SHORT HISTORY of 502nd PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT
On 1 July 1941, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Battalion was quickly activated at Fort Benning, GA under the command of Major George P Howell Jr, the former Executive Officer of the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. The unit was initially comprised of a small detachment taken from two companies of the 501st.
On 30 January 1942 the War Department hurriedly authorized the activation of four Army parachute regiments. A month later, on 2 March 1942, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was activated at Fort Benning, GA from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Battalion. Howell was promoted to Colonel but left that same month to command the parachute school at Fort Bragg, NC. He passed the regiment’s command to Col George Van Horn Moseley Jr. who came from a long line of West Point graduates. Like the other airborne regimental commanders of his day, Col Moseley made enormous demands on his troops as well as himself.
In July of 1942 the activation of two full airborne divisions the 82nd and 101st was ordered and the 502nd was assigned as a permanent unit of the 101st Airborne Division. Shortly after they became part of the 101st the 502nd PIR moved from Fort Benning GA to join the rest of the division, at Fort Bragg NC. Throughout the rest of 1942 and into 1943 the 502nd PIR took part in a grueling training program, which consisted of individual, unit, and combined division training. During March of 1943 they took part in division maneuvers in Southern Pines. This was followed by the Camden maneuvers which started on May 23rd of that year. Shortly after the Camden Maneuvers the big Tennessee maneuvers were held.
On September 4 1943 men of the 502nd boarded the SS. Strathnaver bound for their new home in England. The Strathnaver sailed for 6 days before she had to make port on September 11 in St. Johns Newfoundland for repairs. The journey eventually would end up taking a total of 44 days because of the discovery of salt water in the ships fresh watertanks and other non-related mishaps. On October 4th the SS John Ericsson picked the men up and finally set sail for England arriving in Liverpool on October 18th. They settled into quarters in the Chilton Foliat and Denford near Hungerford, Berkshire which would be their new home for the next seven months. The Five-O-Deuce’s troopers continued their rigorous training which included 15–25 mile hikes and daily close combat exercises. Instructions were given in a wide variety of items from 1st-aid, map reading, chemical warfare and the use and firing of German weapons. Company and battalion size parachute drops where also rehearsed during this period.
Flying out of Membury and Greenham Common in the first wave to depart, the 502nd PIR headed for drop zone (DZ)A. Their mission was to secure two northern causeways leading inland from Utah Beach and destroy a German coast-artillery battery (122 mm Howitzer)near Ste Martin-de-Varreville. In the predawn hours of D-Day a combination of low clouds, and enemy anti-aircraft fire caused the break-up of the troop carrier formations. The scattering of the air armada was such that some troopers jumped while still over the English Channel and drown. Consequently, the sporadic jump patterns caused most of Col Moseley’s battalions to land far afield of their designated DZ. Some of the sticks landed as far away as 5 miles from the designated area. Unfortunately during the drop Col Moseley broke his leg and had to relinquish command to his Executive Officer, Lt Col John H Michaelis. Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion led by Lt Col Robert G Cole was responsible for securing the two causeways. Most troopers in his party were from his unit but several were from the 506th PIR and even the 82nd Airborne. Once assembled, the force marched for the northern exits from UTAH. Along the way, they encountered a German convoy and attacked it. 10 Germans were captured and many more killed. Upon reaching St. Martin de Varreville, Cole sent a reconnaissance party forward to check the coastal battery. Discovering that the position had been destroyed and deserted, Cole split his force to seize the 2 exits from UTAH. Once his troops were in place, the dug in to wait for the 4th Infantry Division.
South of 3rd Battalion, LTC Patrick Cassidy was rallying his men from 1st Battalion, 502nd PIR. Like, Cole, Cassidy put together a combined force of some of his men and others separated from their units.
A patrol was sent forward to check the other northern exits from UTAH. These had also been heavily damaged and deserted and Cassidy reinforced it. Still further south, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 506th PIR were fighting to secure the southern exits from UTAH. Despite missing their drop zones, these units had not been as widely dispersed as the 502nd. The men of the 506th had to fight through several small villages on their way to the exits. As they approached their objectives, the exits were under attack already from the 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. The paratroops joined the fight and the exits were secured. Germans began surrendering en-masse at the southern end of UTAH
By late afternoon on D-Day, the 4th Division had broken free from UTAH and linked up with the 101st. That night, with the beachhead secured, the Americans dug in for the night and attempted to rally the rest of their troops. The next day, the 101st received new orders. V Corps, which had landed at OMAHA to the south has holding on to a very small beachhead and could not exit from the beach. Between UTAH and OMAHA was the town of Carentan. The 101st was ordered to break through their southern flank, seize Carentan and link up with the forces at OMAHA.
