"THE ORIGINAL 503d PIR"
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  The history of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment began 2 March 1942 when the 503d  Parachute Infantry Battalions were redesignated as the 1st and 2nd Battalions respectively of the two-battalion 503d PIR.

The original 2nd Battalion (the former 504th PIB) departed for England on 4 June 1942 under the command of Lt. Colonel Edson D. Raff. They landed in Gouroch, Scotland on 10 June 1942 and were then stationed at Hungerford, England where they trained with Major General Sir Frederick A. M. “Boy” Browning’s 1st British Airborne Division. They were the first U.S.  parachute unit to be shipped overseas during WWII.

Soon after dark on 7 November 1942, the battalion took off from Land’s End, England. The thirty-nine C-47’s were heading for La Senia, Algeria. The pre-arranged “peace plan” failed. The widely scattered battalion suffered casualties, both KIA’s and WIA’s. After reorganizing, the battalion went on to Maison Blanche. They took off from the airport there on 15 November and jumped at Youk-Les-Bains on the Tunisian border. They were the first in Tunisia to contact Rommel’s Africa Corps, and were the first into Gafsa. The battalion fought at Kasserine Pass, Feriano, Sheitla, and the first in battle at Faid Pass. A demolition team made the third combat jump at El Dejmafter in December 1942.

In the meantime, the parent unit remained at Ft. Bragg and was brought to a full strength three battalion regiment on 6 June 1942 when the 1st Battalion, 502nd PIR was redesignated 3rd Battalion, 503rd PIR. At this time they expected to embark for England as soon as transportation was available. Soon the 503rd would be reunited. The regiment was issued wilt cloth.

Then came the night of 9 October 1942. The two battalions, along with “A” Company, 504th PIR, boarded a train heading west, and detrained at Camp Stoneman, California on 15 October.  Five days later, 20 October 1942, they boarded the U.S. Army Transport Poelau Laut. They arrived at Balboa, Panama on 30 October where they took on board the 501st PIB minus “C” Company. Then on 2 December, after pulling in to both Brisbane and Townsville without debarking, they found themselves in tropical Cairns, Queensland, Australia. The battalions then moved by truck to nearby Gordonvale where they set up a base camp.

At this time it appeared the 503d PIR had two second Battalions, one in Australia and one in Africa. Colonel Raff used the designation of 2nd Battalion, 503d  PIR in his book ‘We Jumped to Fight’ which was written in 1944. In “Notes and Acknowledgements,” the last section of his book, he states,

“The Regimental designation of the 2nd Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry was changed by the War Department just prior to the North African invasion. News of the change reached us later in the campaign. For that reason the former designation, under which we operated has been retained throughout the book.”

Colonel Morton Katz (then a 2nd Lt.) joined the 2nd Battalion, 503rd PIR (Africa) during October 1942. He states,

“For the last half of my service with the 509th, I was Battalion Adjutant, and had access to all records.  When I was S-2 at the Venafro operation, the S-2 staff made up a V-Mail roll of the complete operation, and still have it.”

Colonel Katz had also stated,

“When the original 2nd Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry took off from the Land’s End, England under the command of (then) LTC Edson D. Raff, Jr. the night of 1 November 1942, the designation had not changed.

The designation was changed early in 1943 while the battalion was stationed at Maison Carree, Algeria, a small town outside Algiers. The battalion was redesignated the 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry (and there never was a 509th regiment) before moving to Boufarik, Algeria in late winter.”

Lt. General William P. Yarborough, who served much of the time with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd PIR/509th PIB (for a short time 2nd Battalion, 509th PIR) supports Katz.

“I have faith in Morton Katz’s version both because his memory has been reinforced by written material made by him contemporaneously.”

If there was some time lag between the change in designation of the 2d Bn 503d to 2d Bn 509th it was understandable in light of all the massive personnel actions that were part of the United States' unprecedented mobilization effort.  Yarborough further recalled,

“In my book ‘Bailout Over North Africa’ I included a copy of a letter from British Maj. General F. A. M. Browning to Lt. Col. Doyle Yardley addressed to the 2nd Bn., 509th Parachute Regiment. The letter was dated 6 June 1943. On the other hand, the French order allowing the wearing of the 3rd Zouaves Badge is dated 6 February 1944 and is directed to CO 2d Bn., 503rd Parachute Regiment. In my book I also state that order changing the designation of the 2d Bn 503rd PIR to 2d Bn 509th PIR did not reach England until after the unit left for North Africa.”

