Pathfinders of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion

The U.S. Army's First Pathfinders

"Although Pathfinder teams were not used during the Sicilian operation, training of advance airborne parties had been initiated by the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion at Oujda, Morroco, in March 1943. Here the Pathfinders were organized as a Parachute Scout Company, consisting of three platoons, each platoon having two squads of eight men. The mission of the Parachute Scout Company, as envisioned at this time, was to precede the main body of airborne forces to the designated areas of initial invasion and by the use of Aldis Lamps (high powered lights that could be seen at a considerable distance), flares, and smoke pots, to mark off drop zones for parachutist and landing zones for gliders. (1) Everyone knew through hard experience that the Air Corps needed help to drop us on the correct drop zones. We organized the Scout Company for this purpose. This was later made into a Scout Platoon under my command, consisting of ten enlisted men and myself. 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 of Salerno.(6)

According Charlie Doyle, "[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 pathfinder group and began training at Oujda, North Africa assisted by knowledge and experience of the British Airborne. Company commander Captain Howland and his XO 1st Lt. Fred E. Perry developed the 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 USA 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. They would learn the hard way." (7)

When the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in North Africa in 1943, the 2nd Bn 509th PIR was placed under its operational control. Planning and training for Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily began immediately. Despite the formation of the Scout Company in the 2nd Bn 509th PIR based on combat experience lessons learned, the 82nd Airborne Division did not use the Scouts or the Scout/Pathfinder concept during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. As a result, two airborne battalions of the dropped 30 miles from their designated drop zones.(2) Another battalion jumped 55 miles from its objective and fought with the British forces for six days.(2) A fourth battalion, coming in on D+1, lost 23 of its troop carriers to Allies anti-aircraft fire.(2)

The 2nd Bn 509th PIR was held in reserve to reinforce the 82nd Airborne Division but 509th PIR drops were cancelled after the friendly fire incident.

Further Pathfinder work was undertaken at Agrigento, Sicily, in August 1943, shortly after the completion of the Sicilian campaign, through the efforts of Colonel (now Major General) James Gavin, Commander, 505th PIR and Lt. Col. Joel Couch, A-3 (Operations Officer), 52nd Troop Carrier Wing.(3) Lt. Col. Charles Billingslea, former Commandant of the Airborne Training Center at Oujda, Morocco and chiefly responsible for the work of the Parachute Scout Company there, was placed in direct charge of the organization and training of the Pathfinder units.(3) The 504th, 505th PIR and the 2nd Bn 509th PIR each sent three Pathfinder teams to Agrigento for indoctrination in these new Pathfinder methods.(3) In this new plan pathfinders dropped ahead of airborne invasion forces to set up radar apparatus, radio beacons and other improved locator aids.(3) Training was greatly accelerated due to the imminence of the invasion of Italy.(3) Training involved familiarizing with the equipment to the point of putting it into operation while blind folded.

Initial training for the Pathfinders communications specialist took place at Comiso, Sicily under the instruction of a British Officer and Sergeant.

28 Aug 43 - 509th Pathfinders along with 504th and 505th Pathfinders move just outside of Enfidaville, Tunisia to test Eureka Set, Aldis Lamps, Krypton Lights, and 5G Becon. Sixteen C-47s equipped with Rebecca Sets participate. Eurekas were picked up about 20 miles out, 5G was susceptable to jamming and was not as effective, Aldis and Krypton Lights were seen 25 miles out.

30 Aug 43 - Operation SNOWBALL At 2100 a second Pathfinder test was conducted outside of the town of Enfidaville, North Africa.

The Eureka Set weighed 51 lbs and was jumped in a leg bag.

