History of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

…and their Demise at the Battle of the Bulge

by CSM Christopher G. Lewis, Historian, 551stParachute Infantry Association

Since its inception at Fort Benning in late 1942, the Paratroopers of the 551st Parachute Infantry prided themselves on their independence, as well as their ability to adapt to any mission placed before them. Even their unofficial motto, “GOYA,” which stood for “Get Off Your Ass,” came to be a symbol of their independence and fighting spirit. From the jungles of Panama to the drop zones of Camp Mackall, North Carolina, and from combat operations during Operation DRAGOON in Southern France to follow-on operations in the French Maritime Alps, the GOYAs were adept at completing every mission, without regular assignment to a larger unit. It was this strong sense of identity combined with the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters’ lack of knowledge of the unit’s true capabilities that caused them to shift among many unfamiliar units during German onslaught of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The independent 551st Parachute Infantry’s lack of a consistent, division-level higher headquarters and multiple command arrangements led to its untimely demise and destruction in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

The Birth of the 551stParachute Infantry

The “GOYAs” of the 551stParachute Infantry Battalion began their short but illustrious career in two places simultaneously: Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal. In 1942, Fort Benning was in full swing transforming thousands of civilians into Soldiers, Tankers, and Paratroopers. The fledgling United States Army Parachute School, or “Jump School” as it is more commonly known, occupied an area near Main Post on Fort Benning. It took six weeks of physical training, classes on parachute packing, and successful completion of five jumps from a C-33 or C-47 aircraft to transform an ordinary Soldier into an elite United States Army Paratrooper. The tarpaper shacks and tents serving as billeting for the students and recently graduated Paratroops was known as “The Frying Pan,” because of the unbearable heat of the deep-south summers in Georgia. Dan Morgan’s book about the 551st, The Left Corner of My Heart: The Saga Of The 551stParachute Infantry Battalion (1984),provides a good account of how the Battalion formed at Benning during the summer and fall of 1942:

Our companies were filled mainly with the graduates of Classes 42, 43, and 44 of the First Parachute Training Regiment at Fort Benning.  Some, of course, came from earlier classes.  They had attended the four or six-week special schools in parachute demolitions or parachute communications.  (Morgan, 1984, p. 25)

On 08 December 1942, a year and a day after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, twenty-seven-year-old Major (MAJ) Wood Joerg, Commander of the 551st, stood in front of his new Battalion. He told the 450 assembled Paratroopers of the 551stthat they would be heading overseas to an undisclosed location, which only he and a few others knew to be Panama. They would be part of an independent Parachute/Airborne Infantry element within the Canal Zone, the other unit being the newly formed 550thAirborne Infantry, which would air land in C-47 transports on airfields seized by the 551st. Neither unit was a part of a larger Divisional unit, such as the 82ndor 101stAirborne Divisions. The 551stdeparted Fort Benning on the night of 11 December (Morgan, 1984).

Most of the 501stParachute Infantry Battalion, which had been stationed in Panama since mid-1941, moved to the Pacific in late 1942. Charlie Company of the 501stwas detached from the Battalion and stayed in Panama, forming the nucleus of the 551stat Fort Kobbe, before the main element arrived by troopship in early 1943 (Devlin, 1979). This gave the GOYAs a base of experienced Officers and NCOs from which to start their training in the jungles of Panama.

Panama

The Panama Canal Zone and its obvious strategic importance, was a key aspect of stationing both the 551stand 550thas a deterrent in defense of the Canal, and the entire Caribbean area. The U-Boat threat to shipping on the eastern coast of the U.S. was of great importance, and the island of Martinique, under Vichy-French control, supported U-Boat resupply and operations.

The 551stsettled in to their new barracks and facilities at the recently established Fort Kobbe in Panama, and began training in late January 1943. The GOYAs trained hard on the rigors of jungle warfare, while also developing many new techniques and procedures for the paratroopers to use in this unforgiving climate. They began to bond as a unit, while also acquiring their strong identity of independence.

