Sergeant Francis J. Haslage
G Company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
Francis “Jim” Haslage was born in February 1918 in Erie, Pennsylvania. From the outset, he had it rough. His father, a salesman, and veteran of the Mexican Border campaign having served with the 16th Infantry of the Pennsylvania National Guard, abandoned his family and fled westward, leaving Jim’s pregnant mother and infant sister alone on the streets of Erie to fend for themselves. In an attempt to try and make up for the lack of income, not long after Jim’s birth, his mother opened their house to boarders as a way to put food on the table for her two young children. It was a tough existence, even with the city growing around them. A few years later, however, good fortune struck when Jim’s mother married a new, much more caring, husband who took her and the children on as his own, raising them into adolescence. As Jim grew, life began to look a little more normal as he went through school alongside his sister, enjoying their childhoods like the other children around them. Tragedy, sadly, remained their destiny when their step-father passed away of cancer in 1934, once again leaving the trio alone to their own devices. With the onset of the Great Depression, the pressure was immense, however, Jim would not see his mother and sister suffer as they had. At this point, he dropped out of high school and began working a series of jobs to try and help the family’s financial situation. He started out working with a local storage company but after a few years managed to grab a meaningful long-term position with Erie General Electric as a crane operator. It was here that Jim was working when the Japanese attacked American soil at Pearl Harbor, plunging the entire country into war.
Although a job in critical infrastructure like GE was certain to need manpower in wartime, Jim’s luck was not to be and in early 1942 he was listed amongst the first waves of draftees called up in the national service lottery to join the armed forces. After a farewell party where Jim was forced to say goodbye to his lone mother, sister, doting girlfriend, and many friends, he boarded the train on 26 February 1942 for Camp Croft, South Carolina where he began his basic training. Here Jim began to excel, outperforming in his infantry training and earning the opportunity to volunteer for a brand new branch of the US Army designated to fight as no men had fought before- the Army Airborne. Quickly accepted into the new force, Jim took his furlough after basic training to marry his girlfriend, Mary, before setting off for the brand new Airborne training center at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was here that he was assigned to what would become his home for the next two years, G Company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Jim was part of one of the very first jump classes to go through training at Fort Benning, undergoing grueling preparation to put himself in top physical and mental shape for the role of a paratrooper. On 25 July 1942, a pair of silver wings were pinned proudly upon his chest, officially marking him among the earliest troopers to qualify within the force and in his division. For the next many months, Jim traveled around with the 82nd, moving with them to Fort Bragg as the division underwent further combat training in preparation for deployment to the European theater of war. On 29 April 1943 he and the 82nd finally set sail to do what they had trained to do, landing at Casablanca in North Africa two weeks later.
While the fighting in North Africa had been shored up by the time Jim and the 82nd arrived, the men were nonetheless put into a strict training regime of hikes, practice jumps, and other intense activities to prepare them for the next major part of the American plan in Europe, Sicily. Sicily, home to a massive detachment of German and Italian troops blocking the way between Africa and mainland Europe, was a natural target for the Allied forces as a full-scale invasion was quickly planned to overwhelm and conquer the island. Here would be the test of the army’s airborne corps, determining the effectiveness and grit of these new highly trained soldiers. Although the 82nd was composed of many units, only two regiments, the 504th and 505th, were selected to make the jump into Sicily, with the 505th landing one day ahead of the invasion force where the 504th would follow in support. The plans were changed, however, and Jim’s battalion, the 3rd Battalion of the 504th, was slated to actually jump with the 505th to bolster the initial forces jumping onto the island. On the evening of 9 July, Jim and his comrades donned their harnesses and parachutes, loaded onboard C-47 Skytrains at an airstrip near Kairouan, Tunisia, and took off into the black night heading towards an island full of enemy forces and no support.
