By Donald Roberts II
In November 1942, successful graduates of the Army’s jump school were screened by Major Joerg for suitability to join what would later become the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB). Late in December, some 450 selectees were shipped to Panama. There, 125 men of Company C, 501st PIB became the cadre for the 450 new men arriving from the States. The 551st was thus born with the blending together of the two groups of paratroopers.
The number selected for this unit, 551, seemed to help separate the battalion from all other airborne units. The basic numbering sequence for airborne units was from 501 to 517. The number 551 was selected for Major Joerg’s Battalion in order to confuse the enemy. U.S. Army leaders decided that if they skipped numbers in the sequence, enemy forces would think there were more paratrooper regiments than there really were.
Shortly after the battalion’s arrival in Panama, Colonel Joerg began calling his men “GOYAs” or “GOYA BIRDS.” The meaning, Get Off Your Ass, fit the “get up and get the job done” attitude of the newly formed, fiercely proud, independent parachute battalion.
In April, the Goyas shipped out of Norfolk, Va., heading for the war in Europe. They landed first in Algiers, then Sicily and Italy. The 551st’s initial test in combat came during an airborne drop into southern France as part of Operation Dragoon on August 15, 1944. For the next three weeks, the Goyas fought battles against the occupying German forces. They were the first Allied troops to liberate Nice.
Precursor to the Bulge
On September 4, the battalion entered the Maritime Alps and engaged in artillery duels with and patrols against the Germans.
During the campaign in southern France, Lieutenant Robert E. Buscher’s HQ Company’s mortar platoon perfected a rapid-fire firing technique that would serve the battalion well through to their final battle, the famous “Battle of the Bulge.” This ability became an especially important advantage for the independent 551st, because the battalion was continually plagued by inconsistent artillery support from the various units it found itself attached to.
On November 18, after 96 days of combat—the longest of any American airborne unit during the European campaign—the battalion was pulled out of the battle line and trucked back to the Mediterranean coast. Following two weeks of rest and training, the 551st was then transported by train to Rheims, where General Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps was assembling. From there, the men would march into the cold, forested reaches of the Ardennes; the battalion would never return.
Just before the battalion’s official disbanding in 1945, Major Holm had recommended the 551st for the Presidential Unit Citation for actions at Rochelinval on January 7, 1945. In the fever of war, the recommendation was lost. In 1994, the request for the citation was submitted again but denied on technical grounds. The death of Colonel Joerg and the scattering of his men to other units all seemed to erase the fact that the 551st had existed; too many records were lost. Rare mention of the battalion was ever made in books that cover the battles in which the 551st fought. In fact, in many publications, credit has been mistakenly given to other units for accomplishing the very deeds the men of the 551st had struggled long and hard to achieve.
But the 551st survivors did not give up. Following further review, the men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion received recognition for their contribution. In ceremonies at Rochelinval and then again five days later at the Pentagon, the “lost battalion,” for its extraordinary performance at the Battle of the Bulge, was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation on February 23, 2001.