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 A Summary History of the 503d Infantry Regiment

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"The Rock Regiment"

(Updated 10-19-12)

The 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion of the 503d Infantry Regiment, formerly designated the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), are part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) home based in Vicenza, Italy. As part of the "Sky Soldiers," the 1/503 and 2/503 are part of the United States European Command's conventional airborne strategic response force for Europe.

The 503rd Infantry Regiment (ABN) can trace its lineage to the activation of the 501st Parachute Battalion on October 1, 1940 and the 503rd Parachute Battalion on August 22, 1941, the 504th Parachute Battalion on October 5, 1941 at Fort Benning, Georgia. The later just two months before the United States entered World War II. Cadre trained through the formation of the Parachute Test Platoon, and then the subsequent formation of the First and Second Parachute Battalions were used to create these first parachute battalions. Most of the soldiers assigned were not jump qualified when they arrived. The first few months were spent on parachute training and basic infantry skills.

It was quickly determined that the American army would need to field regiments of paratroopers rather than independent battalions. Based on German airborne success in Crete, the plan to form parachute regiments out of the existing battalions was put into effect on March 1, 1942. Every parachute battalion at Fort Benning was affected by this restructuring. The 501st Parachute Battalion had six months prior been deployed to Panama, so they would be brought into the regimental system at a later date. The 502nd Parachute Battalion became the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) with the other battalions of the regiment forming from new soldiers graduating from jump school. The 503rd and 504th Parachute Infantry Battalions were brought into a new 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Miley. The 503rd PIB became the 1/503rd PIR and the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion was now designated the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. (In Army parlance, the shorthand of a unit designation such as 2/503rd is read "second of the five-oh-third," meaning the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Regiment.)

By the end of March 1942, the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, with its two assigned battalions moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for unit training. A requirement was passed down for a single battalion to deploy to England and continue their training for further deployment there. The 2/503rd PIR under the command of LTC Edson Raff was chosen for deployment and departed Fort Bragg on May 29, 1942. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, as a separate battalion and eventually re-designated as the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion (known as the Geronimos, or the Gingerbread Men), served in North Africa, Italy, southern France, and the Battle of the Bulge before being disbanded.

The remainder of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment continued their training at Fort Bragg. The 3rd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated on June 4, 1942. The 503rd PIR, under the command of LTC Kenneth Homes Kinsler, departed Fort Bragg by train to Fort Stoneman, California on October 10, 1942. The Regiment was being deployed as an independent parachute regiment to join General Douglas MacArthur's forces in the South Pacific Theater. They were on their way to Australia. Along the way, and new second battalion was formed to replace the one that had deployed to England.

This was accomplished with the addition of Company A from the newly formed 504th PIR at Fort Bragg, and the men of the 501st Parachute Battalion (less one company) that had been guarding the Panama Canal for almost a year. The regiment crossed the Pacific on the SS Poelau Laut, a Dutch freighter turned troop ship, and arrived in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia on December 2, 1942 - 42 days after departing Pittsburg, California. The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment spent the next nine months training in Australia (and for a short time near Port Moresby, New Guinea), waiting for their opportunity to demonstrate the unique skills of an airborne regiment.

On September 5, 1943 the 503rd PIR made a combat jump on Nazdab Airfield in the Markham Valley of northern New Guinea. The jump was part of Operation Alamo, with the object of pushing the Japanese out of a major base of operations at Lae. The operation was successful for the Allies, due in part to this first use of vertical envelopment in the Pacific Theater.

Beginning on July 3, 1944, two battalions of the 503rd jumped onto Kamiri Airfield on Noemfoor Island, off the coast of Dutch New Guinea on July 3, 1944. The third battalion made an amphibious landing a few days later. Both assaults were unopposed, as the 503rd PIR was deploying to Noemboor in support of the 158th Regimental Combat Team. The 158th RCT, in support of Operation Table Tennis, had assaulted the island to deny its use to the Japanese as a staging area and airbase during the Allied push into the Hollandia region of New Guinea. The 503rd played a major role in the elimination of stiff Japanese resistance on Noemfoor Island. Sergeant Ray E. Eubanks was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Noemfoor. After its capture, the construction of airfields on Noemfoor supported the advance of Allied troops from New Guinea to the Philippines.

