Today’s U.S. Army Pathfinders trace their illustrious history and legacy back to the beginning of World War II. The Pathfinder concept first appeared in U.S. Forces in England during preparation for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) in 1942. The 2d Battalion, 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment (later re-designated as the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion) borrowed ideas and equipment from the British airborne forces. Despite their efforts, the initial drop in North Africa in November 1942 was widely dispersed due to coordination difficulties and aerial navigation problems on the 12-hour flight route from England.
The airborne phase of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 drove home the need for a U.S. Pathfinder capability. Landings of American and British airborne forces were widely dispersed due to high winds, navigation errors, friendly antiaircraft fire, and a lack of positive control of the inbound troop carrier aircraft. Some paratroopers were dropped more than 60 miles from their assigned drop zones. The after-action report pointed to an immediate need for specially trained and equipped parachute elements that could enter an objective ahead of the main airborne force to locate and mark parachute drop zones (DZ) and glider landing zones (LZ), and provide positive guidance and control of the troop carrier aircraft. These elite groups would precede the main airborne force with visual and electronic signaling devices to guide aircraft to the designated DZs.
The first U.S. Pathfinder teams were organized in the 82d Airborne Division at Biscari Airfield in Sicily by Captain John Norton* and Lt. Col. Joel Crouch, U.S. Army Air Corps. Shortly thereafter, these teams performed flawlessly in the highly successful night airborne reinforcement of the Salerno beachhead on the mainland of Italy on 13 and 14 September 1943. LT William B. Jones of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was the first Pathfinder to jump in a combat operation (13 September is National Pathfinder Day). The 505th PIR’s Pathfinders led the way for that unit’s successful drop the next night. The 509th PIB also attempted to employ their Pathfinders during a night drop east of Avellino, but high winds interfered with navigation of the Pathfinder aircraft, and terrain limited beacon effectiveness. The drop was again widely scattered.
* Later Commanding General, 1st Cav Div (Airmobile) in Vietnam, 1966-67
On February 25, 1944 Brig. Gen. Williams, IX Troop carrier command, opened the first Pathfinder school at North Witham, England. Each Pathfinder team consisted of 9 to 14 signaling specialist with two Eureka sets and nine Holophane lights, plus a five man security detachment. Each Pathfinder team was assigned to a specific aircrew. They worked, ate, and lived together as a team.
After further expansion and training in England with the British 6th Airborne Division, Pathfinders led the Normandy invasion (Operation OVERLORD) during the early hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944. Captain (later Lt. Colonel) Frank Lillyman, leader of the 101st Pathfinders, was among the first Americans to land in France at 0015 hours on 6 June.
Pathfinders also were employed during Operation DRAGOON, the invasion of Southern France, but results were not good due to fog and darkness that created navigation problems for the Pathfinder aircraft. Some Pathfinders landed 18 miles from the assigned DZs. Pathfinders later led the large airborne operations in Holland (Operation MARKET-GARDEN); controlled the airborne resupply of American forces at various locations including units surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and provided navigational checkpoints on the west side of the Rhine River for the jump across the Rhine (Operation VARSITY).
The original U.S. Pathfinder patch was designed in May 1944 by Corporal William Prescott of the 2nd Bn 505th PIR. The winged torch insignia was inspired by the New York Athletic Club’s logo which Prescott’s father had helped design. The earliest pathfinder patch was sewn on the left uniform sleeve with a downward angle and proudly worn by both aircrews and Pathfinders. The new insignia was not issued in time to be worn on D-Day. A variation of this first patch later became the Army’s standard cloth Pathfinder insignia until replaced in 1968 by the current smaller metal badge.
In the Pacific theater, the 11th Airborne Division also employed Pathfinders in two successful operations on Luzon in the Philippine Islands in early 1945. One team moved stealthily through enemy lines on foot and the other landed by boat to locate and mark DZs for the assaulting parachute forces. The 11th Airborne Division was sent to Japan in 1945 for occupation duty at the end of the war, but it was not until 1947 that Pathfinders of the 11th Airborne Division were “formally” activated.
