Authors: Jerome Preisler
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Jerome Preisler
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-61479-2
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
First to jump : how the band of brothers was aided by the brave paratroopers of pathfinders company / Jerome Preisler. â First edition.
1. United States. ArmyâParachute troopsâHistoryâWorld War, 1939â1945. 2. World War, 1939â1945âCampaignsâWestern Front. 3. Parachute troopsâUnited StatesâHistoryâ20th century. I. Title.
First edition: December 2014
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the author nor the publisher is responsible for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
In memory of Elmer and Noni Kosinski, who bridged the damages of war with their love.
They were considered mavericks, insubordinates, and undesirables, and they'd done plenty to earn the reputation. Their commanding officers were glad, not to say overjoyed, to see them ship out to train for their special missionsâglad just to be rid of them, never mind that those missions were thought to be suicidal.
They were the U.S. Army Pathfinders of the IX Troop Carrier Command. The first paratroopers to jump into combat.
And they were heroes to a man.
I spent two years chronicling their story to fill a significant gap in the history of the U.S. airborne military effort during World War Twoâand in the much broader history of special operations commandos in the U.S. armed services.
While there is some excellent literature about the 101st “Screaming Eagles” and 82nd Airborne Divisions, not much has been said of their Pathfinder units, perhaps because a lot of information about their covert actions, tactics, and equipment remained classified for decades after the war, and also possibly because they were relatively small in numberâfewer than three hundred of them jumped into Normandy in June 1944, and only about two dozen into the frigid, snow-blanketed heart of Bastogne later that year, on the third and arguably most daring mission for which their unique expertise was required. If not for the Pathfinders' heroic pinpoint drop into a German siege ring consisting of a quarter million infantry troops and more than a thousand tanks, the Christmas airlift of vital supplies and ammunition to the city's encircled U.S. forces might have failed or never gotten underway. Without it Bastogne would have been lost, the cost in American lives would have soared, and the Allied cause would have been severely damagedâor worse.
The Pathfinders were by definition special advance teams. Their job, put succinctly, was to jump behind enemy lines and mark the drop zones and landing zones for the main waves of airborne troops to follow. This alone made their existence a military innovation. But as conceived and refined by Acting Lieutenant Colonel Joel L. Crouch and Acting Sergeant Jake McNiece, the Pathfinders' jump into Bastogne helped lay the blueprint for the sort of surgical strikes that would gain subsequent elite units widespreadâand well-deservedâpublic recognition.
My intent here isn't to subtract from the accomplishments of any of those other groups. Rather, it's to enrich the story of their conceptual and tactical development and give the Pathfinders their full due as trailblazers in every sense of the word.
The brainchild of Lieutenant Crouch and the 82nd Airborne's General James M. Gavin, the Pathfinders were created as a result ofâand antidote toâthe confusion that beset Gavin's airborne jump into Sicily during the 1943 Allied invasion of the island. As his 505th Parachute Regiment troops had flown there across the Mediterranean, German flak, friendly fire, and windblown combat smoke forced many of his paratroopers to evacuate their beleaguered C-47 transport planes and become scattered behind enemy lines.
Hiking toward the beachhead with only his compass and the sounds of battle to guide him, Gavin had assembled stray groups of wounded and disoriented paratroopers into a ragtag fighting band. Before all was said and done, his parachute infantrymen would become involved in several importantâand bloodyâclashes with the enemy. But as a result of their chaotic drop, they sustained terrible losses and accomplished few of their intended objectives.
After Sicily, Gavin consulted with several American and British Air Force generals about how to avoid similar disasters in the future. He then turned to Lieutenant Crouch, a pioneer in civilian air transport and ace troop carrier pilot, to develop the tactics and training methods for commando-style teams that would jump ahead of the main waves of paratroopers without support, stealing across enemy terrain to scout and mark out drop zones with an array of top secret homing and guidance equipment.
In early 1944, Crouch established the Pathfinder School at RAF North Witham in Lincolnshire, England. Sheer nerve and soldiering ability were absolute requirements for a trooper to make the final grade. But so dangerous were the planned missionsâthere was an anticipated fatality rate of 80 or 90 percentâthat most of the men enticed to take the all-volunteer training were considered troublemakers by their COs and had been persuaded it was a way to rehabilitate their tarnished service records or even avoid the brig.
It is arguable, however, that the same
maverick qualities that made them what Jake McNiece called bad “garrison” soldiers gave them the adaptivity needed to survive and carry out their goals under conditions their training had only approximated. The book on Pathfinding was in a real sense written on the fly by troopers whose psychological and emotional wiring freed them to toss out the rules and improvise when circumstances demanded it.
But the men who jumped only account for part of this story. The rest is about the brave and innovative aircrews who flew them to their destinations.
Along with the paratroopers, top-notch pilots and crews from each of the army's troop carrier groups were sent to North Witham for rigorous retraining under Crouch, who would teach them stealthy air delivery techniques for the advance paratrooper teamsâand rapid getaway methods through enemy flak once they'd dropped their troop loads. Meanwhile, the Pathfinders would undergo endless drills in the British countryside, where they practiced using their Eureka radar transmitters, fluorescent signal panels, and colored smoke for their first mission.