The 504th PIR was the first to employ these new Pathfinder Teams in Operation Giant I. On 13 September 1943 the 504th Pathfinder team took off from Agrigento, Sicily in planes flown by combat seasoned pilots.(3) Take off time was 2100 hours. With good piloting and dead reckoning navigation the Pathfinder team hit the designated drop zone, south of Paestum, Italy without error.(3) The drop zone was located on the large open plain just in from the coast. Col. Yarborough and several Soldiers were already standing by to light jerry cans filled with sand and gasoline to light the DZ. Pilots reported seeing the fires from as much as 15 miles away. 504th Pathfinders jumped at 2325 hours. Radar, radio beacon and other locator equipment were set up immediately.(3) Twenty-five minutes later the first planes of the 504th PIR main body came directly over the drop zone.(3) Another account states that the main body jumped at 2338. Within one and one-half hours ninety plane loads of men and equipment had been accurately dropped.(3) On 14 September 1943 the 505th PIR jumped on another DZ near Paestum. Col. Yarborough lit the jerry cans and 505th Pathfinders jumped on them as the 504th had done the night before. The 505th PIR met with equal success.(3) The 504th and 505th PIR were trucked off the DZ to an assembly area where they conducted operations to secure the right flank of the beachhead and link up with the British forces moving up the Italian boot.

The Pathfinder team of the 509th PIB parachuted into their drop zone in the vicinity of Avellino, Italy and guided the main elements into the exact area.(3) Eurekas could not be employed by the 509th team due to the fact that planes used in dropping this battalion were not equipped with the necessary Rebecca sets.(3) With the employment of the 5-G, a British Radio Beacon, men were dropped on small flat areas surrounded by mountains rising sharply to altitudes of three thousand feet.(3) This made it necessary to jump the troops at slightly more than three thousand feet.(3)

The 2nd Bn 509th PIR was given a challenging task to drop 20 miles northeast of the beachhead (3 miles east southeast of Avellino in the Sorrento Mountains) to secure a mountain pass near Avellino, Italy and delay German reinforcements until the Allied forces could secure the beachhead. The DZ 'A' was a group of small flat open areas surrounded by mountains rising rapidly to 3000 feet well behind enemy lines. To further complicate matters, the 509th was not given Eureka sets since the 51st Troop Carrier Wing, 64th Troop Carrier Group supporting their drop did not have Rebecca sets installed to receive the signal. On 14 September 1943 one C-47 of the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron flown by their commanding officer took off at 2145 hours from Comisco Airfield, Sicily. At 2325 hours one 509th Pathfinder Team led by 1st Lt. Fred E. Perry and Lt. Henry Rouse and nine enlisted jumped into the area south of Avellino, Italy and landed undetected by the enemy approximately one mile south of the intended drop zone. With the main body only 10 - 15 minutes behind, Lt. Perry determined there was not sufficient time to move the one mile up the road to DZ 'A' so the Pathfinders set up the 5G transmitter (BUPs) Beacon and two Aldis lamps and waited for the 39 aircraft with 614 paratroopers to arrive. The mountainous terrain created problems for the aircrews by limiting the useful line of sight distance for lights and beacons to seen. The mountains also forced the aircraft to climb higher causing the parachutist to jump from a higher than normal altitude (3000 feet above the DZ). The 2nd Bn 509th PIR had about 10 aircraft find the DZ. The remainder of the unit landed scattered to the north and east of Avellino, Italy with some landing as much as 45 miles away. The unintended result was that the Germans believed they were facing a much larger force and could not clearly concentrate their forces against the 509th.

This operation (near Paestum, Italy) proved conclusively that Pathfinder teams were essential to the success of future airborne invasions.(3) Out of 262 planes 260 dropped their troops on the pre-designated targets, a tremendous improvement over the Sicilian campaign.(3)

The eyes of higher commanders began to open to the obvious advantages of employing Pathfinder teams in future airborne operations.(4) A directive from Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, dated 13 March 1944 established 18 Pathfinder Teams in each Airborne Division.(4) Two such teams were allotted to a battalion.(4) Each team consisted of one officer and nine enlisted men, reinforced by security personnel.(4) In the procedure outlined by the directive the Pathfinder teams were to drop thirty minutes prior to the arrival of the first serial of the main elements.(4) The thirty minute interval was evolved by mutual agreement between Airborne and Troop Carrier commanders.(4) In the event that the Pathfinder team was neutralized by enemy action a second Pathfinder team, arriving with the first serial was prepared to organize the drop zone.(4)