Jim’s battalion was assigned to drop south of the town of Niscemi along Sicily’s southern coastline. Their objective was to establish and defend roadblocks along crucial routes and intersections connecting the coastline with the intent of opening the way as soon as the rest of allied amphibious forces hit the beach. The drop did not go as planned, however, and the paratroopers of the 504th were scattered across the area with very few hitting close to their intended drop zone. The paratroopers were not to let this hold them up, as Jim and his comrades formed small bands of troopers to begin whatever combat operations they could. With only light infantry weapons they assaulted whatever German positions they came across, taking out enemy posts, ambushing convoys, knocking out communications, and even taking prisoners. The chaos was immense for the Axis forces, with the impact of scattered guerilla warfare leading them to believe the initial airborne attack was nearly 10x the size it actually was. By morning roughly 400 of the men, the vast majority, had made it to the dropzone and organized their defensive positions along the roadways and junctions around Niscemi. German counterattacks were many and fierce, but Jim and the airborne troopers were not ones to give up easily, fighting back with a ferocity that kept the enemy at bay throughout the day as the seaborne forces attempted to make some headway along the coast. On 11 July Jim’s battalion was relieved by forces of the 1st Infantry Division, allowing them to return to regimental control when the rest of their regiment dropped later that night. By 13 July the entire regiment was organized and began a swift northwestern drive up the coast. Where Jim’s first few days were met with stiff German resistance, the march up the coast was much more fluid as the paratroopers utilized captured Italian tanks, trucks, bikes, animals, and more as they came across scattered pockets of quick-surrendering enemy soldiers. Walking over 150 miles in five days, the 504th took over 22,000 prisoners with only occasional scuffles and minimal casualties. By the end of their march the invasion had taken a drastic turn in favor of the Allies and the airborne were slated to leave the island and return to North Africa for more training.
The Sicilian campaign was a major one in the history of the airborne, the first time the troops of the 82nd were committed into combat and deployed on a major scale. Although disorganized and with plenty of lessons to learn, the drop was still a success and proved the capabilities of the airborne troops and their deployment into the field of battle. For their part, in particular, the 504th was even written up and recommended for one of the army’s highest decorations, the Presidential Unit Citation. Although the award was turned down for an unknown reason, it still stands to speak of the actions undergone by Jim and his unit on the Sicilian coastline:
“The 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. For exceptional gallantry and the performance of especially hazardous and meritorious service in action during the period of 9 July to 13 July 1943, inclusive, during the airborne assault phase of the landing in Sicily. Elements of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, departed from airfields in Tunisia, North Africa, and dropped with serials of CT 505 behind enemy lines in various areas from Niscemi eastward to Pachino. At many points in the zone of operations, and particularly in the sector of Gela-Biscari-Niscemi-Vittoria, small groups of men from this battalion distinguished themselves by openly attacking enemy forces overwhelmingly superior in number and firepower. With rifles, a few machine guns, 81mm mortars, several rocket launchers, and light artillery taken from the enemy, elements of the battalion routed German infantry supported by tanks, artillery, and automatic weapons. By disrupting the activities of considerable enemy forces, the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, then attached to CT 505, 82nd Airborne Division, rendered valuable assistance to the initial operations of the 16th Infantry Regiment (1st Infantry Division) and the 180th Infantry Regiment (45th Infantry Division), in consolidating their beachheads in Sicily.”
With the invasion of Sicily behind them, the men of the 82nd began preparation for the next logical mission, the invasion of mainland Italy. Continuing on with regular airborne training, the 3rd Battalion was once again singled out from the 504th PIR and selected to join the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment for specialized amphibious training, learning specialized seaborne assault tactics for a landing via water rather than air. On 6 September 1943, three days after the main Allied force began landings on the shore at Salerno, the 325th with Jim’s battalion attached left the division for Comiso, Sicily, to load aboard their own landing craft. On 11 September the 504th made their landing near Paestum, close to the lines of the 36th Infantry Division, where the 3rd Battalion (minus H Company, who had been sent to assist the Rangers at Maiori) began taking up positions to drive inward away from the beach. Even with their help, the beachhead was still at high risk, and while the 3rd Battalion fought from the ground, the rest of the 504th made an airborne drop at the nearby town of Altavilla. Taking on heavy German forces, the 1,300 paradropped soldiers engaged in a fierce battle with German forces attempting to surround and eradicate them from the advantageous positions they possessed. Afraid of the large airborne mass being cut off and destroyed, Mark Clark, commander of the 5th Army, ordered Colonel Tucker, commander of the 504th, to withdraw. Insulted, Tucker replied, “Retreat, Hell, just send me my other battalion!” With that request, Jim’s battalion was detached from the 325th and sent to rejoin their para brothers at Altavilla. Starting their push on the 17th, the 3rd Battalion fought with great intensity against heavily reinforced German troops, gradually breaking through their lines before setting up a primary battle position on Hill 344 from which they were able to finally make contact with the rest of the 504th. Now forming a united front, the regiment spent several hours fighting off numerous German counterattacks with great success. Although the 36th Infantry Division came to relieve them the next day, General Clark credited the paratroopers with saving the entire invasion, holding their positions against all odds to keep the Germans at bay while the fragile beachhead was secured.