That mission would be no less critical to Allied fortunes than Operation Overlordâthe D-Day invasion of Normandy. And it is with D-Dayâor the night before, when the Pathfinders left England a short while ahead of the rest of the airborne troopsâthat this tale begins.
As a note, I've primarily focused here on the Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division, but in no way do I mean to ignore or minimize the actions of the 82nd Airborne Division Pathfinders who courageously jumped in the same campaigns. My decision was based almost altogether on practical considerations; in order to tell the tale most clearly, a narrative line had to be drawn, and staying with the 101st seemed the best and straightest course.
It is my honor and privilege to share with you the exploits of the Pathfinders and the airmen who risked everything to fly them into combat. I am profoundly humbled by their courage and will be ever grateful for their sacrifices.
JUNE 5â7, 1944
When you land in Normandy, you will have only one friend: God.
âGeneral James Gavin
to the Pathfinders on D-Day Minus One
Captain Frank Lillyman, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, knew his Pathfinders would have moonlight in their favorâa full moon and his lucky cigar. It had been clenched between his front teeth during each of his previous forty-seven jumps and was poking out of his mouth now for jump forty-eight, his first into combat. He called it a pet superstition and had only gotten burned on a single occasion.
Whenever Lillyman ran low on stogiesâthe Army rationed twelve a weekâhe would write his curly-haired missus back in Skaneateles, New York, and ask her to send spares all the way from home. He wrote Jane a lot of letters, and kept her as informed about what he was doing with the paratroopers as the military censors would allow.
At the airdrome several hours before takeoff, he and another paratroop officer had hammed it up with their veteran pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch, for the filming of an official War Department newsreel.
Crouch sported jump wings on his lapel, and the airborne officers had good-naturedly teased him about it. These wings were worn with pride when paratroopers graduated jump training school. They normally didn't like anyone outside their select brotherhood putting them on, but Crouch was an exception.
A top United Airlines pilot in civilian life, the colonel had made nine practice jumps to get a better grasp of what paratroopers experienced in action. After the nearly disastrous airborne attack on Sicily in 1943, he'd brainstormed the idea of Pathfinder sticks with General “Jumping” James Gavin, one of the fathers of the U.S. parachute infantry. Crouch was the definition of an ace, and no flier in the armed forces had garnered more respect among the sky soldiers.
Tonight he and his aircrew were flying the lead plane of the D-Day invasion into the teeth of the enemy's defenses, carrying the Pathfinders behind German lines. Once on the ground, the jumpers would be on their own, operating without support to mark the drop zones for the main airborne invasion waves. Crouch had pinned the badge on his uniform to honor their courage, and when the paratroopers had seen it there, worn close to his heart, they'd understood and appreciated the gesture.
In the weeks they'd spent awaiting their mission orders, the Pathfinders had found ample time to ponder their odds of surviving the mission. None had entertained any illusion, and how could they?
Their own leaders, including Gavin himself, had told them those odds were slim to none.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had been faced with a crucial decision. After days of stormy weather, there was no assurance the clouds would break long enough to launch the invasion.
The window for Operation Overlord was narrow. It would either start between June 4 and 7 or be postponed at least two weeks, until the tide off Normandy would again be low around sunrise. That was essential if the mine-clearing teams were to wade into the shallows and do their job, enabling the aquatic landing craft to approach the beachhead.
Eisenhower knew any delay would be less than ideal for the paratroopers. In two weeks the nights that preceded an early morning low tide would be moonless. The Pathfinders, and the main wave of thirteen thousand sky troopers whose way they would light, would have to jump behind enemy lines in pitch-darkness.
Now they were ready to goâand getting nervous. They had been waiting near the airfield for more than thirty-six hours, and their restless expectancy had originated long before. By late May, the men had known the invasion was in the offing, although its commencement date had been kept top secret. That had been preceded by months of training at RAF North Witham, not far from Nottinghamshire, where Robin Hood and his band had been legendary thorns in the sheriff's side. While out on their weekend passes, the paratroopers would carry on their own rowdy exploits at village pubs, sometimes getting into trouble with the latter-day constabulary, and leaving Lillyman to sweet-talk them out of it.
Once in their marshaling areas, the Pathfinders had quartered in makeshift tent cities behind barbed wire fencing, guarded by machine gunâtoting military police from another division. It was hardly an ideal situation. In fact, it made them feel more like prisoners than they ever had in Nottingham's revolving-door guardhouse. As one paratrooper would write, “The only comparable sensation would be those last five days in the death house, when everybody is quiet and considerate and they feed you well and let you sleep late and write letters and give you little favors and comforts.”
Conversation with the MPs was forbidden, and only the officers were allowed in or out of the marshaling area. The troopers attended countless briefings that made use of elaborate sand table replicas of the Normandy countryside, allowing them to study miniature re-creations of roads, streams, canals, farms, hedgerows, and German military emplacements near the drop zones. Their knowledge of the invasion plan was the reason for the high security. Allied leaders were concerned about German spies and infiltrators, and did not want to risk the paratroopers talking to outsiders about the D-Day preparations.