The rigorous training in Panama marked the third sizable training period for most GOYAs, following boot camp and paratroop school.  It was the first time they had drilled together, and their esprit de corps steadily mounted.  Six-day weeks of endless setting up and displacing guns, eight-hour days of bayonet practice, and machetes hacking away at thick and poisonous black palm – all boiled a cauldron of hardihood for the GOYAs (Orfalea, 1997, p. 50).

On 13 May 1943, the 551stbegan preparations for a combined parachute/airborne assault to seize the island of Martinique by force. Ammunition, grenades, medical supplies, and maps of the island were issued, and on the eve of the operation, the troopers headed to Howard Airfield to don parachutes and conduct their first combat jump. Ultimately, this was not to be. The French Admiral in charge of the pro-Nazi forces on Martinique learned of the impending operation and promptly fled the island, turning over control of Martinique to a U.S. Navy Admiral (Orfalea, 1997).

Camp Mackall

With the threat of Martinique gone, the 551sttraveled by troopship back to the U.S. in August 1943. They arrived in San Francisco and traveled by train across the United States to their new home, Camp Mackall, North Carolina. While at Camp Mackall, the GOYAs of the 551st took leave for the first time since leaving for Panama a year before. They returned and began training for their next mission, which many thought would be in the Pacific theater of operations. In October 1943, the 551stbegan testing a new concept in airborne warfare – the simultaneous dropping of paratroops from two CG-4A Waco Gliders and their C-47 tow plane.  Aircraft losses and wildly-scattered drop patterns experienced in combat parachute assaults in North Africa, Sicily and Italy warranted that such an audacious idea be tested. The 551ststepped up to the task and conducted at least five successful test jumps at Camp Mackall. Although commended for their professionalism in these jump tests, in the end, the use of Gliders for static line parachuting was not as practical as it was hoped to have been (Orfalea, 1997).

Their original Commander, the beloved now Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Joerg, left the Battalion for a new assignment at Fort Benning. His replacement was LTC Rupert Graves, who was the complete opposite of Joerg. LTC Graves did not identify at all with the independent enthusiasm of the GOYAs. Discipline and AWOL problems were rampant, and the GOYA’s distaste of the totalitarian culture and rule of collective punishment that Graves created within the unit was clear. After a disastrous night drop in February 1944, where eight Paratroopers of the 551stdied after their C-47 mistakenly dropped them into Kinney-Cameron Lake, a secret inquiry indirectly put the blame on Graves for poor planning, and swiftly reassigned him in March 1944. Shortly thereafter, LTC Joerg returned to the 551stas their Commander, and wasted no time into getting the GOYAs back on track as an effective fighting unit (Orfalea, 1997).

Operation DRAGOON

Shortly after LTC Joerg’s return to the 551stin March, the Battalion received movement orders to Europe, again as an independent unit. New gear was issued, equipment was packed up, and in April 1944, the GOYAs of the 551stembarked on another troopship destined for Sicily via Algeria and Naples, Italy (Orfalea, 1997). They arrived in May 1944 and spent most of June and July training for the combat jump mission that had been rumored to be anywhere from Southern France to Yugoslavia. In July 1944, they moved to a small town 20 miles southwest of Rome and told of “their” D-Day. Staging out of airfields around Rome, the 551st, as part of the hastily organized First Airborne Task Force, prepared for the jump into Southern France on 15 August 1944 as part of Operation DRAGOON, the Allied landings in Southern France. The First Airborne Task Force, or FABTF for short, was comprised of the 517thParachute Infantry Regiment, the battle-hardened 509thParachute Infantry (on their fourth combat jump), the 550th(from their days in Panama and who were now a Glider Infantry battalion), and the GOYAs of the 551st(Devlin, 1979). Shortly after 1800hrs on 15 August 1944, the 826 Officer and Enlisted Paratroopers of the 551stconducted the first successful daytime combat parachute assault in history, as part of the second wave of paratroops to jump during DRAGOON, near the town of Le Muy. Immediately after jumping from his C-47, Sergeant (SGT) Doug Dillard, A Company’s communications Noncommissioned Officer (NCO), “surveyed the landscape and I could see chutes all over the place, above and below me” (Morgan, 1984, p. 188). The 551stParachute Infantry’s objective, the successful seizing of the city of Draguignan on 17 August, included the capture of General Ludwig Bieringer, the first German general captured in World War II (Orfalea, 1997). The 551st Parachute Infantry, after months of training, disappointment, and frustration, had finally proven themselves an effective unit in combat.

