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During World War II, US Army Pathfinders were a group of volunteers selected within the Airborne units; they were specially trained to operate navigations aids to guide the main airborne body to the
Drop Zones (DZ). The pathfinder teams were made up of a group of eight to twelve pathfinders and a group of six bodyguards whose
job was to defend the pathfinders while they set up their equipment.
The pathfinder teams dropped approximately thirty minutes before the main body in order to locate designated drop zones and provide
radio and visual guides for the main force, in order to improve the accuracy of the jump. Once the main body
jumped, the pathfinders then joined their original units and fought as standard airborne infantry.
After the serious problems uncovered during the parachute drop in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Allied high command questioned the utility of parachute infantry primarily because of the difficulty of dropping the infantry as cohesive units rather than as scattered groups. A review of procedures and methods resulted in the establishment of the pathfinder teams to aid navigation to drop zones. Because aircraft navigation, especially at night, was so difficult, the concept was to create specially trained teams of aircraft crews and parachute infantry that would be able to locate the drop zone, parachute into the drop zone accurately, and then set up special radio beacon sets (the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar beacon) and visual markings to help guide the main airborne force to the drop zones. Brightly colored panels and smoke grenades were also used for daytime drops.
Pathfinders were first used in a jump to reinforce units involved in combat in Italy in September of 1943. Pathfinders were involved in the
D-Day drop of the Battle of Normandy in June of 1944, the Operation Market Garden drops to secure the bridges required for the ground units advancing into the Netherlands in September 1944, a resupply by air operation of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Buldge in December of 1944, and a resupply by air operation of the American 4th Infantry Division near Bleialf, Germany
in February of 1945.
Though a number of paratroopers were trained as pathfinders, they did not always jump as pathfinders for all operations. The number of pathfinders for a jump varied depending
on the conditions of the destination at the time of the jump. For instance, the D-Day jump for the Battle of Normandy, a night time jump, had more pathfinder teams than the jump for Operation Market Garden, a day time jump. For the Battle of Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division was trucked to the town for its defense against the attacking German forces. Two sticks of Pathfinders were used when the 101st Airborne was resupplied from the air in order to guide the aircraft dropping the much needed supplies accurately and
within the Allied lines.
Pathfinders taking part in the Allied parachute assault on Normandy on 6 June 1944, were trained by the Pathfinder School at RAF North Witham of which the US Army Air Force (USAAF) designation was Army Air
Force Station 479.
At 2130 hours on 5 June, about 200 pathfinders began to take off from North Witham, for the Cotentin Peninsula, in twenty C-47 aircraft of 9th Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder Group. They began to drop at 0015 Hours on June 6, to prepare the drop zones for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. They were the first US troops on the ground on D-Day. However, their aircraft were scattered by low clouds and anti-aircraft fire. Many never found their assigned drop zones. Some of the drop zones were too heavily defended, some were flooded.
The British 6th Airborne Division, which participated in the D-Day drop for the Battle of Normandy used pathfinder teams as did the British 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market (the parachute infantry portion of Operation Market-Garden).
The origin of US Army pathfinders has been the subject of debate. According to the late Charlie Doyle1, a WW-II veteran of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, "[General 'Slim Jim'] Gavin likes to claim credit for 'inventing' Pathfinders, pointing to bad drops in Sicily as the cause. Let us set the record straight: The 509th, the world's most experienced bad drop specialists, first saw the need for them."
Doyle states the Scout Company of the 509th was the first specialized pathfinder group and it began the training at Oujda, assisted by knowledge gained from the experience of the British Airborne. Company commander Captain Howland and his XO 1st Lt. Fred E. Perry developed usable techniques. The Scout Company
was later reorganized as a Scout Platoon with ten enlisted men under Perry's command. Perry states, "We were equipped with a British homing radio and
U.S. Navy Aldis lamps, which radiated a beam to guide planes. We trained on
this procedure until the invasion at Salerno."
Doyle relates that the 82nd Airborne Division arrived from the United States and camped near the 509th PIB
at Oujda. The 509th was attached to the 82nd, but the division did not initially accept the pathfinder concept
until after its experience in Sicily.
Doyle adds, "At the time, Major General Matthew Ridgway and his 'All-American' staff thought they knew it all. Impressed with themselves, although they were not jumpers or experienced glider troopers, they airily dismissed the 509th and its fresh combat experiences, as well as any nonstandard-Limey concept.
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