Charles H. Doyle, the historian of the 509th Parachute Battalion, recently said,

“I had many arguments with LTG Smiling Jack Tolson over the redesignation of the original 2/503rd. Finally I sent him, just before he died, the original order dated October 1942. That’s a month before the African jump. These orders did not catch up to the battalion until our rear echelon caught us at Maison Carre. Since Col. Raff was at Fiad Pass with his task force he had no idea, hence his using the 503rd in his book.

So in all reality it was the 2/509th that took off from England and not the 2/503rd. Since we were under the command of the British 1st Airborne, I would seriously doubt that our report would be shipped to the 503d Regiment in the Pacific. In receiving the battalion records from the Achives from October 1942 those state 2/509th except for those records sent to the Pentagon from England - yet with an “*” at the bottom they say changed to 2/509 as of October 1943.

Since Marty Katz did not become the Battalion Adjutant until France he would not have been privy to any of the above, as I found out once I started the research for our history book.

The 2/509 was dropped in Italy once it became clear that two more battalions would not join."

Lieutenant General John Tolson left a letter [1] addressed to Mr. Robert K. Wright, Jr., U.S. Army Center of Military History attempting to correct a large number of errors in the official history of the 503rd PIR. He knew that they did make errors, and he learned that they never admit them. In it he states,

“After the 2nd Bn., 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment move to England, it retrained the designation for a long time. In fact, just as soon as shipping could be made available, the remainder of the regiment was scheduled to join its 2nd Battalion in England during the summer, 1942. Because of this fact when the 3rd Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was   formed in May – June 1942 it was accomplished by rushing to Ft. Bragg from Ft. Benning the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, less the Battalion commander, his staff, and the company commander to become the 3rd Bn. of the 503rd. I believe that the Battalion in England was still the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd. I believe that the Battalion in England was still the 2nd Battalion, 503rd parachute Infantry Regiment when it jumped in North Africa.”.

The other Lieutenant Colonel in the 503rd PIR in late 1942, still  alive at time of writing, is Joe S. Lawrie, U.S. Army Major General (Retired). Louis Aiken, one of our 503d brethren, tells of a telephone conversation [2] he had with General Lawrie.

“General Lawrie (then Lt. Col.) told me that he was aware of the fact – as were others that the 503d PIR was carrying 4 Battalions for periodic reports to higher headquarters, even after we reached Australia. He stated that he and others thought this was unique because one of these Battalions was in England and Africa. He believes these reports were made for a period of 4-6 months.”

Bennett Guthrie, the 503rd PIR’s most noted author, who wrote “Three Winds of Death”, spent a great deal of time and expended much effort researching 503rd PIR records.  He writes [3]  that after the African actions, the original 2/503rd sent their casualty reports to the 503d PIR in Australia.

Sergeant Roy Guy, long-time first sergeant of “D” Company, told Aiken that there was much confusion for a period of time after they reached Australia during late 1942. He said “D” Company was designated as “F” Company at one time. Donald Abbott, former platoon leader in “D” Company, has a letter written to his wife from Australia in December with an “F” Company address.

John Lindgren found a War Department letter [4] which reads as follows:

"2nd Battalion will transfer, less personnel and equipment from England to Australia, Effective 2 November 1942.”

Several unit histories also detail the arrangements. The Office of the Commanding Officer , Headquarters 503rd REGIMENTAL COMBAT TEAM records the organizational change in organization in the following terms,

 “2nd Battalion, 503rd PIR ordered POE Letter, AG 370.5 (3-12-42) MC-E-M, 22 May 1942, and 501st Parachute Battalion redesignated 2nd Battalion, 503rd by WD letter, AG 320.2 (11-3-42).”

2nd Battalion History (extract)

“January 1,1943 by secret letter War Department A.G. 370.5 (11-16-42) dated November 17, 1942. Subject: Transfer of Prcht units, Hq Co, Co “A”, and “B” of the 501st Parachute Battalion were respectively redesignated Hq & Hq, Co “E”, and Co “F”. 503rd Prcht Inf. Regt.  “A” Co 504 Prcht. Inf. was redesignated Co.“D” 503d Prcht. Inf."

