501 PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT ASSOCIATION
(501 PIRA)

 

 
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501 PIR Awards - WWII
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Colonel Howard Johnson
A Brief History of the 501 Parachute Infantry Regiment

The 501 Parachute Infantry Regiment (501 PIR) was activated in Toccoa, GA in November 1942 where the young men who volunteered for hazardous duty were given basic training. They earned their paratrooper wings at Fort Benning in May, undertook unit training at Camp McCall in North Carolina throughout the summer and went on maneuvers in Tennessee thereafter.

The 501 PIR, commanded by Colonel Howard Johnson (Jumpy Johnson), was attached to the 101st Airborne Division during WWII. They made their first jump into Normandy in the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944. After combat in Normandy, they returned to England to prepare for the jump into Holland on September 17, 1944.

The 501 PIR dropped in at Veghel, 25 miles behind the German front lines, to seize and hold the highway and railroad bridges across the Willemsvaart Canal, a major water barrier on the route of Montgomery's Second British Army to the "bridge too far" at Arnhem. This corridor is known as Hell's Highway.

In late November, the 101st division was returned to France to receive replacements, replace missing equipment and prepare for a Rhine crossing in March. Three weeks later the German winter offensive in the Ardennes erupted and the 101st was jammed into trucks for an overnight rush to Bastogne in Belgium on Dec. 18th. The 501 PIR was the first unit to arrive and moved out at dawn to meet the approaching German column three miles beyond the town. It stopped the enemy cold and held until the rest of the division could arrive. The "Battered Bastards" staved off elements of seven German divisions before Patton broke through the encirclement on December 26th. The fighting became even heavier as the Airborne then went on the offensive.

On January 20, 1945 the now tattered Airborne division was hurried to Alsace where Hitler’s "Operation Nordwind" offensive, under the personal direction of Heinrich Himmler, was threatening a sector of the Seventh Army front. The 501 PIR, now to 60% strength, occupied defensive positions there until returning to France early in March.

As the war in Europe was nearing its end, the 101st division was sent to the Ruhr pocket to help in mop-up operations. The 501st remained in France, preparing to jump on POW camps if deemed necessary to rescue American prisoners -- which it never was. In August the regiment was detached from the 101st and sailed for home to be deactivated at Fort Benning, GA.

In the course of the three campaigns, 517 members of the regiment were killed or died of wounds in action among total casualties of 1751, including wounded or missing in action, according to the 101st Airborne Division records.

 
 
Awards to the 501 PIR

Few regiments in the history of the United States have received seven (7) awards for distinguished performance on the battlefield. The 501 PIR received the following:

USA          

Two (2) American Distinguished Unit Citations for operations in Normandy and Bastogne.

France

The French Croix de Guerre with Palm for operations in Normandy

Belgium      

Two (2) Belgian Croix de Guerre and one (1) Belgian Fourragere for operations at Bastogne

Netherlands

Netherlands Orange Lanyard for operations in The Netherlands

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