After a non-combat movement to Leyte, in the Philippines Islands, the 503rd PIR was now designated as the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team with the attachment of the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and Company C, 161st Airborne Engineers. On December 15, 1944 the 503rd PRCT made a major amphibious landing on the Island of Mindoro in the central Philippines. The U.S. Sixth Army planners had originally intended for the 503rd Combat Team to jump on Mindoro. But, due to a lack of airfields on Leyte an airborne operation was not possible. The objective of this landing was to secure sites for airstrips that would provide forward air bases to support landings at Lingyen Gulf on the island of Luzon. The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team was subjected to concentrated air attacks and intense naval gunfire during this operation. A Japanese naval task force shelled the paratroopers at one point for a straight twenty-five minutes. One company of the 503rd PRCT engaged in a fierce battle against a company-size enemy element defending an air raid warning station on the north end of Mindoro.

Corregidor Island, situated in the mouth of Manila Bay, was known as "The Rock" to soldiers and sailors stationed in the Philippines. Corregidor was the bastion which withstood a fierce Japanese siege for nearly five months in 1941 and 1942, thereby interrupting the Japanese advance toward Australia. The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team made a combat jump on "Fortress Corregidor" on February 16, 1945 to take that Island back from the Japanese. This was the most vicious combat action in which the Combat Team engaged during its existence. Augmented with an amphibious landing by the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, the 503rd PRCT was honored with the opportunity to recapture the island fortress. To the American soldier, Corregidor was more than a military objective, long before the Philippine Campaign. The Rock 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. Through intense enemy fire, the paratroopers overcame heavy blockhouse defenses and had to drop explosives by hand in order to kill Japanese hidden in tunnel fortifications.

Corregidor was declared secure on February 26, 1945. The 503rd PRCT lost 169 men killed in action and 531 wounded. The 3/34th Infantry suffered 38 KIA and 153 wounded. The 503rd was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its victory over the Japanese holding the Rock. Private Lloyd G. McCarter was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Corregidor. On March 7, 1945 General Douglas MacArthur formally returned to the island he was forced to leave almost three years earlier to the day. At the official ceremony, to Colonel George M. Jones, the 503rd PRCT commander, the General is quoted as saying "I see that the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever again haul it down." Corregidor is the battle where the 503d Infantry Regiment earned its nickname, "The Rock Regiment."

In March of 1945 the 503rd returned to Mindoro from Corregidor and was almost immediately landed on the island of Negros in the central Philippines to reinforce the 40th Infantry Division finding stiff enemy resistance there. The 503d fought in the mountainous areas of Negros for the next five months, while the 40th Infantry Division was moved to Mindanao. The war with Japan ended in August 1945 and the Rock Force accepted the surrender of approximately 7,500 surviving Japanese troops on Negros.

By November 1945, paratroopers who had the longest service had already rotated back to the States. Those members of the 503rd PIR who did not have enough time overseas were sent to the 11th Airborne Division to serve as occupation troops in Japan. The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was deactivated at Camp Anza, California on December 24, 1945.

On March 2, 1951 the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was re-activated at Fort Campbell, Kentucky (following the departure of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment to serve in Korea as a Regimental Combat Team) and redesignated the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. The 503rd AIR was assigned as part of the 11th Airborne Division, also at Ft Campbell. In 1956 the 503rd Airborne Infantry, along with the rest of the 11th Airborne Division rotated to occupation duty in Germany.

The 503rd was detached from the 11th Airborne Division on March 1, 1957 and redesignated as the 503rd Infantry, a parent regiment under the Combat Arms Regimental System. Under CARS came a series of, at times complicated, redesignations. This was the year that marked the point during which infantry regimental numbers ceased indicating actual tactical units. Under the new system, regimental designations were used in designating battle groups of Pentomic divisions, which did not have regiments and battalions. The following are the highlights of the 503d Infantry's lineage:

  • Company A, 503rd Airborne Infantry, was reorganized and redesignated as Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 503rd Infantry on 01 March 1, 1957. It remained assigned to the 11th Airborne Division.
  • On July 1, 1958 Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 503rd Infantry, was relieved from assignment to the 11th Airborne Division and assigned to the 24th Infantry Division. Several months later on January 7, 1959 the unit was relieved from assignment to the 24th Infantry Division and assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
  • On March 23, 1963 Headquarters and Headquarter Company, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 503rd Infantry was reorganized and redesignated as the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry, relieved from assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division, and assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Since the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 503rd Infantry are maneuver battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the following is the Sky Soldier's history since their formation for deployment to Vietnam, with some specifics to the 503rd Infantry added:

The 173rd ABN BDE earned several nicknames during their training for their noteworthy service during the Vietnam War. The 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) was activated into the regular army on the island of Okinawa on March 26, 1963. The Brigade was to serve as the quick reaction force for the Pacific Command. Since this unique and aggressive unit was to be ready to insert into Southeast Asian countries as a crisis revealed itself, the unit was known as the "Fire Brigade." Their first commander, Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson established realistic training throughout the region. Nationalist Chinese (Taiwan) paratroopers gave the 173rd Airborne their nickname of Tien Bing or "Sky Soldiers" due to the number of training jumps conducted on their island.