Their first objective was the town of St. Come du Mont and would use 4 battalions; the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 506th PIR, the 3rd Battalion 502st PIR and the 1st Battalion 401st GIR. The attack stepped off early in the morning of June 8. By mid-morning, the approaches to St. Come du Mont had been cleared and defensive positions established east of the town. 3/501 had reached the Carentan highway and the enemy began withdrawing from the area. Later that evening, the force was reinforced by the fresh 327th GIR. The next objective was to establish bridgeheads across the Douve river. At 1:00 am, June 10, the 101st attacked and by dawn, St. Come du Mont had been encircled and cleared of enemy forces. The drive now focused on Carentan. Here the drive was slowed considerably. Most of the brides and causeways leading to Carentan had been destroyed. Only one causeway was completely intact. The engineers began working under heavy enemy fire to repair the others. Several patrols were sent forward to scout the approaches to Carentan and came under heavy fire. Finally, 3/502 began to cross the causeways in force in the face of intense enemy fire. The paratroops managed to cross to the the edges of Carentan but could not enter the town. For two days, the 3/502 fought against massed machine gun and artillery fire to establish a foothold on Carentan.
Carentan would fall in a combined effort of the 101st Airborne Regiments, some still replenished with 82nd AB troopers. The Band-of-Brothers that formed in Airborne action proved a vital weapon against the enemy. No matter how scattered the sticks, the objectives were taken.
The rest of June found the airborne troops fighting as infantry. After regrouping the 101st received the new objective of seizing the city of Carentan. It was during this operation that Lt Col Robert Cole received the Medal of Honor for leading his battalion in a fix bayonet charge on the Ingouf farm house, a German stronghold defending one of the bridges over the Carentan Causeway. His Executive Officer, Maj John P Stopka, led the charge on Cole’s left and received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Lt Col Cole never got the chance to wear it since he was killed by a snipers bullet 3 months later in Holland. Maj Stopka was killed two weeks after receiving his medal at Bastogne.
On 29 June the 101st was relieved from the VIII Corps and sent to Cherbourg to relieve the 4th Infantry Division. The 502nd PIR returned to England shortly thereafter for rest and training. At about the same time General Eisenhower called for a headquarters that would oversee the Allies’ airborne troops. In August 1944 he established the First Allied Airborne Army, controlling elements of the American and British (and Polish) Armies. Concurrently,the 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were assigned to the newly created U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps under the command of Gen Matthew Ridgeway. The new army was put to the test in September 1944 during the Allied thrust in northern Europe: Operation Market-Garden.
Market Garden was a risky plan by British Field Marshal Montgomery. It would be the first great daylight air assault attempted by a military power since Germany’s Fallschirmjaegers attack Crete. Similar to the Germans assault of four years earlier, the Allies initial plan for September 17,1944 was to use the paratroopers and glidermen of the 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions and England’s First Airborne Division in a daring daylight drop into Holland. The airborne Allied troops were to seize roads, bridges and the key communication cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, thus cutting Holland in half and clearing a corridor for British armoured and motorized columns all the way to the German border. The 101st mission was to secure the fifteen miles of Hell’s Highway stretching from Eindhoven north to Veghel. After less than three months in England, the 502nd was to make its second combat jump. Still under the command of Colonel Michaelis the unit was to land in Holland on DZ C, seize the small highway bridge over the Dommel River north of Saint Oedenrode and the railroad and road bridges at Best. The 502nd was also given the mission of guarding DZs B & C for the subsequent glider landings. Shortly after 1315 hours on the afternoon of 17 September 1944, after an uneventful daylight drop, the men of the 502nd gathered up and headed for their objectives.
