The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. All across the Pacific, the Japanese overwhelmed Allied defenses. On the Philippine Islands, the Japanese captured over 100,000 American and Filipino troops. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was forced to escape to avoid being captured. With the loss of the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island, prospects in the Pacific looked bleak. To turn the tide in the Pacific, the US needed to rapidly build up its armed forces. Luckily for America, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, millions of young men enlisted. By the end of December 1941, the US military had 2.2 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Of those millions of servicemen, a small group of brave soldiers volunteered for a daring new concept in modern warfare, the airborne paratrooper.
The 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was formed on 14 February 1942 at Fort Benning, Georgia. After standing up three battalions, the 503rd was transferred to Australia to begin combat operations against the Japanese. The 503rd first taste of battle came on 5 September 1943 in New Guinea. Despite experiencing an unopposed landing, the 503rd would later be attacked on the island by Japanese bombers. The 503rd would then take part in the assault on Noemfoor (an island off the coast of New Guinea). The 1st and 3rd Battalion suffered significant casualties in the drop, resulting in the 2nd Battalion having to assault the island amphibiously. During the Battle of Neomfoor, Sgt. Ray Eubanks would posthumously earn the Medal of Honor (the first for the regiment).
After their service on Noemfoor, the 503rd was sent to support operations in the Philippines. On 15 December 1944, the 503rd joined the assault on the island of Mindoro. The original plan for the regiment called for an airborne assault. Due to inadequate landing strips from the airfields on Leyte, the paratroopers joined with the other infantrymen in the amphibious assault. The successful operation on Mindoro allowed the US to build airstrips for their attack on Luzon. On 16 February 1945, the 503rd jumped on the island fortress of Corregidor. For its daring capture of the island, the 503rd was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The regiment also earned the nickname “the Rock” for their conquest of the island.
The 503rd was deactivated in December 1945, after returning home to the US. The regiment was reactivated in February 1951 during the Korean War and was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The 503rd would deploy to Vietnam in 1965 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Following its service in Vietnam, the 3rd and 4th Battalions were deactivated. The remaining battalions of the 503rd would see action in Iraq and Afghanistan. On 25 October 2007, Specialist (later Staff Sgt.) Sal Guinta would earn the Medal of Honor for actions in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, making him the first living recipient of the award since the Vietnam War.
Look for more information regarding the 503rd and their actions on Mindoro in the upcoming World at War issue #49 with the article “The Campaign in the Southern Philippines in World War II” and join the conversation on Facebook!