Operations in the Maritime Alps

On 24 August, both the GOYAs and the 509thParachute Infantry entered the city of Cannes without a shot fired, and on the 29th, the 551stentered and took Nice. They continued to find and clear enemy positions, while moving towards the border with Italy and formidable natural barrier of the Maritime Alps (Orfalea, 1997).

Between September and late November 1944, the former jungle experts of Panama conducted alpine and ski patrols against German opposition on a 35-mile front in the mountains of France. To ensure no enemy attack would cross this terrain, the 551st, once again along with the 550thGlider Infantry from their days in Panama, became part of the 509thTask Force. On 15 October 1944, the 551stwas once again on its own as a unit, and after ninety-six days of continuous combat, finally wrapped up operations on 18 November (Morgan, 1984). Shortly thereafter, they moved by train in 40 x 8 rail cars to Rheims, France on 08 December 1944, which was to Company B’s SGT Emory Albritton one of the coldest nights he’d ever spent anywhere (Morgan, 1984). Rheims is where the 82ndand 101stAirborne Divisions also were located for rest and refit. The GOYAs now became part of the XVIII Airborne Corps under General Ridgway (Devlin, 1979).

Battle of the Bulge

On 16 December 1944, after the Paratroopers of the 551stwere in France for barely a week, the German Army launched an all-out attack although the Ardennes, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Many of the GOYAs were about to depart Rheims on pass to visit Paris when the alert came. Men were scrambling to pack away their dress uniforms and spit-polished jump boots in trade for their field gear, combat equipment, and weapons, and prepare for movement. Most had not had any time to repair or replace the uniforms and gear used since jumping into Southern France four months earlier, let alone acquire adequate cold weather gear. Supplies had been slowly trickling since arriving at Rheims, but not nearly enough for the 800 men in the Battalion. Time was of the essence, and supply sergeants and GOYAs made do the best that they could. The order to move from Rheims by truck to the front near Werbomont, Belgium, came on 20 December (Morgan, 1984).

Attachment to the XVIII Airborne Corps

The 551starrived in Werbomont, Belgium, on the morning of 21 December, and continued assignment to the XVIII Airborne Corps, along with the 1stInfantry Division, 30thInfantry Division, 84thInfantry Division, 3rdArmored Division, and the 82ndAirborne Division.  Initially, the 551stbelonged to the 82nd, along with their fellow Paratroopers from DRAGOON, the 517thParachute Infantry Regiment (Morgan, 1984). Later on that morning, they were under control of the 30thInfantry Division, moving to the small village of Ster, southwest of Stavelot, and quickly digging in defensive positions. According to the 551stBattalion S-3, MAJ “Pappy” Herman:

The Division had been committed completely and had no reserve at all.  So that’s when they gave us the job of preparing defensive positions all over the place.  Then somebody at Division HQ had an idea:  here we have this battalion, let’s have them get a little real estate for us. So they gave us a mission, we were to make an attack on Christmas morning.  Fortunately, another order came in relieving us of that attachment, otherwise, I think the battalion would have suffered severe losses (Morgan, 1984, p. 338).

This clearly illustrates that during the confusion and rush to put as much U.S. combat power as possible into the Ardennes to stop the German attack, the shuffling of attached units by their higher headquarters went to those formations short on manpower. What expertise existed within the staff of the 30thInfantry Division, a non-Airborne “leg” Infantry Division, on employing a Parachute Infantry battalion? Fortunately for the 551st, their attack planned for Christmas Day never materialized.

