The 551st Parachute Battalion has really proved to be one of the most interesting units of the war. I have been lucky enough to be in contact with one of the last men alive from this little known unit and I have been putting effort into getting their history known through uniforms and displays.
First Airborne Task Force – Camouflaged Ensemble
The Parachutist suit was issued to the Airborne troopers early in the war, giving them a real identity, before the M-1943 uniform ensemble officially replaced it, making the Parachutist suit “limited standard”. The First Airborne Task Force to which the 551st was a part of for the Southern France invasion, Operation Dragoon, wore camouflaged uniforms and equipment as ordered by the First Airborne Task Force General, Brigadier General Robert T. Frederick (formerly commanding the First Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian commando unit).
“About August 7, the 551st took part in a dress rehearsal for the final jump with Rupert Graves’s 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team and its attached 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion. A camouflage team set up near their quarters and proceeded to spray-paint all weapons and equipment in green and black. One by one, each platoon of men stood in line, a box placed over each head..” (p. 130, Orfalea)
From, “Messengers of the Lost Battalion: The Heroic 551st and the Turning of the Tide at the Battle of the Bulge”
Here these specialized Parachute Rigger pouches are worn exclusively by the 551st. These type were first made while the unit was stationed in Panama. The same style although slightly different in construction and color were used by the 503rd PIR in the Pacific Theater. Also note the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun drum magazine pouch worn, to hold grenades and explosives by the 551st troopers
The Jump Suit
The actual colors used were much different than previous Airborne camouflage schemes. Many D-Day Pathfinders used C-47 Olive Drab exterior paint, however these “camouflage teams” used the aircraft interior Zinc Chromate paint – which is a very odd light green. A standard black paint was also used to help break up the usual pattern.
You can still see the camouflage remnants from the Dragoon drop on their suits – photographed later in the Maritime Alps.
The Field Jacket
The OD Field jacket (sometimes erroneously called the “M41” field jacket) was issued en masse to the U.S. Army. This field jacket was used by the 551st during their stay in the Maritime Alps, and photos suggest that many were worn, devoid of any insignia. However there is a very cool photo of B Company’s 1st Sergeant, Tom Thornton, sporting the very rare un-official insignia patch
Photo showing Sgt. Tom Thornton. He was the First Sgt. of “B” Company. Photo courtesy of Wesley Richard Jr. of the “Friends of 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion” memorial Facebook group.
The Dress Uniform, Class A’s
The Parachute collar discs were unique to the 551st PIB.
“Freitag, the HQ Company mortar platoon’s supply sergeant, was one of the first to hit the Champs Elysée. He had brought two sets of jump wings from men in his platoon. He found a jeweler who removed the parachute from each set and recast them as custom-made insignia, instead of the normal brass pins of crossed rifles. They were quite a novelty; when Chuck Fairlamb wore his into Paris groups of paratroopers gawked at them and asked where in the hell they’d gotten them. “Oh these are issue,” Fairlamb explained. “havent you gotten yours yet?”.” (p.194, Orfalea)
From, “Messengers of the Lost Battalion: The Heroic 551st and the Turning of the Tide at the Battle of the Bulge
Here is a photo of the very rare un-official shoulder patch courtesy of Insigne.org
Rigger made equipment
The Rigger section of any Parachute unit is hard working. The Rigger sections of small independent units seem to be even more hard working, coming up with new pouches and cases, because the lack of Divisional apparatus that comes with the territory. These pouches are VERY similar to the 503rd PIR pouches, which were created in Australia, or thought to be. The 551 pouches though do have a interesting reinforcing method, and at least an all-drab color scheme. Each pouch fit 5 M1 Garand enblocs. This means you can carry 5, 10 or 15 clips, plus lots of extra gear on the belt. The pouches make getting all your ammo much easier.
Actual GOYA trooper with pouches
Here are some very similar 503rd PIR pouches layed out for the Markham Valley Operation (September 1943)
Here is a GOYA in Panama, with some very 503rd Looking pouches! I assume they changed into a more camouflage color later on as they are not spotted after Panama. (Photo courtesy Michel De Trez)
The French Beret
The french ‘basque’ beret seems to have gained popularity with the men of the First Airborne Task Force. The main wearers of the beret seem to the be 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. However Lt. Col. Wood Joerg actually made the beret his iconic headwear.
Wood Joerg’s actual beret is on display in Belgium, where he ultimately fell – leading his men in a heroic bayonet charge in one of the first offensives against the German army during their initial onslaught in the “Battle of the Bulge”
The 509’ers enjoyed that beret! of interest note is the correlation between the Free French fighters called the ‘Maquis”. They seemed to have adopted the headwear, and then so did men of the FABTF