"Hey, we ain't heading toward New York!  We're in Tennessee -- that's my pappy's farm out there!"

 

-- Unknown 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment Paratrooper

 

 

In October 1942, the War Department ordered the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), still without a third battalion, to the Pacific Theater.  Even before this long trip across the Pacific Ocean, the regiment had a lengthy journey and numerous name changes before their departure for Australia.  The unit formed at Fort Benning, but went to Fort Bragg with the movement of the Airborne Command.  It was here that the regiment formed and trained before receiving orders to deploy to the Southwest Pacific.  In route to Australia the regiment picked up its third battalion in Panama.  Once in Australia, the unit conducted numerous training exercises and airborne operations in preparation for employment.  This order came in August 1943.   The final leg of the journey was to Port Moresby where the regiment prepared for the first jump in the Pacific Theater.   

On August 22, 1941, the War Department activated the 503d Parachute Battalion under the command of Major Robert Sink, a member of the 501st Parachute Battalion. [87]  This first such battalion formed in September 1940 from the original Test Platoon after the fifth and final qualifying jump before a prestigious audience.  The two most notable personnel present were Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall.  Fortunately for the airborne concept, the Test Platoon made a favorable impression on both of them that they did not quickly forget.   The members of the Test Platoon formed the cadre of the 501st Parachute Battalion and many later became members of the 503d PIR when the 501st Parachute Battalion became the Second Battalion, 503d PIR in November 1942.[88]

On October 5 the War Department activated the next parachute battalion, the 504th, under the command of Major Richard Chase, who was also a member of the 501st and previously an executive officer of the 503d.  Just after the new battalion completed basic airborne training, it and the 503d moved to Fort Bragg because of the formation of the Airborne Command as well as the crowded conditions at Fort Benning.  On March 2, 1941, with the peacetime restrictions for army troop strengths lifted, the War Department ordered the formation of four parachute regiments from the existing parachute battalions.  The 503d and 504th now formed the 503d PIR, the 503rd constituting its First Battalion and the 504th Second.  The first commander of the regiment was Lieutenant Colonel William M. Miley.[89] 

On May 20, less than three months after the regiment formed, the War Department ordered Miley to provide a parachute battalion for duty in Europe.  He released the Second Battalion (originally the 504th Parachute Battalion), which was later renamed the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and gained the distinction of being the first American unit to jump in combat during Operation TORCH in North Africa.[90]  With the departure of Second Battalion for Europe, the 503d PIR had only one remaining battalion at Fort Bragg.  On June 4, the War Department activated the Third Battalion of the 503d PIR.  Just before the Second Battalion departed for Europe, Miley had reassigned the executive officer, Major John J. Tolson III, to organize the new battalion, which drew its paratroopers from the cadre of the 502d Parachute Battalion who were still at Fort Benning.   The Headquarters Company of the 502d became the Headquarters of Third Battalion, 503d PIR.  Companies A, B and C of the 502d Parachute Battalion became Company G, H and I, Third Battalion, 503d PIR respectively.[91] 

That October the War Department secretly ordered the 503d PIR to the Pacific Theater.  On October 10, the 503d PIR completed loading all the men and equipment on trains under Tolson’s supervision.  Kinsler temporarily transferred Tolson to the job of regimental executive officer and made him acting commander of the regiment for the move when Kinsler himself departed early for Australia to prepare for the unit's arrival.[92]  The very afternoon the paratroopers loaded the trains, Ridgway, commander of the 82d Airborne Division, delivered the final unit before the regiment departed Fort Bragg.   Company A of the newly activated 504th PIR was the newest addition to 503d PIR.[93]  Ridgway made a point to tell Tolson to pass a message to Kinsler:  although it was customary for a unit to give up its worst unit when ordered to transfer one, that was not the case with this transfer.  Ridgway assured Tolson that this was the best rifle company in the division.  Ridgway also said that he knew that it was typical for a commander to remove the officers and senior noncommissioned officers in the newly transferred unit and replace them with those he knew.  He told Tolson that he would keep an eye on Company A and that it had better not happen.[94]

The First Battalion had undergone extensive ski training in the snowcapped mountains of Utah, so the paratroopers believed they were heading for combat in a frigid climate, possibly somewhere in Scandinavia.   They expected to board ships in New York bound for England, following the Second Battalion that had left in June.  Little did they know they were heading for the jungles in the Southwest Pacific.  It was not until the next morning when a paratrooper staring out of the train window watching empty cornfields roll by did they realize they were not going to New York.  "Hey, we ain't heading toward New York!,”  the paratrooper yelled out. “We're in Tennessee -- that's my pappy's farm out there!"[95]

The train trip across the United States lasted just over a week.  The 503d PIR finally arrived at Camp Stonemen, near Pittsburg, California, where it conducted more preparations for overseas movement such as equipment inspections and vaccinations.  At dawn on October 20, the 503d PIR aboard the Dutch freighter, the SS Poelau Laut, passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and out of the San Francisco harbor.  Twelve days later it arrived at Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, where the 501st Parachute Battalion, less its Company C, came aboard.  Company C remained behind to form a cadre of the 551st Parachute Battalion, activated in November 1942. The senior person on board was now Lieutenant Colonel Jones, commander of the 501st Parachute Battalion.[96]