After a few days of rest, Jim and the rest of the 3rd Battalion loaded back aboard transports to join the solo H Company and Army Rangers at Maiori, where they were undergoing heavy attack and artillery in what became known as “88’ Pass.” The rest of the 504th joined the battalion on the 25th and immediately set off on a large army-wide push towards Naples. German resistance was present but crumbling amidst the increasing Allied advance and on 1 October Jim and the 504th became the first Allied troops to enter the city. Although heavily razed by German troops, it was a major victory for the landing forces and signaled a milestone on the path toward Rome. After a few weeks and much-needed rest the 504th once again was shuttled into action, this time via trucks, and on 27 October rejoined the 5th Army to push through several highly contested mountain ranges. Unique from the rolling fields of Sicily and the flatlands at Paestum, the next month of combat found the 504th climbing up and around treacherous mountains, not landing on top of them. German resistance around the winter line was strong but the 82nd maintained a solid momentum, taking villages from Cardito to Alfedena as the 5th Army slowly worked its way northward.
In November the 504th was detached from the 82nd as it had received orders to report to England to prepare for the invasion of France. General Clark, heavily reliant on his elite troops, managed to keep the 504th in Italy for the time being, leaving Jim and his compatriots slogging through Italy while the rest of their division traveled to not-invaded England. In early December the regiment was given a brief break, going back into the line on the 10th, where Jim and his company were sent to replace frontline units of the 3rd Ranger Battalion at Hill 950 near Venafro. Here the company was critical in repelling numerous enemy counterattacks while the 2nd Battalion of the 504th assaulted Mt Sammucro nearby. G and I Company were the lynchpin to the flank of the operation and as such felt the brunt of the German attacks. By 20 December the regiment was moved from the area and ordered to attack several slopes and hills containing enemy forces outside of Venafro. The fighting was in bad weather and difficult terrain with heavy artillery causing massive casualties across the unit. After nineteen days of heavy fighting, the regiment was officially relieved from Venafro and put to rest, pulling back to Naples for recovery on 4 January 1944.
While in Naples the 504th learned details of their next mission, Operation Shingle. Intended to break the German line by landing Allied forces north near Anzio, the paratroopers were first intended to airdrop into the invasion zone to assist with the amphibious assaults as they had in Sicily. The plan, unfortunately, was quickly discovered by the locals and army planners grew fearful of it leaking to the enemy, scrapping it in favor of simply landing the paratroopers once again by boat. The 504th was slated to be part of the initial landing force and on 22 January made their way to the Italian shore once again, each company in their own LCIs. Although there was no direct opposition on the beach, the landing was still a hot one, particularly for Jim. As German artillery pounded away at the area around them more generally, the 504th unloaded in an area near Nettuno just south of Anzio. Just as the troopers began to disembark a large flight of Stuka’s came out of the clouds, heading directly for the landing craft stuck ashore. A hail of anti-aircraft fire erupted from the large naval flotilla but their aim failed to land true, as a single bomber dropped its payload immediately before erupting into flames. A few seconds later the explosive hit its mark, dead center on top of the G Company landing ship. Jim and his comrades were rocked as the loud explosion shook their craft and threw men everywhere. The paratroopers were rushed to evacuation, jumping into the water and down the ramps as fast as possible as the ship began to break apart around them. It was an event witnessed by countless 504th troopers and recounted heavily in personal testimonies regarding the landings. Although Jim and G Company remained largely unharmed, it was a flamboyant start to what would become a bloody campaign.
