World War II

AGAINST ALL ODDS

Private Roger Carqueville was half asleep in the headquarters’ orderly room when the duty officer burst in. “Carque, alert the company. We’re moving out.” Carqueville rousted his fellow paratroopers, many of whom had gone to sleep in anticipation of leaving the next morning on a three-day pass to Paris. Instead of donning their dress uniforms, with silver jump wings and spit-polished jump boots, they slipped into their well-worn combat fatigues.

The men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion grabbed their gear and assembled in the cold night to await further orders. It was December 16, 1944. No one seemed to know what was going on, but it was clear that nobody would be going to Paris. The troopers were dismissed to shove personal belongings into their barracks bags, draw their weapons, and stand by.

It was a drill they were familiar with. As an independent battalion—never permanently assigned to a parent unit—the 551st was routinely dispatched like a fire brigade to bolster the front where needed. Such independence fostered a magnificent esprit de corps in the ranks but, as the 551st’s odyssey would reveal, there were distinct downsides. The battalion was often overlooked in terms of supplies. And it usually drew the missions no one else wanted.

FORMED IN LATE 1942, the 800-man battalion was initially deployed to Panama in case the Axis made a move against the Panama Canal. From the moment he took command, Wood G. Joerg—then a 27-year-old major hailing from Eufaula, Alabama—wanted his battalion to be unique. Their colors were purple and yellow, and a large silver eagle with the Spanish motto—“Aterrice y Ataque” (Land and Attack), a nod to their Panamanian mission—dominated their insignia.

The unit’s call to action was “Get Off Your Ass!” and it was in Panama that Joerg started referring to his men as “GOYA birds,” “GOYAs,” or just “birds.” Joerg didn’t expect angels within his ranks; he valued initiative and individuality over rules and discipline.

The battalion cultivated a rowdy reputation, bolstered

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