“D”Company History (extract)

“31 December 42: “A” Company, 504th Parcht. Inf. redesignated as Company “D”, 503d Prcht. Inf. (Secret letter WDGO, file No. AG 320.2 (11-3-42) O-B-1-E-M dated November 8, 1942). Strength 8 Off. & 119 Em.”

“F”Company History (extract)

“On the 31st of December, 1941, Secret Letter, WDAGO file Number AG 320-2-11-42 OB-1-E-M, dated November 8,1941, Subject: Transfer of Certain units, designated Company “B”, 501st Parachute Battalion as Company “F”, 503rd Parachute Infantry effective November 3, 1942. We have come into our own.”

The two dates of 1941 are obvious errors. They should read 1942. In view of the attitude of the 501st men the “We have come into our own” is a later addition. In fact the writing was probably done at a later date. The 501st men considered themselves to be “the parachute battalion” and they were not happy to be incorporated into a regiment with lesser mortals. [5]

            A key example of 501st attitude is illustrated in the following entry:

“20 October 43 – Holiday today. One year ago today, two battalions and RHQ and Service Company left the USA. 1 Nov should be a day of mourning for the 501st Prcht. Bn. On that day, it embarked at Balboa, Canal Zone (1942) and joined the regiment aboard ship bound for Australia, Bless ‘em all.” [6]

            This is essentially the information known today which covers the redesignation of the original 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry regiment. Clearly orders were issued by the Adjutant General redesignating this battalion, though the date is less clear – at least to some whose faith in the system is not strong. It’s also evident that those within the 503rd units affected did not know that some of them were not what they thought they were. This is the reason the close-knit family of paratroopers who served in 1942 have a problem believing in the exactitude of a system which concludes officially that their beloved unit made one combat jump and one initial assault during WWII.

            But as the great 2nd Battalion Adjutant said, “Bless ‘em all.”

 

 The formation of the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment was fraught with diversity and disunity. Usually, a regiment is formed with a cadre of officers and enlisted men from an existing unit. This provides the framework to be filled out with new men. The 503d was formed by combining existing units, each with its own unit loyalty and sense of independence.

Originally, the 503d was a two battalion regiment formed  2 March 1942 by combining the 503d and 504th Parachute Battalions. The 503d became the First Battalion and the 504th the Second Battalion. Before they could be welded into a solid unit the Second Battalion, commanded Lt. Col. Edison D. Raff, departed for Europe on 2 May 1942, where it eventually became the 509th Parachute Battalion.

The Third Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated 4 June 1942 under the command of Major John J. Tolson III. This battalion was formed by 502nd troops: Headquarters Company, 502nd became Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Third battalion, 503d; “A” Company became “G” Company; “B” Company became “H” Company; and “C” Company became “I” Company.

The Regiment (First and Third Battalions) departed Fort Bragg 19 October accompanied by General Ridgeway’s “best” rifle company, “A” company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The temporary commander was Major Tolson, as Colonel Kenneth Kinsler, 503rd commanding officer, had gone on ahead to Australia by air.

The two battalions and “A” Company departed San Francisco 20 October aboard a converted freighter, the Dutch ship “SS Poelau Laut.” On 1 November they docked at Balboa, Canal Zone and took aboard the 501st Parachute  battalion,  minus its “C” Company. “A” Company, 501st became “E”Company, 503rd; “B” Company, 501st became “F” Company, 503rd; and “A” Company, 504th became “D” Company, 503rd.

 The new regiment was actually four units: the 501st Parachute Battalion; the 1st Battalion; 502nd Parachute Regiment; the 503rd Parachute Battalion; and “A” Company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Each knew in their hearts that they were superior to the others; Each were not happy to be incorporated into a regiment with lesser mortals.  An ill-deserved fate had forced them into association with the other units. Distrust, jealousy, suspicion were the order of the day.

Now the 503rd was a full regiment… at least on the books it was.

 

 

 

The change of organization was not accomplished entirely with the same grace that the Adjutant General’s office might have desired. It was well known at those lofty heights of command that when units were reorganized, there were opportunities to dispose of battalions and personnel who were considered to be operating at less than maximum efficiency – even when that was not the case.  A similar factor sometimes applied to officers who had developed a familiar command structure –  they would bring in their own group of familiars. It was an all too human frailty, and rank has always had its privileges.  

