The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was a hard-luck unit with a heartbreaking story in the Battle of the Bulge. The battalion bled itself dry on the snowdrifts and frozen mud of Belgium in a five-day push that was the first ripple in the Allied counteroffensive's bow wave and the last action the unit fought. The 551st was a chip that was spent and then forgotten.
The battalion was officially inactivated in February 1945 because there were not enough soldiers left for it to continue as a fighting unit. Its strength had been 826 soldiers on December 16, 1944, when it was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. When the division kicked off the counteroffensive in its sector on January 3, 1945, the 551st had 643 men. One-third of the battalion became casualties on the first day of the attack. When the 551st was relieved on January 8, only 110 soldiers remained in its ranks -- 14 officers and 96 enlisted men and noncommissioned officers. The rest were dead, wounded or crippled by frostbite. The battalion had spent its final measure taking the town of Rochelinval the previous day. The pivotal action severed a German division's escape route along a 10-mile sector of the Salm River.
With its commander, Lt. Col. Wood Joerg, dead, its survivors assigned throughout the 82nd Airborne or XVIII Airborne Corps as replacements and most of its records lost or destroyed, the battalion did not receive official honors for its valor for 56 years.
In a Pentagon auditorium on February 23, 2001, however, recognition finally came to the 551st as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki presented the Presidential Unit Citation to the battalion for its valor and sacrifices.
A blue streamer signifying the award was attached to the colors of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion by Richard Durkee, a lieutenant in Company A. He had led a bayonet charge on January 5, 1945, and was the only officer in Company A still standing after Rochelinval's capture. He had seven men beside him.
Col. Douglas Dillard accepted the Presidential Unit Citation plaque from Gen. Shinseki. Dillard was a sergeant in Company A during the battle and retired from the Army as a colonel, fighting again in Korea and Vietnam. He joined the battalion at age 16.
The 551st was a well-traveled unit. It was activated in 1942 and was in Panama in 1943, when it looked like the Panama Canal might still be in danger of attack and some Allied offensive action might be necessary in the Caribbean.
The unit got a reputation as a hard-drinking, brawling outfit, a reputation that was deserved, according to 551st veterans. Many of the battalion's soldiers were no strangers to the guardhouse. They stenciled a palm tree on each side of their helmets and took "the GOYAs" as the unit's nickname -- a Spanish word, but reputed to be an acronym for "Get Off Your Ass."
The battalion then went to North Carolina for further training, becoming the first unit to jump from gliders but losing eight men in a botched night jump that dropped them into a lake. They say the incident led to the U.S. Army adopting the quick-release system for parachutes. From there, the battalion went to Italy, where they were on the verge of reinforcing the Anzio beachhead just before the breakout. In August 1944, the 551st got its chance, making the Army's first daylight combat parachute jump in the invasion of southern France. During the following months, the 551st protected the flank of the operation in a standoff against German mountain troops in the Maritime Alps.
In December, they moved to northern France and were attached to the 82nd Airborne just as the German offensive punched through the Ardennes and the 82nd Airborne was thrown into the battle.
Decades passed after World War II, and members of the 551st occasionally reassembled at various veterans reunions. A formal campaign started in the mid-1990s to gain recognition for the battalion that had dissolved on the battlefield and disappeared from history. The objective was a unit citation. Several attempts failed, but the GOYAs persevered and started gaining support. The campaign was buoyed by the release of a book about the 551st (Messengers of the Lost Battalion) written by Gregory Orfalea, the son of a battalion veteran.
Along the way, Dillard had secured a letter from Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps during the Battle of the Bulge, attesting to the 551st's accomplishments and the unit's lack of recognition. The 82nd Airborne's operations officer during the battle, Lt. Gen. John Norton, U.S. Army retired, wrote supporting documents and joined the campaign to honor them.
Despite rejections, a last push was made. Dillard received support from Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-MD), and the fight was taken to the White House, where the unit and its supporters finally prevailed.
In a fight for recognition, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion won its last battle more than a half century after it was disbanded.