Knox Press

Birth of a Regiment: The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Sicily and Salerno


Book I in the campaign history of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Birth of a Regiment is an authoritative, action-packed account of the 504th’s seminal role in Sicily and Italy, the first two U.S. airborne drops in the European Theater of Operations. Drawing on hundreds of eye-witness testimonies, Frank van Lunteren puts readers at the scene of historic battles as described in the words of the men who fought them. New archival sources in English, German, and Italian further enrich the narrative, along with fresh maps and previously unpublished photographs from archival sources and the veterans’ private collections.

Activated in May 1942, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment earned high praise for its very first mission when it effected the first U.S. mass regimental combat jump of World War II in the invasion of Sicily. According to German General Kurt Student, “if it had not been for the Allied airborne forces blocking the tanks of the Hermann Göring Division from reaching the beachhead, that Division would have driven the initial seaborne forces back into the sea.”

Led by Col. Reuben Tucker, the 504th subsequently dropped into the endangered Fifth U.S. Army beachhead at Salerno; bitter fighting led to hard-won success at Altavilla and Hill 424 and the regimental motto “Strike and Hold.” Birth of a Regiment is the first book-length account of the birth of U.S. airborne forces, and the first to fully capture the details, danger, and crucial stakes of the initial 504th missions in the unforgettable voices of the newly minted paratroopers who fought the first Allied battles in the ETO up through the victorious entry into Naples.

These initial missions were all the more important, in that they would determine future Allied strategy, planning, and tactics. It is not to be forgotten that Sicily was a testing ground for the Allied coalition: the first time an American army and a British army, managed at the top by a unified Allied staff, would undertake a major campaign. According to James M. Gavin, the Commanding General of the 82nd ABD at the end of the war, who had jumped into Sicily himself: “What was learned in that first cooperative action affected the whole outcome of World War II.”

Personally interviewed by the author over a period of 20 years, nearly 200 veterans of the 504th recount their remembrance of combat, permitting readers of Birth of a Regiment to relive epic battles of the ETO through the words of the very men who made history. Participants include survivors and witnesses of the tragic decimation of 23 aircraft and the death of 164 paratroopers and crew when U.S. troops mistook them for the enemy and fired on their planes as they flew into Sicily. Veterans recount the ferocious, desperate battle at Biazzi Ridge, and the later regimental action at the Salerno Beachhead, where the 504th crucially took Hill 424 after a night drop and seaborne landing. Having undisputedly proven their prowess, Tucker’s troopers were chosen to spearhead the Fifth Army drive into Naples.

These dramatic, unforgettable memories of the war provide new information from the foxhole view on up, giving historians and lay readers alike fresh perspective on the initial U.S. engagements in WWII and the difficult birth of Allied airborne operations. The volume is enriched by new maps and historic archival photos, including many previously unpublished photos and provided by 504th veterans.