Night Attack on Noirefontaine

On the night of 27 December 1944, the Division Commander of the 82ndAirborne Division, Major General (MG) James Gavin, visited the Command Post of the 551stnear Rahier, and told LTC Joerg that he wanted to GOYAs to “attack in order to determine whether conditions were right for an Allied counteroffensive” (Orfalea, 1997, p. 234). After Gavin left the 551stCP, many of the Officers present were feeling uneasy about the upcoming mission. It was almost as if the 551st, not an organic unit to the 82ndbut an unfamiliar attachment, would be sacrificed by MG Gavin to determine what the German Army was doing within their sector. Shortly after midnight on the 28th, the 551stconducted one of the few nighttime raids during the Battle of the Bulge against the German headquarters at Noirefontaine. The raid was a success, with at least 30 Germans killed and an armored vehicle destroyed, while the 551stonly suffered four killed and fifteen wounded, all from B Company (Orfalea, 1997).

Bayonet Attack by A Company 551st– 04 January 1945

On 04 January 1945, the Paratroopers of A Co 551stconducted one of the rarely documented bayonet attacks of World War II, near the village of Dairomont, Belgium. A Co, under the leadership of 1LT Richard Durkee, neutralized several enemy machine gun positions and inflicted great losses on the enemy who greatly outnumbered them (Dillard, 2008, p. 7). Sergeant Douglas Dillard, Communications Sergeant for A Company relates his view of the bayonet attack:

“Fix Bayonets and charge!”  That was the order that Lieutenant Durkee gave us as we charged across this field and wooded area and into the German positions.  I can understand why he did it and can see the advantage in it.  I’m sure it occurred to him that, “Hey, we can scare the hell outta these guys by fixing bayonets!”  It may also boost the morale of our troops.  It had been a hell of a day.  There was lots of activity and we lost a lot of men.  People were pretty mad and fired up.  You wanted to accomplish something (O’Donnell, 2001, p. 266).

The GOYAs of A Company charged German machine gun positions, despite seeing the muzzle flashes of the machine guns firing at them. Sergeant Dillard recalls it looking like something from a movie, as he watched Lieutenant Durkee move across a line of German foxholes, killing several Germans in the process. Dillard’s Thompson submachine gun was frozen solid and couldn’t fire. He eventually helped Durkee round up several of the GOYAs who had come unglued and continued to bayonet the dead German bodies, their last breath hanging in the air in a foggy mist. The GOYAs had unleashed all their pent-up anger and rage, and just wanted to kill the Germans, over and over again (O’Donnell, 2001).

Attack on Rochelinval

On 02 January 1945, the 551stwas under operational control of Colonel (COL) Graves and his 517thParachute Infantry Regiment. This was the same unpopular COL Graves from the GOYAs days at Camp Mackall, assigned the 551sta mission on 03 January, the first day of the planned Allied counteroffensive. The 551stcrossed the line of departure on 03 January and attacked southeast from Basse-Bodeux (Orfalea, 1997). On 06 January 1945, the 551stmoved from operational control under the 517th, to that of the 504thParachute Infantry of the 82ndAirborne Division. The GOYA’s Commander, LTC Joerg, looked forward to working with COL Reuben Tucker’s 504thand hoped for better support than was received from the 517th. This was not to be the case. LTC Joerg began to sense that things would not be better with the 504th, maybe even worse. The Division staff of the 82ndAirborne gave vital significance to the capture of any intact bridges over the Salm River, and pushed units to secure them, to include the attached 551st(Tucker, 1999).