Our thanks to John "Dutch" Holland, a Vietnam Veteran with Bravo Company, 1/503rd for his recollection of how the 173rd Airborne got the nickname of The Herd:

"The term Herd used with pride by veterans of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. This nickname was coined by Colonel 'Rawhide' Boland of the 1/503rd. Colonel Boland while on leave heard, liked and bought a copy of Frankie Laine's old song Rawhide from the TV series of the same name. The colonel on returning to camp played the song over the PA system during all battalion formations. We as paratroopers had to run to and from all these formations, and with the roads being unpaved kicked, up quit a cloud of dust. One of his staff remarked that we looked like a herd of cattle and you can guess the rest. Colonel Boland was given the name Rawhide and the battalion was referred to as the Herd. The rest of the brigade adopted the name once in Nam and no one is sure when or how that began. Colonel Boland is still alive and kickin' at 88 years of age and still signs his name as 'Rawhide Boland.'"

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was the first Army unit sent to the Republic of South Vietnam. In May of 1965 the majority of the Brigade landed at Bien Hoa Airfield. They found the area frequently battered by enemy raids and shelling attacks. The Sky Soldiers were the first to go into War Zone D to destroy enemy base camps and relieve pressure on the Vietnamese capitol. The 173rd was the first to introduce the use of long range reconnaissance patrols. The Brigade was assigned to II Field Force, Vietnam for their entire service. They fought in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold north of Saigon. In November of 1965 the 173rd took part in Operation Hump, north of Bien Hoa on the outskirts of Saigon. In 1966 they participated in Operation Crimp to root out enemy forces from the Tunnels at Cu Chi.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 503rd Infantry were the first Army combat units from the 173rd sent to the Republic of South Vietnam, accompanied by the 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery. They were supported by the 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Engineers, E Trp/17th Cavalry and D Co/16th Armor. The First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and the 161st Field Battery of the Royal New Zealand Army were later attached to the Brigade during the first year.

In late August of 1966 the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry from Fort Campbell, Kentucky joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. The 3/503rd joined the Brigade at Tuy Hoa in September of 1967. Also joining the Brigade was Company N, 75th Rangers. At its peak strength in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) had nearly 3,000 soldiers assigned.

On February 22, 1967, the 173rd Airborne Brigade took part in Operation Junction City, conducting the only combat parachute jump of the Vietnam War. During some of the toughest fighting of the war, the Sky Soldiers blocked North Vietnamese Army incursions at Dak To during the summer and fall of 1967. This period culminated in the capture of Hill 875. Elements of the brigade conducted an amphibious assault against NVA and VC forces as part of an operation to clear the rice-growing lowlands along the Bong Song littoral.

The Battle of Dak To took a heavy toll on the Brigade and hence they were transferred to the An Khe and Bong Son areas. They saw little action during 1968 while the Brigade was rebuilt. The unit stayed in An Khe until mid-1969. In May of 1969 the Brigade conducted Operation Darby Punch II, which was the Sky Soldiers fiftieth operation in country.

From April 1969 until its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1971, the 173rd Airborne Brigade served in Binh Dinh Province. They participated in four additional operations: Washington Greene, Greene Lightning, Greene Storm, and Green Sure. From April to August, 1971 the Sky Soldiers redeployed back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The unit was deactivated on January 14, 1972.

The Vietnam Veterans of the 173rd Airborne Brigade are deservedly proud of their service with the Sky Soldiers. During just over six years of combat, the 173rd earned 14 campaign streamers and 4 unit citations. The Brigade soldiers were awarded 13 Medals of Honor, 46 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1736 Silver Stars and over 6,000 Purple Hearts. Sadly, 1736 of the Sky Soldiers died in Vietnam.

The assets of the deactivated 173rd Airborne Brigade were used to form the 3rd Brigade (airborne), 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). Both the 1-503d and 2-503d were assigned to the 101st effective January 14, 1972. The two other battalions of the 503d Infantry (3-503d and 4-503d) were inactivated. The 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division saw its jump status terminated on April 1, 1974, when the 101st became a completely airmobile division. The 101st was renamed as an Air Assault Division on October 4, 1974. The lineage of 2-503rd was inactivated on October 1, 1983 and relieved from assignment to the 101st, followed by 1-503rd on November 16, 1984. The existing battalions were reflagged as units of the 187th Infantry Regiment during the implementation of the Army Regimental System (ARS).

