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 A Summary History of the 509th Parachute Infantry "The Geronimos"



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509th Parachute Infantry - The Geronimos(Updated 8-31-11)

The 509th Infantry Regiment (ABN) traces its lineage to the formation of the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion on October 5, 1941, just two months before the United States entered World War II. The battalion was the fourth battalion of parachutists to be activated at Fort Benning, Georgia. The battalion, and every designation of the unit since, has adopted the nickname of the "Geronimos." This came from the famous exclamation of Geronimo! that was started by a member of the Parachute Test Platoon as he exited the aircraft on a qualifying jump to prove he wasn't scared and still had the presence of mind to yell something distinctive.

Very quickly the Army realized that to fight the upcoming war they would need regiments of paratroopers rather than independent battalions. Effective on March 1, 1942 the 504th PIB was redesignated as the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. With individual training completed, the 2/503rd PIR moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for battalion level training on March 29, 1942. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edson Raff, the 2/503rd PIR was selected as the best prepared parachute battalion and became the first airborne unit in the U.S. Army to deploy to England. The battalion departed on the Queen Elizabeth on June 4, 1942 and arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, six days later.

The Geronimos made the estate of Chilton-Foliat their training base for the next six months. For most of this time the battalion thought they would be called upon to jump into France. However, the cross-channel invasion was postponed for more than a year. The 2/503rd was incorporated into Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.comOn the night of November 7, 1942, the Geronimos climbed aboard 39 C-47 aircraft and departed Lands End in Great Britain for a 1500 plus mile trip to North Africa. Their mission was to take control of airfields at La Sénia and Tafaraoui near Oran, Algeria. While their mission on November 8 was less than successful, the battalion has the distinction of being the first American airborne unit to make a combat jump in World War II.

Just prior to departing England, the Army passed down orders for another name change for the Geronimos. Since the other battalions of the 503rd PIR had deployed to the Pacific Theater, it was believed that a new regiment would be formed around the Geronimos. They were redesignated the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment effective November 2, 1942.

The 2/509th made a second combat jump in North Africa, this time at Youks les Bains, a French occupied airfield on the Algerian/Tunisian border on November 15, 1942. This time the French were cooperative and became allied with the American and British forces. French forces in the area participated with Edson Raff's "Tunisian Task Force," an ad hoc group of American units including the Geronimos. The Tunisian Task Force successfully kept the German and Italian forces in the area out of the mountain passes that led from Tunisia into Algeria until the main effort of the Americans and British could move east.

Now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Doyle Yardley, the Geronimos were attached to the 82nd Airborne Division for the invasion of Sicily, but were held in reserve for the entire operation. Four days after the invasion of Salerno on the coast of Italy, when the beachhead was in danger of collapsing, Fifth Army commander General Mark Clark called for reinforcement by his airborne forces. While the 82nd Airborne Division was dropped inside the beachhead, the 2/509th PIR was sent on a seemingly suicide mission to drop on and seize the crossroads town of Avellino, more than twenty miles behind enemy lines. Their drop on the night of September 14, 1943, was scattered and the battalion was not able to concentrate their forces. However, the small unit actions of the Geronimos wreaked havoc in the enemy's rear area. More than 80% of the unit was able to make it back to friendly lines. Unfortunately, the battalion commander was wounded and taken prisoner on the night of the jump.

The 2/509th was reconstituted in Naples and assigned directly to Fifth Army Headquarters. The new commander was Lieutenant Colonel William Yarborough. In order to provide a unit identity while assigned to Fifth Army, Yarborough had a unit patch designed. This patch included a Native American stick figure that the paratroopers said looked like a "gingerbread man." The patch, still used today, is known as the gingerbread man patch and provided a new nickname for the paratroopers of the 509th: the gingerbread men.

The Geronimos began their next combat operation on November 9, 1943 in the mountains of Italy above the Volturno River. Attached to Darby's Rangers, the battalion attacked the crest of Mount Croce above the town of Venafro. The gingerbread men held their position against continuous German attacks in foul weather with resupply over difficult terrain for the next 34 days.

By this time the Army decided that the other battalions of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment would not be fielded after all. The 2nd Battalion would remain an independent airborne battalion. On December 10, 1943 the Geronimos were officially designated the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

In the early morning hours of January 22, 1944, the 509th PIB, again attached to Darby's Rangers, made a beach landing at Anzio. The gingerbread men endured 73 days of combat at Anzio. During this time the Geronimos earned two Presidential Unit Citations. The first was for the battalion holding the Allied line against the onslaught of German division's deliberate attack. The second was awarded to C Company, 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion for "Raid Nibble," the assault on two strategic stone houses on the German line.

The next combat operation for the Geronimos was the jump into southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. The 509th PIB was part of the First Airborne Task Force (FABTF) and jumped on the morning of August 15, 1944. After seizing the town of Le Muy, France, the FABTF turned and moved up the coast of the French Riviera with the gingerbread men in the lead. The 509th Parachute Infantry Combat Team (the 509th reinforced with the 551st PIB and the 463rd Airborne Artillery attached) took the cities of Cannes and Nice by the end of August in what became known as the "Champagne Campaign." The name was derived from the jubilant civilians who poured into the streets to welcome their liberators.

