did the battalion suffer? A cumulative casualty report of the XVIII Airborne Corps dated 9 February 1945 placed the number at 273—40% of the battalion’s initial strength. Second, the battalion’s own casualty reports list 46 dead for the Ardennes campaign.  Third, a careful examination of all the battalion’s combat casualties accounts for 66 dead. [See Roll of Honor.]

It is instructive to compare the state of the 551st at the time it was withdrawn from combat to that of the 509th when it was withdrawn from combat. LT Morton Katz of the 509th noted, “After this last action, seven officers and 48 men came down the hill on 28 January 1945. All the others were either dead or hospitalized.”83 There are two points to be made here. First, the distinction between wounded and hospitalized is an important one, as the latter includes nonbattle casualties and the former does not. Second, despite having been reduced in strength during the Battle of the Bulge to at least the same degree as had the 551st, and like the 551st having been disbanded shortly after having been withdrawn from combat, today there is not a popular belief that the 509th was nearly wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that the Battle of the Bulge casualties of the 509th were incurred in 24 days of combat; those of the 551st in only eight days of combat (and most of them during a period of five days). The case can be made, especially in light of the number of men killed (46 in the 551st; 25 in the 509th), that the combat in which the 551st was involved during the Battle of the Bulge was remarkably bloody.

Was the 551st the victim of a conspiracy?

Dan Morgan: “The pertinent battalion records appear to have been destroyed or lost in some manner.  Searches of the National Records Center holdings at Suitland, Maryland, have been very disappointing—although the staff were most helpful. A careful review of their holdings for XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 504th, 505th, 508th Parachute Regiments and the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team resulted in only an occasional reference to the 551st at times when the Battalion was on the ‘point’ of the Trois-Ponts Sector attack and should have figured significantly in radio traffic and other communications.  All such references have been included in this book.  They have become significant by their very scarcity.  There is no mention anywhere of the Battalion's attack on Rochelinval, nor of the near-annihilation of the Battalion.

“I note in passing that where the regiments are concerned, each objective taken, each successful attack or repulse is documented in the classified radio traffic of those days in such a way that some small glory or recognition would settle where it belonged.  People at Division and Corps read that traffic carefully each day and forwarded their opinions of the battle situation and participating troops accordingly.  Looking back from this very distant time I feel compelled to say that it seems likely to me that there were persons in the staff sections of regimental, division-level or both, who systematically struck out or downgraded the activities of the 551st Battalion.  If such was in fact the case, then their purposes in doing so could range all the way from incompetence to callousness to deliberate malice, and I doubt the truth will ever be known.  The purpose of this story is not to seek them out for censure but to secure for the 551st the recognition in earned."84 

Given the high-risk assaults the 551st was ordered to make in the Ardennes, its subsequent disbandment, and the obscurity to which history has relegated the battalion, it is understandable that the veterans of the 551st would feel that they and their unit were badly treated and unfairly deprived of the recognition due them. But unfairly deprived by whom? And was it happenstance or intentional? If, as Mr. Morgan suggests, the battalion's activities were systematically struck out or downgraded, then it is doubtful it would have been from incompetence or callousness, but instead from deliberate malice. This appears to be the view of Gregory Orfalea in his book on the battalion. But while Mr. Morgan chose not to search for those responsible, Mr. Orfalea did.  And much of his venom is directed at Rupert D. Graves. 

Graves had commanded the 551st for a period of about five months while the unit was at Camp Mackall. It had been an unhappy five months for both Graves and the enlisted men of the battalion. During the battalion's stay at Camp Mackall, morale had deteriorated among the enlisted men, who, already well-trained and expecting to be sent to a combat theater, found themselves Stateside in what seemed to be an endless cycle of training. The rate of AWOL among the men skyrocketed. Graves was not the cause of these problems, they began before he assumed command of the battalion, but they were his to deal with. 

Graves's stern leadership style in dealing with a unit that he believed to be out of control might have been more effective in a new unit, but directed at the men of the 551st, who had been together for a year, it seemed only to exacerbate the situation. The situation was resolved when LTC Graves left to assume command the 517th PIR and LTC Joerg returned to take command. Joerg quickly secured the release from the stockade of any member of the 551st who gave his word not to be a repeat offender. Apparently, Mr. Orfalea felt that when Graves left the 551st, he took with him a lingering animus toward the battalion.  And when the paths of Graves and the 551st again crossed, that animus came into play.