Since the bridge at Rochelinval was the last across the Salm River still held by the Germans, and it was still capable of handling vehicle traffic, it was critical to the enemy. A patrol from A Company of the 551st conducted a limited reconnaissance on the evening of the sixth, where German Soldiers were seen preparing defensive positions around the village. Rochelinval itself was on a high ground, surrounded by snow-covered fields to the west and south, and a small valley and tree line to the north. This gave some amount of cover and concealment all the way to the outskirts of the town. Given the significance of the bridge at Rochelinval, 82ndAirborne Division staff provided no intelligence assistance in preparing for the attack (Tucker, 1999).

In their commander’s assessment, the GOYAs of the 551stwere in no shape for such an attack, because of casualties, the brutal weather, and two weeks of sustained combat. Leadership within the 504thtold Joerg that his unit could expect no direct support from the 504th. Wire communications between the units did not exist, causing critical delays in relaying information between the two units. There was also no solid commitment on any sort of artillery support from the 82ndAirborne’s organic field artillery units before launching the attack the next morning. LTC Joerg pleaded with the Division staff to have the attack canceled or postponed, but to no avail (Tucker, 1999).

At 0730hrs on the morning of 07 January 1945, the 551stbegan their attack, with only three rounds of prepatory artillery support. A Company attacked from the north, while B Company attacked from the south. C Company was to capture a small outpost and provide support by fire and be the Battalion reserve to the west. The understrength A Company’s Lieutenant (LT) Dick Durkee gives a good account of a part of the ensuing nightmare:

The Germans were sitting up there in the town, just waiting for us.  One scout, Private Robert Mowery, was carrying the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and he was the first to be hit; he got it in the stomach and once through the head.  I immediately had our (.30 caliber) machine gun emplaced behind a 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 (Morgan, 1984, p. 446).

Later in the attack, LT Durkee became the Company Commander of A Company with only nine Paratroopers still able to fight. The beloved commander of the 551st, LTC Wood Joerg, fell mortally wounded by a tree burst at his Command Post near C Company, also knocking out what was left of the Battalion’s communications (Morgan, 1984).

After taking the village and bridge, the less than 100 survivors of 551stParachute Infantry’s attack on Rochelinval moved to the village of Juslenville, to attempt to account for their dead and wounded. On 22 January 1945, MG Gavin briefed the surviving GOYAs that their unit was no longer, and they would be reassigned as replacements within the 82ndAirborne. On 27 January 1945, the 551stParachute Infantry officially deactivated, with the stroke of an Adjutant’s pen.

Conclusion

By showing the unique background, training history, and operations of the 551stParachute Infantry, it is clear that not being part of a larger, regimental, or division-sized unit effected their employment during the Battle of the Bulge. The independent 551st Parachute Infantry’s lack of a consistent, division-level higher headquarters as well as multiple command arrangements during its history, led to its untimely demise and destruction in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. An 800-man independent battalion of Paratroopers trained to proficiency to fight in the jungle suffered their destruction in the frozen snows of Belgium. The staff-level command arrangements between the 551stand her temporary parent units may never be fully understood. Let the record show, the fighting spirit and tenacity of the GOYAs continues to inspire us all and should never be forgotten – GOYA!

CSM Christopher G. Lewis (Facebook)
Historian, 551stParachute Infantry Association
Fort Benning, GA
19 November 2018

References

  • Devlin, Gerard M. (1979).  Paratrooper! The Saga of U.S. Army and Marine Parachute and Glider Combat Troops During World War II. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Dillard, D. C. (2008). WWII Unit Honored for Bayonet Attack. Infantry, 97(3), 6-7.
  • Morgan, Dan (1984).  The Left Corner Of My Heart: The Saga Of The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion.  Wauconda, WA: Alder Enterprises.
  • O’Donnell, P. K. (2001). Beyond Valor: World War II’s Rangers and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Orfalea, Gregory (1997). Messengers of the Lost Battalion: The Heroic 551st and the Turning of the Tide at the Battle of the Bulge. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Tucker, William H. (1999).  Rendezvous at Rochelinval: Battle of the Bulge. Harwichport, MA: International Airborne Books.