On December 16, 1986 both 1-503rd and 2-503rd were reactivated and assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea when two existing infantry battalions were reflagged. The 2nd Bn, 503rd Inf was inactivated on September 29, 1990 in Korea and relieved from assignment to the 2nd Infantry Division, but 1-503rd remained and became Air Assault battalions within the 2nd Infantry Division. The 2nd Bn, 503rd returned to active status as an Airborne battalion on December 16, 2001 when it was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The company names were kept from its lineage in Korea: A Company (Able), B Company (Battle Hard), C Company (Chosen), D Company (Destined), F Company (Fusion), HHC (Hellbound).

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was reactivated on June 12, 2000 on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy as the European Command's only conventional airborne strategic response force. On March 26, 2003 the 173rd made the largest combat jump since World War II when the Sky Soldiers landed in the Bashur Drop Zone to open the northern front in support of the invasion of Iraq. The jump forced Iraqi defenses to commit forces to the area making it safer for swift progress to Baghdad by other U.S. forces. In March of 2004 the Sky Soldiers returned from combat operations in Iraq.

In the summer of 2004, the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry deployed to Iraq, taking part in the battle of Fallujah and conducted combat operations in the Al-Anbar province. The battalion suffered above average losses during the deployment. Based in the outskirts of Ramadi, 1-503rd was targeted by daily mortar attacks and received a significant amount of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, also known as VBIEDS or car bombs. Nevertheless, the 1-503d was very successful in their mission to curb insurgent activity. The 1/503rd played a critical role in the 2005 elections in Iraq in Ramadi.

After doing their part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 173rd Airborne Brigade began its second deployment in three years in the spring of 2005. This time the Sky Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terror. The Brigade returned to Italy in March of 2006.

Upon completion of its year-long deployment to Iraq, 1-503 did not return to Korea, but instead relocated to Fort Carson, Colorado, with the rest of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd I.D. The 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was inactivated on November 15, 2005 and relieved from assignment to the 2nd Infantry Division. On June 15, 2006 the 1-503 was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade when the existing 1-508th Inf was reflagged. The 1st Battalion began its pre-deployment training, and redesignated its company names to match with their Korea lineage: A Company (ATTACK Company), B Company (Legion Company), C Company (March or Die), D Company (Dog), E Company (Eazy), HHC (Hostile).

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was re-designated the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) on October 11, 2006. This was a significant change as the "Combat Team" designation signifies the ability for the Brigade to deploy its forces and sustain itself with its newly integrated support teams. While most of the Brigade remains in Vicenza, Italy, three battalions were organized in Bamberg, Germany and another in Schweinfurt, Germany until additional facilities are constructed in Vicenza.

In the spring of 2007 the 173rd ABCT again deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as Task Force Bayonet. This was their first deployment as a fully transformed Brigade Combat Team. The 173rd Airborne BCT officially relieved the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division on June 6, 2007. They participated in various operations with the objective of ensuring security and subduing insurgents in the mountainous regions along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan near the Hindu Kush. During a 15-month deployment the brigade ran over 9,000 patrols in the region. Author and journalist Sebastian Junger's book War is about this deployment. Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington were embedded with Battle Company and after the deployment produced the documentary Restrepo.

In July of 2008, about two weeks before the end of the deployment, about 200 Taliban insurgents attacked a position near the village of Wanat in Waygal district defended by the second platoon of Chosen Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne). At one point the Taliban, attacking the remote base from the nearby village and adjoining farmland, broke through the American's defensive lines. The paratroopers drove off the attackers with the assistance of artillery and air support. It is estimated that between 21 and 52 insurgents were killed and another 20 to 40 wounded. However, what became known as the "Battle of Wanat" resulted in the deaths of nine paratroopers killed in action and twenty-seven wounded. This was the largest number of American combat deaths in a single battle since the beginning of U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2001.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade's deployment ended in July and all Sky Soldiers were back at home base by August 2008. Thirty-nine soldiers from the brigade were killed during the '07-'08 deployment. Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta received the Medal of Honor after running through heavy enemy fire to rescue a badly wounded comrade during an ambush Oct. 25, 2007 in the Korengal Valley. On October 26, 2011 the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for "extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy" from June 5 to November 10, 2007.

On June 14, 2009, the 173rd Airborne BCT was notified that they would again deploy to Afghanistan. The Sky Soldiers deployed to the provinces of Logar and Wardak, Afghanistan in November 2009. The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 503rd Infantry Regiment saw extensive action in the eastern part of the brigade's area of operations while the 1/91st Cavalry worked to transform western Logar province into a secure environment. The Sky Soldiers returned to Europe in November of 2010.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan once more in July 2012, replacing the 3rd IBCT, 1st Armored Division, Task Force Bulldog. The Sky Soldiers are operating yet again in Logar and Wardak provinces.

 

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