Thursday, November 1, 2012

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment


Image of 503d Infantry crest and patch
courtesy of MilitaryVetShop.com
For regular readers of this blog, you know that the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion started out the World War II designated as the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. When I was doing my research for The Boldest Plan is the Best, I of course wondered what happened to the rest of the original 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment that the Geronimos left behind at Fort Bragg in 1942. After some reading I found out that the 503rd PIR had an equally fascinating combat history. While I was living in Pennsylvania I visited the National Archives and the Army Heritage and Education Center and conducted the research to write a combat history of the 503rd PIR, "The Rock Regiment," during their time in the Pacific Theater. Unfortunately, life gets in the way and that book (which I thought would make an excellent companion to The Boldest Plan is the Best so that the pair will cover early WWII airborne operations) will not be completed until next spring. In the meantime, I wrote a Summary History of the 503d Infantry Regiment for Military Vet Shop. That article covers the 503rd from their formation, through WWII, service in Vietnam as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 173rd ABCT in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the 503d Infantry's current participation with Operation Enduring Freedom. I thought I would take the opportunity to provide some of the highlights of this little known unit's record during WWII here.

July 2, 1944 – Members of 503rd Parachute Infantry
descending on Kamiri Airstrip, Noemfoor Island.
SC-287126 from the National Archives
After the departure of the 2nd Battalion for England in June 1942, the 503rd PIR formed its 3rd Battalion at Fort Bragg and continued to train as a two battalion regiment. The departed Fort Bragg on October 10, 1942 headed to Australia to join MacArthur's growing force in the Pacific Theater. On the way they formed their missing 2nd Battalion from a company out of the 504th PIR recently formed at Fort Bragg, and three companies of the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion that had been serving in the Panama Canal Zone. The old 2nd Battalion was at this time in England preparing to jump into North Africa as part of Operation Torch.  They were now designated the 2/509th PIR.

It took the 503rd PIR until December 2 to make it to Australia. The regiment spent the next nine months training in Australia and New Guinea. At the time of their first combat operation, one could argue that they were the most well trained airborne unit in the American army. The first entry into combat was a jump on Nazdab airfield, in the Markham Valley of New Guinea, on  September 5, 1943.

Two battalions of the 503rd Parachute Infantry made an unopposed jump on Kamiri airfield on Noemfoor Island, off the coast of Dutch New Guinea beginning on July 3, 1944. The third battalion made an amphibious landing a few days later. Once Noemfoor was secured, the regiment was moved to Leyte in the Philippine Islands. The 503rd PIR was turned into a regimental combat team with the attachments of the the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and Company C, 161st Airborne Engineers. On December 15, 1944 the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team made an amphibious landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro, where they fought to secure airstrips that would be used to support the invasion of the island of Luzon, and hence the retaking of Manila.

February 16, 1945 – Parachutists of the 503rd Parachute
Infantry landing on “B” field, Corregidor Island.
SC 201041 from the National Archives
The 503rd PRCT earned their nom de guerre when, on February 16, 1945, they made a combat jump onto the island fortress of Corregidor, "The Rock." Corregidor had become an important symbol to the United States as the last outpost of any size to fall to the enemy in the early stages of the Pacific War. Japanese sources have estimated that there were 6700 Japanese soldiers on the Island when the 503d Combat Team landed. Only fifty of those defenders survived. Almost 200 American soldiers died taking back Corregidor. The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for taking back "The Rock."

The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment finished WWII fighting on Negros island in the Philippines. They were deactivated shortly after the war. After a history of activation and deactivation and a redesignation as the 503d Infantry, two battalions of "the Rock Force" are serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, the "Sky Soldiers." Their home station is Vicenza, Italy, but the soldiers of the 503d Infantry have participated in multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan (where they are currently deployed) during the Global War on Terror.

2 comments:

Peyton said...

What a great site!!! Airborne All The Way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jerrod Gross said...

My grandfather was in the 503rd. Tells stories all the time about what he did. At 94, he is the bravest man I know.