In September, 1944 the Geronimos, along with the other units of the FABTF, moved into the French Maritime Alps to screen the U.S. Seventh Army's push to the north. After more than three months of patrol actions in the mountain passes, the gingerbread men were relieved and moved to join the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions camps around Rheims and Soissons, France on December 13, 1944.

On December 16, 1944, three German armies crashed through the Ardennes sector of Belgium nearly the splitting the Allied line into two pieces. The "Battle of the Bulge" required immediate deployment of all reserves to restore the line. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion deployed to the northern shoulder of the bulge on December 22, and was attached to the 3rd Armored Division. While being held in reserve, the Geronimos' commander, Major Edmund Tomasik, saw a break in the American line at the small village of Sadzot. On his own authority, Tomasik committed the Geronimos, who held the line against two German regiments of SS Grenadiers. This action earned the gingerbread men their third Presidential Unit Citation. As the Americans turned to the offense, the 509th PIB was attached to the 7th Armored Division for the push to retake the Belgian town of St. Vith. In successive attacks, the Geronimos strength was continually depleted until they were relieved on January 28, 1945, with only 55 men remaining.

The Army had much earlier decided that our airborne forces would consist of regiments and divisions. There was no need for independent battalions. On February 1, 1945 the surviving members of the 509th PIB were informed that the unit would be deactivated. The gingerbread men were sent to other units as replacements. Although the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was not allowed, as a unit, to continue through to the end of the war, the Geronimos had amassed an impressive record in combat. The battalion earned eight battle stars and three arrowheads (for combat invasions) for their colors. The gingerbread men were awarded two Presidential Unit Citations as a battalion and a third for C Company. The government of France awarded the battalion the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. They received two Army and two Corps commendations. Individual paratroopers of the 509th had won the Medal of Honor (Corporal Paul Huff), 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, 62 Silver Stars, 6 Croix de Guerre with Silver Stars, 5 Legions of Merit, and dozens of other decorations.

The 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment was kept on the Army's list of inactive units from the end of World War II, through the Korean War, and into the Cold War. Under the Combat Arms Regimental System (CARS), implemented in 1957, combat regiments that were considered the most historically distinguished were selected to serve as the parent units of battalions. The 509th was chosen as one of these regiments whose heritage deserved to live on.

In April 1963, the 509th was reactivated as the 509th Infantry Regiment (Airborne/Mechanized) with 1st and 2nd Battalions assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 8th Infantry Division in West Germany. Stationed at Lee Barracks near the city of Mainz, the two battalions of the 509th PIR now had a dual role of both mechanized infantry and as an airborne "fire brigade" for contingency missions. Both battalions participated in "Project Partnership," an extensive training program that involved training with NATO forces' weapons and tactics. For a ten-year period, a new generation of gingerbread men fulfilled their Cold War mission of defense and deterrence in West Germany.

With the changing strategic requirements of the Cold War, it was determined that a battalion-sized combat team could satisfy the airborne contingency requirements in Europe. In 1973, the two battalions of the 509th Infantry Regiment were consolidated into one. Redesignated the 1st Battalion (ABN) 509th Infantry (Battalion Combat Team), the unit was moved to a new home in Vicenza, Italy. The 1/509th ABCT had a fourth company assigned to it, designated "Battery D" and fielding pack howitzers. This gave the Geronimos their own organic indirect fire support. Additional augmentation included an engineer platoon, a parachute rigger platoon, and a double-strength medical platoon. Assigned to the Southern European Task Force (SETAF), the battalion combat team was the only airborne unit stationed in Europe.

In 1983, the 1/509th ABCT in Vicenza was reflagged as the 4/325th Infantry Regiment to bring the unit into an alignment with those regiments traditionally assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. However, the 509th was not completely out of the picture yet. In 1975, C Company (Pathfinder), 509th Infantry was activated as a separate company at the Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama, to provide training support to Aviation School. Unfortunately, this unit was also reflagged in 1993.

The 1st Battalion, 509th (ABN) Infantry Regiment was reactivated once again on December 18, 1987 to serve as the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The JRTC moved to Fort Polk, Louisiana in June 1993. The 1/509th serves as the OPFOR to provide realistic training that simulates combat conditions for American and Allied light infantry and special operations units rotating through training cycles at the JRTC. The modern day gingerbread men also have an on-order combat mission. They were called upon to conduct this mission through a deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom II in 2004.

The most recent embodiment of the Geronimo spirit was fashioned on September 16, 2005 with the creation of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne) at Fort Richardson, Alaska. The 3/509th Infantry (ABN) is assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, the only airborne brigade in the Pacific theater. After only one year of training together, the Geronimos of the 3rd Battalion made their first deployment. The 3/509th has participated in the Global War on Terror with deployments to Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007. At the time of this writing, the 3/509th was training for another deployment to Afghanistan in late 2011.

For more information on the modern battalions of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, visit the 509th Parachute Infantry Association website at www.509thgeronimo.org, the 1/509th Infantry website at www.jrtc-polk.army.mil/OPFOR/history01.htm, and the 3/509th Infantry website at www.usarak.army.mil/4bde25th/3-509PIR.html. For a complete history of the gingerbread men during World War II, read The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion During WWII by Jim Travis Broumley.


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