During the Korean War the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team was organized out of the 11th Airborne Division in Japan and deployed to combat. The 187th did not employ their Pathfinders ahead of the main force during their initial jump at Sunchon in order to maintain operational security, but they were employed to successfully control follow-on parachute operations. Later in the war, Pathfinders were employed to lead the way for the jump at Munsan-Ni.
Following the Korean War the Air Force took over responsibility for drop zone control of troop carrier aircraft during parachute operations. At that time the Army’s aircraft fleet was rapidly growing, and in1955 the Pathfinder School was established at Ft. Benning to provide trained Pathfinders to support airmobile operations. By 1958 the only Pathfinder units remaining in the Active Army were at the Infantry and Aviation Schools at Forts Benning and Rucker and in the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.
The Vietnam War would see the widest use of Army Pathfinders. The Army’s 1963-65 test of the Air Mobility Concept by the 11th Air Assault Division (11th AAD) again proved the need for Pathfinders, but this time to support the conduct of airmobile operations using large numbers of Army helicopters and fixed wing transports. The 11th Pathfinder Company (Provisional) was organized in 1964 in the 11th AAD and deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in 1965. Early combat operations of the 1st Air Cav showed a clear need for a Pathfinder capability in combat aviation units. Nearly every combat aviation battalion subsequently had a Pathfinder unit and employed them routinely, but very few employed them as widely and for as long as did the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The 11th Pathfinder Company (Provisional) was the first and largest Pathfinder unit to serve in Vietnam, and a 1st Air Cav Pathfinder team was among the last Army units to leave Vietnam in 1972.
The 101st Airborne Division deployed to Vietnam in late 1967 to join its 1st Brigade that arrived in 1965. In 1968 the 101st was reorganized as an airmobile division with a four-section Pathfinder platoon. The 101st employed their Pathfinders in a similar manner as the 1st Air Cav until the division returned to the U.S. in 1972.
In addition to the two airmobile divisions that had their own aviation assets and assigned Pathfinder units there was the 1st Aviation Brigade (The Golden Hawks) which was formed in 1966. The Golden Hawks brigade was responsible for 40% of the Army’s helicopter assets and most of its fixed wing assets which supported the remainder of ground forces in South Vietnam.
After the Vietnam War, Pathfinders were in all major airborne units and various combat aviation battalions and groups, notably the 11th Aviation Group, by then stationed in Germany. There also was an increase in Army National Guard and Army Reserve Pathfinder detachments and platoons during the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1975, C Company (Pathfinder), 509th Infantry was activated as a separate company at the Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama, to provide training support to Aviation School. After becoming part of the newly formed 1st Battalion, 509th (ABN) Infantry Regiment on December 18, 1987, at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, C Co continued its support of The Aviation School until it was reflagged in 1993
In the 1990s, the Army started disbanding its Pathfinder units. The rationale was that Pathfinder duties could be performed by members of a unit who were graduates of the Pathfinder or Air Assault Schools. However, operations during the Panama invasion and the Gulf War again showed that Pathfinders were an important factor in successful airmobile operations. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) retained its Pathfinders after the Vietnam War, and in 2005 expanded its existing company and added a second company, giving one to each of its two combat aviation brigades. The 82d Airborne Division also organized a Pathfinder company in its aviation brigade. Additionally, the 10th Infantry Division (Mountain) and the 25th Infantry Division (Light) formed Pathfinder companies that conducted combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today’s Pathfinder units (The Blackhats) continue to build upon the outstanding legacy of their predecessors. They proudly wear the Pathfinder Torch and still live by the official Pathfinder motto: SEMPER PRIMUS (Always First). However, in today’s airmobile operations Pathfinders control both landing zones (LZ) and pick-up zones (PZ), which means Pathfinders are always the last ones out during a combat extraction. This led to today’s warrior variation of the official motto: “…FIRST IN, LAST OUT!”
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