Few units receive their nicknames from their exploits in combat. Even fewer derive their moniker from what the enemy calls them. But for the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of paratroopers that is exactly what happened in Italy in 1944.
The 504th first met the Germans in Sicily, along with the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division, during Operation Husky. It was there that the Germans and Italians first discovered that the American Paratrooper was a uniquely dangerous man.
The 504th next took part in the invasion of mainland Sicily.
Initial elements of the regiment to go into action were from the 3rd Battalion, who landed by sea with the Rangers at Maiori in the opening move of Operation Avalanche. Two days later the balance of the 3rd Battalion, along with the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, were diverted to the Salerno beachhead itself when the situation there became tenuous.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, the remaining two battalions of the 504th conducted a jump into the collapsing perimeter, guided by flaming oil drums full of gasoline-soaked sand.
Resisting a strong German counterattack on the high ground near Altavilla, Col. Tucker, the regimental commander, exemplified the unit’s fighting spirit.
Facing the prospect of being overrun, Gen. Dawley, the VI Corps commander, called Tucker and told him to retreat. Tucker was having none of it and sternly replied “Retreat, Hell! Send me my other battalion!”
Joined by the 3rd Battalion, the 504th held the line and helped to save the beachhead. The 504th would fight on through Central Italy while the remainder of the division returned to England in preparation of the upcoming Normandy landings. The regiment was finally pulled back from the lines on Jan. 4, 1944 in anticipation of another parachute mission.
Their next mission would be part of Operation Shingle in late January 1944. This was another Allied amphibious assault on the Italian coast, this time at the port of Anzio, aimed at getting behind the formidable German defensive lines there were impeding progress from the south.
Initial planning had the 504th jumping ahead of the invasion force to seize the Anzio-Albano road near Aprilia. This plan was scrapped at the last minute as prior experience, and the likelihood of tipped-off Germans, said it was too risky. Instead the 504th, now a Regimental Combat Team, would land abreast the 3rd Infantry Division to the south of Anzio. The initial landing seemed to have caught the Germans completely off guard and the Allies went ashore nearly uncontested. The easy advance would not last long.
Soon the 504th found itself engaged all across the lines as its battalions were sent to augment other units. As German counterattacks looked to drive the Allies back into the sea, the casualties rose.
The 3rd Battalion found itself fighting alongside the British 1st Infantry Division in some of the heaviest fighting at Anzio. The paratroopers took a beating from the Germans but kept up the fight. Most companies could only muster the equivalent of an understrength platoon – some 20 to 30 men.
When a British general was captured by the Germans, H Company’s few remaining men drove forward to rescue him. They were promptly cut off. Seeing their brothers-in-arms in distress, the final sixteen men of I Company joined the fray and broke through to the trapped men.
For their part in the heavy fighting of Feb. 8 – 12, the 3rd Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The paratroopers weren’t out of the fight yet, though. They continued to hold the line and harass the Germans.
The situation turned into one of static warfare with trenches, barbed wire, and minefields between the two sides. The paratroopers though were loath to fight a defensive battle and maintained a strong presence of patrols in their sector.
When the paratroopers found the journal of a German officer killed at Anzio, they knew their hard-charging, hard-fighting spirit had made a lasting impact on the Germans.
“American paratroopers – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…”
The baggy pants referred to the paratroopers’ uniforms, which differed greatly from the regular infantry whose pants were “straight legged.”
The men of the 504th were so enthralled with the German officer’s words that they christened themselves the Devils in Baggy Pants – a nickname they carry to this day.
The Devils in Baggy Pants would eventually be pulled off the line in Italy towards the end of March 1944. However, when they arrived in England to rejoin the 82nd Airborne Division for the jump into Normandy, they were saddened by the news. Due to the high level of casualties and insufficient replacements they would not be making the jump.
The Devils would next meet the Germans in Holland, then at the Bulge, before making it all the way to Berlin.