In order to coordinate operations to a maximum degree the Air Corps was directed to furnish a provisional Pathfinder group to train with the airborne personnel.(4) The Signal Corps was given the responsibility of supply and maintenance of special signal equipment (Eurekas, Halophane lights, flares and cerise panels) to be employed by the Pathfinder teams.(4)

The marking of the drop zones was to be accomplished by placing five lights in a "T" arrangement, with Eureka above the head of the "T".(4) This equipment was to be placed on the ground according to the size and shape of the drop zone and the speed and direction of the wind so that the "GO" signal could be given when the lead plane was directly over the head of the "T".(4) Distances between lights and Eureka are shown in Illustration #1.(4)

Landing zones for gliders were to be marked as shown in Illustration #2.(4)

For operations during daylight hours cerise panels and colored smoke, or a combination of both, were to be used in marking drop zones and landing zones.(4) Daylight aids were to be spaced in the same manner as the night aids shown in illustrations number 1 & 2.(4)

Pathfinder planes were to be navigated by dead reckoning, maps checked by Radar aids, and special drop zone and landing zone aerial photographs.(4)

With the new directive, the 82nd and 101st Airborne formed a Provisional Pathfinder Group in England and began the training for Normandy. (The 509th remained in Italy and did not participate in the Normandy Campaign) As training progressed new ideas and practices were developed.(5) A Standard Operating Procedure was set up to control the training and insure coordinated action in combat.(5) The strength of the Pathfinder team was changed to two officers and twelve enlisted men (Team Leader, Assistant Team Leader, Light Section Leader, seven light men, two Eureka operators and two assistant Eureka operators).(5) Instead of two Pathfinder teams per battalion originally envisioned each battalion group was streamlined to one team.(5) Three Pathfinder teams, each representing a battalion of one regiment, were flown to a drop zone in three planes flying in a tight Vee formation.(5)

Immediately after assembly on the ground the Regimental Pathfinder Leader (usually the senior officer, who was also in command of a Battalion Pathfinder Team) selected the location for the "T" of the lights carried by his team and ordered them set up.(5) Simultaneously he dispatched the two remaining teams to their general locations, one forward and one to the rear of the base position.(5) The distance between the "T's" was usually about 700 yards.(5) As the teams moved away from the base position the Light Section Leader laid assault wire.(5) Each team set up its lights and Eurekas and installed sound powered telephones so that voice communication was available between the battalion teams and the Regimental Pathfinder Leader.(5)

The Regimental Pathfinder Leader controlled the use of navigational aids by telephone.(5) This permitted the dropping of each Battalion on different sections of the drop zone without losing control and aided considerably the problems of assembly.(5) The RegimentalCommander was certain (assuming the Pathfinders were able to complete their missions) of having communication with his Battalion Commanders at the very outset of the operation.(5) The organization of a Regimental drop zone is shown in Illustration #3.(5)

Training along these lines was supplemented by additional work in map and aerial photograph reading, physical training and assembly problems.(5) Colored TE-122 flashlights were used in conducting Pathfinder assembly problems.(5) Red, amber and blue lights employed, each designating the assembly point for one team.(5) The center team (the team commanded by the Regimental Pathfinder Leader) was always designated as the base team to which the other teams reported upon assembly.(5) The Assistant Team Leader for each Battalion was equipped with a light that was raised 15 feet into the air and aided the main elements in assembling.(5) This light, known as the McGill Light, was set up at the battalion assembly point as soon as the battalion serial approached the drop zone.(5) This greatly facilitated the assembly problem, for the light could easily be seen for several miles.(5) A red light indicated the 1st Battalion area, an amber light the 2nd Battalion area, and a blue light the 3rd Battalion area.(5) Under favorable conditions twelve minutes were all that was required to organize a field from the time the first Pathfinder left his plane until the last light or Eureka was set up.(5) Later it was determined to add four personnel to serve as a security team.