With Colonel Kinsler as part of the advance party in Australia,  the senior officer in command was Lieutenant Colonel Tolson. As the combined units (1st and 3rd battalion, 503d and “A” Co., 504th) waited to entrain, a sedan flying two stars pulled up and Tolson was told to report to Major General Matthew Ridgeway, commanding General of the 82d H.D.

In his direct manner, Ridgeway informed Tolson that he was to give this message to the C.O., 503rd.  He knew it was ‘customary’ for another unit to give up their worst unit when ordered to transfer one.

“This is not the case here.” Ridgeway said “This is the best company I have in the division." [7]

In the event that Tolson had not understood the position with sufficient clarity, Ridgeway continued that he also knew it was typical for a senior commander to remove the NCO’s and officers and to replace them with those he knew. He instructed Tolson to tell Kinsler he would be keeping an eye on “A” Company because they had excellent leaders,  and “it better not happen.”

Unfortunately, something may have been lost in the translation, for Ridgway’s exhortation appears to have become more of an advisory opinion.  

When the 503rd picked up the 501st at Balboa, they had not gone far before Jones (now in command because of seniority) called in Capt. Ralph Bates (a great Kentuckian) and told him he wanted Sgt. Roy Cruz reduced in rank because he had a better NCO from the 501st to serve as 1st Sgt. Captain Bates, standing his ground, refused and said, “You will relieve me first.”

Once they got to Australia, and Tolson had the opportunity to pass the Ridgway message along, things were quiet for a time. After Jones become C.O., the matter was raised again. Bates would not be shifted.  Jones, unimpressed with obstinacy from a mere Captain, made it known that he might find himself obliged to court-martial Bates. Bates, not averse to skilful maneuver himself, called Jones’ bluff, requesting a court-martial. Col. Jones apologized and suggested “Let’s forget our dirty laundry.” Bates, who  knew the system at least as well as Jones, knew the matter would not be resolved by procrastination or avoidance, and declined to let the matter drop. When the issue did come to the attention of 6th Army, Gen. Krueger sent a colonel to visit Bates, suggesting that the request might be dropped. Bates refused. Exploring the alternatives, the colonel asked Bates what it would take to end the impasse. “A transfer,” was Bates curt response. [8]

Ultimately Ralph Bates, who had been appointed to command "A" Company 504th Prcht. Inf. when it was activated at Ft. Benning on 1 May 1942,  was allowed to pick a spot in a headquarters in Australia. Fortunately too, his  star would rise again, and the 503d would have the benefit of his talent and experience again.

 

  

 

 

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 [1] Letter Lieutenant General John Tolson  to Mr. Robert K. Wright, Jr., U.S. Army Center of Military History dated  24 March 1979 5

[2] Conversation, 19 December 1995 5

 [3] xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx 5

 [4] WD Letter: AGO 320.2 (16 October 42) OB-1-G-M dated 22 October 1942. 5

 [5] Jerry Riseley, Adjutant of the 2nd Battalion makes this attitude clear throughout the S-1 Adjutant’s Journal. The attitude was clearly reflective of a widely held attitude. 5

 [6] from which we have named this manuscript. 5

 [7] Those who knew Ridgeway know this to be very Ridgeway. 5

 [8] Don Abbott also gives a similar account of the incident, based on discussions with Ralph Bates and John Tolson: “On the night the 503rd left Fort Bragg for San Francisco, A Co., 504th was assembled at the trail station with the rest of the 503rd. A staff car pulled up with two stars on its license plate and General Matthew Ridgeway got out. He asked for the Senior Officer Present and Jack Tolson, who I think was a Lt. Colonel even then, snapped to attention . Ridgeway told Tolson he was sending his best rifle company, “A” Company. He was not sending the worst company, which he easily could have done. He told Tolson he knew what could happen to a “bastard” company such thing happening to his company. Of course Kinsler was not there. He preceded us to Australia and we did not see him on the way over at all. At this time I don’t think even Jack knew we would be picking up the 501st in Panama and Jones would out rank him. How prophetic Ridgeway was.”  Don recalls, “I, myself was transferred out of the then “D” Co. before Nadzab at about the time Tom McNerney was transferred to Headquarters, 2nd Battalion. As far as I’m concerned, it took me about two years to make first so the jinks against “D” Co. worked.” 5