While portraying Graves, and others, as a villain in the story of the 551st may appeal to the conspiracy theory crowd, I found it unconvincing. It is entirely reasonable that Graves's stint as CO of the 551st left him viewing the battalion as undisciplined, and that he might have had qualms about its effectiveness in combat. But would such views have led him to acts of vindictiveness directed at the 551st? There is no evidence that Graves was that sort of person and substantial evidence that he was not. Graves was respected as a leader and as a man of honesty and integrity by the officers of the 517th PIR.85 And the the opinion of Graves among the officers of the 551st differed considerably from that of the battalion's enlisted men. Dan Morgan: “... the officers' view of Colonel Graves suggests a very mature, well-intentioned, likable, professional and tough-minded career officer.”86 William Holm (last CO of the 551st): "I have always thought a lot of Colonel Graves. He was a soldier."87

What, then, did account for the “near annihilation” of the 551st and its subsequent obscurity? 

In my opinion, the 551st was largely a victim of its status as an independent battalion. Mr. Orfalea refers to the 551st as a “bastard unit.”88 I understand his choice of the word "bastard"to create, I think, a sympathetic image of a unit that was unfairly something of an outcast, perhaps even an embarrassment to the Army brass—but I believe the more accurate term is “orphan unit.”  

Being an independent battalion fostered a tremendous unit identity among the men, but there was a downside to its small size and independence: No champion on higher councils and little recognition of its activities. Had the battalion been part of a regiment, the regiment would have had a vested interest in recording the battalion's activities. And had the regiment, in turn, been part of a division, then the division would have had a similar, vested interest in recognizing the battalion and its achievements. The 551st had no one at a level above the battalion looking out for its interests. The problem was compounded by the chaos and confusion of the Battle of the Bulge, and the 551st was largely overlooked in the official records of other units. It was not by design or from malice; it was in the nature of being an attached unit—an orphan, passed from foster home to foster home. And in terms of receiving recognition, the Ardennes in the winter of 1944-45 was not a good place to be an orphan unit.

The situation is well described in a three-page history of the unit that was among a 551-history.jpg (642994 bytes) number of items given to me by a veteran of the 551st. The history, which appears to have been written by a journalist, is dated 15 January 1945 and carries an address of APO 469 US Army. The first page is shown here in a thumbnailed image. The first paragraph reads: “Headquarters, European Theater of Operations – This is the story of a separate battalion – one of several small units which travel the ETO incognite, serving first with one unit then another, frequently missing their full share of credit for a job well done because they are not permanently assigned to an organization and always seem to be one jump behind the censor’s ‘secret list’.”

If it is the fate of an independent battalion to be accorded little recognition, then why wasn't the 509th PIB, or even the 550th AIB, consigned to obscurity along with the 551st?

In the case of the 509th, the only other independent paratrooper battalion of WWII, several factors rescued it from obscurity. First, the 509th was the first American paratrooper unit ever committed to combat and the first to make a combat jump. These achievements alone ensured the 509th a place in US military history. Second, the 509th spent approximately 39 months in combat theaters; the 551st only eight months. Third, the 509th made three combat jumps and participated in the amphibious landing at Anzio; the 551st made but a single combat jump. Fourth, one of the 509th's commanding officers, William P. Yarborough, rose to the rank of lieutenant general and was a lifelong advocate for elite forces in general and the 509th in particular. The 551st produced no general officers. Fifth, in 1963 and in 1973 the lineages of Companies A, B, and C of the 509th PIB were passed to elements of the 509th Infantry; no elements of the 551st were ever reactivated.

In the case of the 550th, upon disbandment its personnel were not scattered; instead, the unit was kept intact and became the 3rd Battalion, 194th GIR of the 17th Airborne Division. A history of the unit was published in 1945 and reprinted in 1978 by Battery Press, a mainstream publisher. The first history of the 551st appeared in 1984; published privately in a small number (600 copies) by its author. Additionally, the author of the history of the 550th, Justin P. Buckeridge, a veteran of the unit, published a quarterly newsletter for veterans of the airborne for several years after the war, thus ensuring that the 550th was not forgotten.