The mission of the Pathfinder teams was to organize the drop zones and landing zones: to assist battalion commanders in assembling their units: and to deliver to their respective commanders all information of the enemy situation that they had been able to obtain.(5) Two Eurekas to be put in operation by each team fifteen minutes prior to designated time of arrival.(5)

Although the 509th PIB did not participate in the Normandy Campaign many of the changes that took place in training and lessons learned from the operation would have a direct impact on all future Pathfinder Operations. That is why I have included the information on this page.

After the 82nd Airborne experience in Normandy, many lessons learned needed to be passed on to the units preparing for Operation Anvil-Dragoon (Rugby), the invasion of Southern France. A Lt. who had jumped with the 505th in Normandy would supervise the month long training program for the 509th PIB.

Special Order 51 dated 17 July 1944 Placed the following personnel on Temporary Duty with the Radar School to train additional 509th Pathfinders for Operation Anvil-Dragoon the Invasion of Southern France.

1st Lt. Dan A. DeLeo
Pfc. William J. Hiller
Pfc. Marion A. McGee
Pfc. Edwin Platt
Pvt. Charles O. Baum
Pvt. John C. DeVanie
Pvt. Theodore R. Houghton
Pvt. John E. McDonald
Pvt. Charles A. Petty
Pvt. Anthony Saiz
Pvt. Victor F. Trzeskowski
Pvt. Robert A. Warner

These personnel reported to Marcigliana just south of Rome where they met up with combat experienced Pathfinders and Aircrews from Normandy.

The following is the manifest for the 509th Pathfinder Team for the jump on Drop Zone 'C' in Southern France. There are some differences in names such as Marion or Warren McGee, John or Charles MacDonald. There are also some names on the list above that did not appear to make the jump manifest such as Hiller, Platt, Warner. I do not know why these differences occur.

1 - 1st Lt. Dan A. DeLeo - Pathfinder Team Team Leader
2 - Pvt. Charles MacDonald - Eureka Operator
3 - Pvt. John C. Devanie
Pvt. Charles A. Petty
Pvt. Armstad
Pvt. Charles O. Baum
Pvt. Culture
Pvt. Theodore R. Houghton
Sgt. Steve Justice
Pvt. Warren McGee
Pvt. Sweetitz
Pvt. Victor F. Trzesckowski
Pvt. Roland Rondeau - Could speak French
Pvt. Anthony Saiz
Pvt. Vincent Klubster
1st Sgt. James Prettyman - Stowaway
Sgt. Manuel Serrano - Stowaway

Fourteen Soldiers and two stowaways of the 509th Pathfinder Team in a C-47 departed Marcigliana Airfield, Italy at 0100 for Drop Zone 'C' 2 miles southeast of LeMuy. Planes encountered 1/2 mile visibility and fog over the French coast. Three attempts were made by the aircrew the DZ by flying out to sea and returning inland through the anti-aircraft flak. The weather resulted in a misdrop of the Pathfinders in vicinity of Belluny, France in the mountain forest area soutwest of Grasse. This was 16 miles from their intended DZ.


(1) Statement of Capt. Fred E. Perry, Scout Company Commander, interviewed 19 December 1947

(2) A-12 Organization, Equipment, and Tactical Employment of the Airborne Division, Study Number 16. The General Board, United States Forces, European Theater. Pages 2, 10, 29; Appendix 7, page 3. (TIS Library)

(3) A-11 Airborne Activities in Avalanche Operation by Major Patrick D. Mulcahy (TIS Library)

(4) A-14 Observers Report Number 9 - Organization and Employment of Pathfinder Units. Air Force Headquarters, European Theater of Operations and Army Ground Force Board, 5 April 1944. (TIS Library) D731.1 E91#11d

(5) Personal experience of Captain John T. Joseph, 507th Regimental Pathfinder Leader

(6) Statement of 1st Lt. Fred E. Perry, Scout Platoon Leader

(7) "Stand in the Door! The wartime history of the 509th Parachute Infantry" by Charles H. Doyle and Terrell Stewart. Published by Phillips Publications, P.O. Box 168, Williamstown, NJ 08094


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