Company A and B, 501st Parachute Battalion became Company E and F, 503d PIR respectively and Company A, 504th Parachute Battalion became Company D, 503d PIR.  These unit redesignations formed Second Battalion, the newest battalion of the 503d PIR, now a full regiment -- at least on the books.  Each unit knew in its heart that it was superior to the others.  Although distrust, jealousy and suspicion were common, the regiment formed into a cohesive fighting unit in spite of being a collection of individual units thrown together.[97] 

On December 2, after forty-two days at sea, the 503d PIR docked at Cairns, North Queensland, Australia and established an encampment site about two miles southwest of Gordonville on the northeast corner of Australia.   Gordonville was due south of New Guinea, just across the Coral Sea from the Port Moresby area.  The 503d PIR began an extensive eight-month training period.  During this time, Kinsler was the regimental commander, Jones was the executive officer, Lawrie commanded the First Battalion, Major John Haltom commanded the Second Battalion and Tolson commanded the Third Battalion.[98]  By the time the regiment moved to Port Moresby in August 1943, Haltom had returned to the United States with a severe case of malaria and Jones again had taken command of Second Battalion.  Lawrie replaced Jones as executive officer and Lieutenant Colonel John Britten assumed command of First Battalion.[99] 

The 503d PIR was the target of considerable attention during its time in Australia.  Among some of the visitors were MacArthur, Blamey, and Krueger.  All were very interested in the watching the regiment conduct airborne operations.  There were numerous jumps between the training exercises and exhibitions for the visiting dignitaries.  One jump per month was mandatory to stay on status for jump pay at the time was $50 for enlisted men and $100 for officers.  Many of the paratroopers suspected that the extra money was necessary to induce the officers to jump out of an airplane.[100] 

From April through July, there was an intensified training period for airborne operations at Cairns.  The peak of this training was in May when records showed that 8,167 paratroopers had jumped during 572 training hours flown by the Fifth Air Force.[101]  Each paratrooper averaged about five jumps a month since there were approximately 1,700 paratroopers in the regiment at the time.  The training and experience the paratroopers gained working together with the Fifth Air Force's troop carriers later proved invaluable – not only to the 503d PIR, but also for the Fifth Air Force's troop carrier units.

On July 24, the 503d PIR received a warning order from MacArthur's GHQ alerting one battalion for possible combat operations.  Immediately upon receipt of the order, Kinsler and several members of his staff proceeded to Port Moresby to confer with the commanding generals of Fifth Air Force and 7th Australian Division.  Although the exact date of the upcoming operation was unknown, all units began to prepare tentative plans.  For this operation, the 503d PIR was under the operational control of the 7th Australian Division for securing the Nadzab airstrip to allow the division to air-land.  Kinsler and Vasey discussed the operation at great length.  Because of the terrain and the extensive front the unit was to cover, they secured MacArthur’s approval to employ the entire regiment.  On July 30, Kinsler and his staff returned to Gordonvale and began preparing for the movement to Port Moresby. [102]

Vasey and his 7th Australian Division had just completed the Buna Campaign and dealt with many of the problems associated with air movement and resupply.  Without this experience, Vasey doubted that the time available while they were at Port Moresby would have been sufficient to prepare for the upcoming operation.  Whitehead, Deputy Fifth Air Force Commander, and Vasey developed a good working relationship and worked closely together on a detailed plan.  This was the first Allied operation of its kind and was very complex with the combination of amphibious, parachute and air-land assaults.[103] 

The Fifth Air Force formed two separate planning staffs to control the fighter and transport units for the operation.  Whitehead took a personal interest in the planning for the parachute and follow-on air-land assault.  He ensured that the 7th Australian Division had five C-47s available for the infantry brigades to practice loading and unloading.   On August 7, 1943, he also arranged one of several low-level reconnaissance flights over Nadzab so that Vasey and members of the 503d PIR could personally view the area of the intended assault.[104]

Because of the inquisitive nature of the paratrooper and tendency for rumors to spread about upcoming missions, Kinsler wanted to keep the mission secret, from both the Japanese and his paratroopers.  Therefore, he announced that the 503d PIR would move to New Guinea to participate in a large airborne training maneuver with the 32nd Infantry Division.  The cover story did not fool the paratroopers.  When the alert came for the move to New Guinea, it only confirmed their suspicions that their long-awaited first mission was not far off.[105]

On August 7, MacArthur's GHQ issued the orders for the 503d PIR to proceed to New Guinea in preparation for combat operations.  On August 15, an advance party flew to Port Moresby and the following day the Second Battalion flew in as well.  The remainder of the 503d PIR sailed from Cairns on August 20 on the liberty ship SS Duntroon and reached Port Moresby harbor two days later.[106]  Nearly two years after the 503d Parachute Battalion made its final qualifying jump, it was about to make its first jump in combat.

 

CHAPTER 5 - THE NADZAB AIRBORNE OPERATION

 

 

 

 

 

         

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