Contributing to the descent of the 551st into obscurity is the fact that many of the battalion's records were lost.

Major Bill Holm: “The Battalion moved to Juslenville and a few days later we had the final meeting of the 551st. General Gavin came down and talked. Later, I talked with him and then with General Ridgway at XVIII Airborne Corps to see if we couldn't go back to Laon to get our records and belongings together and to close out the Battalion in some order but they said it couldn't be done then—that officers and men were needed in other units at the front...”89

On 29 March 1945, the Adjutant of the 82nd Airborne Division wrote to General Ridgway: “Unit Journals and supporting documents that are required to accompany this Unit History for the period covered are not available. Copies of Unit Staff Journals are not among the Staff files of the First Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry, at the time this unit was disbanded. All maps and overlays were burned during the process of inactivation.”90

In General Gavin's use of the battalion, one again sees evidence of the orphan-unit factor. Clearly, the actions to which Gavin committed the battalion in the Ardennes were high-risk ventures, and Gavin admitted as much. Sgt. Charlie Fairlamb: “…General Gavin came to our area and informed us it was suicide and we probably wouldn’t make it back.”91 This dire assessment was in regard to the battalion’s first action in the Ardennes, at Noirefontaine, which met with much less opposition than anticipated, but it applied equally, if not more so, to the bloody action of a week later. Indeed, so concerned was LTC Joerg, the battalion’s CO, that he requested, unsuccessfully, that the unit be relieved before the assault on Rochelinval, an assault that ended with many of the battalion's men, including Joerg, dead.

Why was the 551st given the assault on Rochelinval? Mr. Orfalea wrote: “Though the 551st had captured Draguignan and the first Nazi General in Europe for the airborne and had done an outstanding job at Noirefontaine, it also had a reputation for defiance and rebelliousness that stretched all the way back to its training days. It was one step shy of a renegade outfit.  But maybe that was what was needed at Rochelinval.”92 But the assessment of Captain Ed Hartman was pragmatic—and, in my opinion, accurate: “We were an attached unit and no sensible division commander is going to use anybody else.”93

Mr. Orfalea’s portrayal of the 551st as defiant and rebellious, “one step shy of a renegade unit,” seems to suggest that the Army viewed the battalion as a problem child, one that, ultimately, was expendable. Personally, I doubt that anyone who examines the facts objectively will embrace this view. The men who made up the 551st were typical of those in elite units—you would have found the same personalities in any airborne unit, in Ranger units, in the First Special Service Force, in the Marines. And, frankly, the suggestion imparts to the battalion an importance and a visibility that it did not have. The reality is that the 551st was an obscure unit even during its existence.

An objective examination of the evidence leads one to conclude that there was neither malice nor sinister design behind the use of the battalion in the Ardennes, its disbandment, or its subsequent obscurity. The 551st was a victim of its small size and independent status, of a desperate enemy and a bitter winter, and of time and chance.94

Endnotes

1. The Army Lineage Book, Vol. II, Infantry. Dept. of the Army 1953.

2. As the Army activated airborne units, they were given consecutive numbers beginning with 501. Later, fearing that such a numbering scheme would provide the enemy with a means of estimating US airborne strength, the Army designated airborne units out of numerical sequence.

3. After the elements of the 501st PIB were absorbed by the 503rd and 551st, the designation 501 was returned to Fort Benning and given to a new airborne regiment.

4. Don Garrigues, From The Delphus to Destiny (Published by author, Carthage, MO, 1980), 12-13. Memoir of Mr. Garrigues’s service with the 551st.

5. Dan Morgan, The Left Corner of My Heart (Alder Enterprises, Wauconda, WA, 1984), 32. Mr. Morgan gave this author permission to use, with attribution, whatever material from his book that I wished.

6  Morgan, Left Corner of My Heart, 32.

7. Morgan, Left Corner of My Heart, 497.

8.  Gregory Orfalea, Messengers of the Lost Battalion: The Heroic 551st and the turning of the Tide at the Battle of the Bulge. (The Free Press, New York, 1997), 282.