On 24 January the 3rd Battalion took positions near the Mussolini Canal, where they began an assault supported by armored cars and naval artillery. This first attack proved successful, netting numerous POWs and a good bit of ground. Once on the move, the battalion split up as Jim and his company began moving along the coastal road to retake what was marked as Bridge No. 1 and the Torre Astura, an ancient castle that was being utilized as a lighthouse. The rest of the battalion turned northward as G Company reached their objective around 1900. Ordered to stand and hold the position, the next few days saw the company fight off several German counterattacks before moving to a new objective, the village of Borgo Sabotino, on the 25th. Unlike the other companies, G Company was forced to go at their objective without armor support and did so with whatever light infantry weapons they had available. German defenses were tough and numerous and an entire patrol was captured one night while reconnoitering the town. The assault managed to make its way, however, as a German anti-aircraft half-track was knocked out, allowing the remaining paratroopers to take the town in a 30-minute assault. While the rest of the 504th was continuing to push their objectives against severe opposition, G Company was told to once again hold their town for the next four days as German forces attempted some pushback. On 29 January they were relieved by elements of the 45th ID and returned to control of the 1st Armored Division, to whom the 504th was attached during the Anzio operation. Although G Company had proven lucky during these first few Anzio engagements, the worst was yet to come as Jim would soon come to find out.
On 1 February the 3rd Battalion was given new orders to leave the 1st Armored and instead moved along the Anzio-Albano road to support the British 1st Division near Carroceto pushing against strong German forces. They set off around noon and arrived a few hours later at what would become their new home, The Factory. Infamous in the Anzio defense, The Factory was actually a pre-war Mussolini agricultural project near Aprilia that was simply misinterpreted by commonwealth forces attacking the area during the fighting at Anzio. It became a crucial part of the campaign, being fought over several times by British and German forces, but for the first few days of February was secured by Jim’s battalion while the British units sought to secure their salient in the German lines. When the 3rd Battalion arrived all was fairly quiet and the troops began to dig in, G Company taking a position just outside the northern edge of the compound. Not long after they met their new companion, the German artillery, specifically, a large railgun that had sighted in on the Factory. Firing a 283mm shell, the gun left massive crater holes and demolished anything in its path. The day after they settled in the artillery bombardments were joined by sleet and rain, although they were not enough to put out the flaming hulks of metal that dotted the fields around them, former tanks that sat burning for days on end.
While the paratroopers enjoyed their days of freezing rain and sporadic artillery, British forces faced extremely bitter German assaults, breaking through part of their line and now threatening the area of The Factory and other spots with immediate assault. The 3rd Battalion was put on alert as German artillery began targeting the buildings of the compound directly, although the paratroopers remained outside in the fallow fields surrounding it. On 4 February the men were mostly minding their own business, Jim included when out of the blue one of the largest German bombardments they had ever seen began plastering the area with artillery. According to personal accounts, the fire was devastating, tearing through all parts of the line and filling the air with smoke and shrapnel. It was in this bombardment that Jim met his fate. G Company was hit particularly hard by the barrage and in the intensity, a shell landed right behind Jim, heavily lacerating both of his legs, and filling them with shrapnel. Medics went to work quickly and evacuated Jim alongside several other casualties from G Company, moving him for immediate treatment at a field station before shipping him back to Naples for a full, but lengthy recovery.
Although now separated, Jim’s battalion went on to serve even more valiantly at Anzio in the defense of The Factory and other nearby positions from a massive German assault against the British forces only four days after his wound. Despite his absence from the unit, he was still awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the action, the first to ever be awarded to an American Airborne unit. Jim’s wounds received at The Factory proved extremely serious, leading to a four-month-long hospital stay and, sadly, ending his airborne career forever. Unable to perform jumps and at full strength in the field, he was permanently removed from his trooper brethren and reassigned to an unknown unit under the North Africa Command, one of the larger units which oversaw operations in the Mediterranean theater. He stayed with this unit for the rest of the war, watching and reading about his former comrades jumping at Normandy, in Holland, slugging their way through the Bulge and into Germany. Even in his separation, he remained extremely proud of his time in the “All-American” division, wearing their divisional insignia on his sleeve and pinned to his lapels. As the war came to a close he was granted permission to return home, arriving back in the states on 1 November 1945, getting his final discharge five days later at Fort Indiantown Gap.
For most of his life the man of the house and breadwinner for his mother and sister, Jim entered the service and volunteered for a new and hazardous combat unit, traveling overseas and making the first large-scale airborne jump of the war, fighting his way across Sicily, Salerno, the winter line, and Anzio before receiving wounds that would have incapacitated any man. For all intents and purposes, Jim was a true airborne warrior. Once he arrived back in Erie he settled with his wife, who had waited nearly three years for his return, and went back to his job at GE where he remained for the rest of his career, retiring in 1978. Throughout his postwar years he was also very active in the American Legion and Disabled Veterans Association, never forgetting and always representing his actions performed against Nazi tyranny in Europe.