First Battalion went north to capture the little town of St Oedenrode. Third Battalion sent patrols through the Zonsche forest, trying to move toward the town of Best and the bridge. German resistance was tough in the vicinity of Best but the 502nd fought their way to within 100 yards of the bridge before the Germans blew it up. In fierce fighting around the bridge, Private Joe Mann who was seriously wounded twice during the fighting, was killed when he threw himself on a German grenade to save his fellow soldiers who were in the same foxhole with him. Mann was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of selfless heroism. A Monument has been errected for this hero, in The Netherlands. The only other Medal of Honor recipient of 101st during the war, Col. Robert Cole, was shot and killed by a snipers bullet in the action around the Zonsche Forest. The third battalion was now in the capable hands of its executive officer Major John Stopka. On 22 September, Lt Colonel Michaelis and three of his staff were seriously wounded by an artillery shell outside of his headquarters, so the command of the 502nd PIR passed to the 2nd Battalion commander, Steve Chappuis. After fierce battle the 502nd secured their objectives. The 502nd now moved north with the rest of the 101st to relieve the defensive positions on ‘The Island’, on the opposite side of the Neder-Rijn. Under constant artillery barrages from the germans on the ‘Arnhem-side’ of the river the 101st would fight some of its toughest battles during its time in Holland. As one veteran puts it: ‘The only good thing about The Island were the happy liberated people we met on our way in, and the almost dayly rations on British Rum we received…’ Market Garden didn’t ‘close’ the war before Christmas, as Montgomery suspected it to do. It almost wiped out the British Paratroopers that landed near Arnhem. Their Polish comrades also suffered great losses. A great mutual respect grow between the English, Canadian, Polish and US Paratroopers.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE
On a cold December morning in 1944, the Germans launched their major offensive at dawn (16 December), west through the Ardennes Forest, in the lightly held sector of our VII Corps. The ultimate goal was the Antwerp Harbor where they hoped to choke off the vital Allied supply lines. Shaef’s Reserve consisted of the 101st (just back from Holland) and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The 101st was ordered to the vitally important town of Bastogne which was vital to the German plans. From Bastogne several important roads spun out, of high tactical value to both sides. The 101st was poured into (open) trucks for an overnight rush to Bastogne in Belgium on Dec. 18th. Without carring for black out regulations the column rushed to the attacked region. The defense of Bastogne by the 101st presented a formidable obstacle to the German Fifth Panzer Army of General Hasso von Manteuffel. In the ensuing days the encircled 101st engaged in vicious fighting. The 502nd held positions on the north and northwest portion of the envelopment.
After the Germans had failed to break through in other sections of the now called ‘Bastogne Perimeter’, the Germans tried to penetrate the areas defended by the 502nd. In an attack that took place on Christmas morning in the Hemroulle area of Belgium, numerous German tanks penetrated the line. Simultaneously farther north strong German infantry elements infiltrated the town of Champs. Two of the German tanks which drove north from Hemroulle attempted to bypass the 502 Regimental C.P. at the Rolle Chateau. In this attack Trooper Sky Jackson of the 502nd PIR won the Silver Star medal for single handedly hitting the two tanks with bazooka fire knocking out one. The other tank escaped only to be destroyed at Champs by another 502nd PIR member, John Ballard of A Company, who was KIA on January 3 1945 in another action. On December 26th elements of Patton’s 4th Armored Division broke through the encirclement and the lifting of the siege of Bastogne began. General McAuliffe, who was in command of the 101sdt during the absence of General Taylor, presented the city ‘damaged but useable’…
On 3 January 1945 the 2nd Battalion engaged in heavy fighting around Longchamps. The Germans pressed forward and as many as forty jumpers, mostly from F company, were rounded up and taken prisoner that day. On January 14, 1945 3rd Battalion 502 would again suffer the loss of its commander. Lieutenant Col. John Stopka and some of his troopers were advancing through a pine forest along an elevated rail line. Enemy Tanks were advancing along the other side. Someone called in for air support and the planes strafed too close to the friendly positions, resulting in the death of Col. Stopka and thirty other soldiers near Michamps. With that very unfortunate incident, the command of the 3rd Battalion was given to Cecil L Simmons who would lead the unit until the end of the war.
Continuing the 101st Airborne held the line along the Moder River for over 4 weeks (as part of the US 7th Army). On 23 February, the Screaming Eagles were relieved and finally returned to Mourmelon, France. Here General Ike Eisenhower spoke to the 101st Airborne Division when the complete unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its stand at Bastogne. This was the first time in the history of the US Army that an entire (Airborne) Division was honored in such a way.
As the war in Europe was nearing its end,the 502nd moved to the Ruhr Pocket on 2 April to help in mop-up operations. Here the 502nd went on the line facing the Rhine River south of Dusseldorf, Germany. On the 4th and 5th of May, the 101st Airborne Division (with the 502nd PIR) received and carried out its final wartime mission – the capture of Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Eagles Nest itself.
The summer of 1945, the 502nd Regiment was on occupation duty in Austria (near Mittersill). In September, the Airborne soldiers continued waiting for transport stateside. The 101st Airborne Division returned home and was deactivated in December of 1945.
Additional ources for this article and several other articles on this website:
– Rendezvous with Destiny – Rapport & Norwood Jr. ISBN 1-56852-372-6
– The Epic of the 101st Airborne Division
– D-Day with the Screaming Eagles (by George Koskimaki)
– At the Point of no Return (by Michel de Trez)
– Currahee ! (by Donald Burgett)
– Hells Highway (by George Koskimaki)
– Fighting with the Screaming Eagles (by Robert Bowen)
– Battered Bastards of Bastogne (by George Koskimaki)
– Band of Brothers (by Stephen Ambrose)
– Seven Roads to Hell (by Donald Burgett)
– American Warriors (by Michel de Trez)
– The U.S. National Archives
– Para Research Team (c): Private Collections of C.J. Jansen & D.C. van den Bogert
– The Screaming Ducks Historical Vehicles- Gear & Files Collection