9.  A US military presence in this region for this purpose dated to June 1941, when the 501st PIB was sent to the Canal Zone. Its presence, too, was classified.

10. US military activities in the Caribbean basin were classified Top Secret throughout the war, and to this day little has been written of them. This is one of several factors that robbed the 551st of recognition for aspects of its service.

11.  Morgan, 88.

12.  Morgan, 88-89.

13.  Morgan, 94.

14.  Morgan, 94.

15.  Morgan, 94.

16.  Morgan, 99.

17.  Morgan, 99.

18. Morgan, 114-115.

19. Graves may not have been the sole focus of the men’s discontent. The following appears in the 22 November 1943 edition of The 551st News, a newsletter published by the battalion at Mackall: “Sad new isn’t it—a run and calisthenics every morning, retreat formation every afternoon and Saturday Garrison inspection for the whole battalion just because a handful of men take advantage of their privileges and “goof off”. We all like our pleasure, but what’s the good of taking a slice out of business to pay for it. Need anymore be said?”

20.  Morgan, 115.

21.  Morgan, 118.

22.  Morgan, 118.

23.  Morgan, 119.

24.  Morgan, 116-117. Battalion veteran Albert Garretty, too, in his unpublished wartime memoir, written independently of Morgan, put the number who died that night at nine. Whether there was a ninth victim, and who he was, remains a mystery.

25.  Morgan, 119.

26.  Morgan, 124.

27. Bill G. Smith, "The Operations of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and the 517thParachute Infantry Regiment). In the Attack, in the Vicinity of 'Trois Ponts,' Belgium, 2-7 January 1945. (Ardennes Campaign) (Personal Experience of Headquarters Company Commander)." Advanced Infantry Officers Course 1949-1950. The Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia,7.

28.  Morgan, 142.

29.  See the article on the Fifth Army Airborne Training Center on this website.

30.  Morgan, 154.

31.  Morgan, 147.

32.  Morgan, 148.

33.  Morgan, 149.

34.  Garrigues, 33.

35.  Morgan, 182.

36.  Morgan, 187.

37.  Morgan, 196.

38.  Morgan, 196.

39.  Morgan, 199.

40.  Morgan, 201.

41.  Morgan, 206.

42.  Morgan, 205.

43.  Morgan, 207.

44.  Morgan, 213.

45.  Morgan, 224.

46.  Morgan, 225.

47.  Morgan, 248.

48.  Morgan, 255.

49.  Morgan, 281.

50.  Garrigues, 42-43.

51.  Morgan, 294-295.

52.  Letter dated 4 Nov 1944. Morgan, 307.

53.  Garrigues, 45-46.

54.  Morgan, 332.

55.  Morgan, 340.

56.  Morgan, 365.

57.  Morgan, 365.

58.  Morgan, 365.

59.  Morgan, 383.  

60.  Smith, 13-14.

61.  Morgan, 393.

62.  Orfalea, 328.

63.  Morgan, 384.

64.  Morgan, 385.

65.  Morgan, 388.

66.  Morgan, 393-395.

67.  Morgan, 398.

68.  Morgan, 403.

69.  Orfalea, 290.

70.  Morgan, 409.

71.  Morgan, 410.

72.  Morgan, 432.

73.  Morgan, 446-447.

74.  Col. Douglas Dillard, private communication, 2007.

75.  Morgan, 445.

76.  Morgan, 455

77.  Morgan, 353, 452.

78.  Morgan, 466.

79.  Morgan, 485.

80.  Charles H. Doyle and Terrell Stewart, Stand in the Door (Phillips Publications, Williamstown, NJ. 1988), 341.

81.  Morgan, 465.

82.  Orfalea, 321.

83.  Doyle and Stewart, 338.

84.  Morgan, 439-440.  

85.  LTG Richard J. Seitz, private communication, 2007.  General Seitz, then a LTC, commanded the 2nd Battalion, 517th PIR, under Col. Graves.

86.  Morgan, 114.  

87.  Morgan, 103.

88.  Orfalea, 333.

89.  Morgan, 465.

90.  Morgan, 475.

91.  Morgan, 369.

92.  Orfalea, 297.

93.  Orfalea, 235.

94.  “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Ecclesiastes 9:11.