The troopers had responded well to these restrictions. To pass the time, they'd written letters, played volleyball, sparred in organized boxing matches, and amused themselves with endless rounds of blackjack and craps. Inspired by a 1939 movie about the fearsome Apache warrior Geronimo, Army parachutists had taken to shouting his name as a battle cry when they jumped out of planes. While awaiting their invasion orders, they'd given each other haircuts that they named after the Indian chief, shaving the sides of their heads bare and leaving a long strip of hair in the middle.
Still, General Eisenhower had known the men could only keep their feelings of restlessness and isolation at bay for so long, and had wrestled with the state of their morale in contemplating later dates. Bowed with the weight of his responsibility, he would pace about his command tent at Southwick, and had often shrugged into his trench coat and taken long, solitary walks in the rain and dampness. How would more weeks of anxious anticipation affect them? And what of the sailors and infantry aboard the vessels at sea? The lives of two million men hung on his decision. “The mighty host was tense as a coiled spring,” Eisenhower later penned. Surely it would wear on their psyches and be even harder if their commanders waited a full month for optimal lunar and tidal conditions.
SCAEF Eisenhower had consulted with his meteorologists twice a day, polling his coalition leaders for their opinions. Finally he'd decided. He would move forward with the operation, hoping the predictions of a letup in the rainy weather held true.
Toward the evening of June 5, the hundred and twenty Pathfinders were brought a mile north of the marshaling area to the airfield, where they assembled into groups called jump sticks. Each stick was joined by riflemen from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment who had been assigned to provide cover while they set out their equipment.
Besides the seventy-pound combat loads of weapons, rations, medical supplies, and other assorted gear carried by jumpers in all airborne units, the Pathfinders bore with them secret equipment that would be used to guide the main waves of paratroopers toward their drop zones: Eureka radar sets, Holophane light panels, and colored smoke grenades to be used for daylight landings, when the panels couldn't be seen from above. The men had nicknamed this special array the “ol' scarf,” after the neckerchiefs that Hollywood Western heroes would hang from trees and bushes to mark their trailheadsâin other words, mark their pathsâso that others could follow when they went riding off after the cowboys with the black hats.
A stick of paratroopers was typically composed of eight men, but the experimental Pathfinder teams had from ten to twelve jumpers. This was because their casualty rate was projected at about 80 percent. The brass expected six out of eight Pathfinders to be killed in action, so they gave them extra manpower. Moreover, each radar and light operator had a specific role in laying out the DZ, and a backup on the team who could perform it if he was killed or wounded. Building redundancy, atop redundancy, to each drop zone, the military would assign two Pathfinder sticks with the same mission and equipment. If the entire primary stick was incapacitated before it could finish its task, the secondary group would be ready take its place.
Being the first to jump into hostile territory was extremely risky business, and the men who were accepted for Pathfinder training had to be the toughest of the tough. A paratrooper qual was of course a requirement. Word had gone out for soldiers with radio communications experience, especially those skilled at Morse code. But it was difficult to find volunteers for what many considered the definition of a suicide mission. For that reason a fair number of them were noncommissioned officers who'd gotten in hot water because of their difficulties with conventional soldieringâdisciplinary problems, in other words. The incentive for becoming a Pathfinder, then, was often that it presented those men with an alternative to military punishmentÂ .Â .Â . or, looking at it another way, with a chance to buff up their service records and rehabilitate their standing within the ranks.
The Pathfinders attached to the 502nd PIR of the 101st Airborneâthe Screaming Eaglesâwould be transported across the English Channel in twenty Dakota Skytrains. Adapted from the civilian DC-3 airliners Lieutenant Crouch had flown in what seemed another lifetime, the large, sturdy twin props had black and white invasion stripes painted near their tails to make them identifiable to Allied antiaircraft batteries. Friendly fire had been one of the major problems with the paratrooper drop on Sicily, causing terrible loss and confusion as offshore guns opened up on arriving flights, and the goal was to avoid a repeat of that debacle this time. But Crouch and the rest of the airmen who would fly the Pathfinders to their destination knew they'd have to make it past the formidable German shore defenses, itself a daunting proposition.
This coordinated airborne assault was to begin right around midnight.
Going in first without backup, the Pathfinders would jump into enemy territory a half hour earlier.
The first to leave the runway, Lieutenant Crouch's planeâtail number 23098âsoared into the night sky at 9:54
, with the rest taking wing at five-minute intervals. Once they reached cruising altitude, they assembled into tight V formations: three planes to a V serial, three V serials to an echelon.
The pilots were taking their cue from nature. Like geese during long migrations, flying in these groups allowed them to maintain closer contact and communication in the air.
Whipcord thin at 140 poundsâalthough he weighed twice that in full uniform and gearâCaptain Lillyman sat behind the cockpit chewing his customary cigar. The men always kept an eye out for it, reasoning that the luck it brought him could only be an asset for them too. In fact, during a practice jump over England with his Pathfinder trainees, he'd neglected to put the stogie in his mouth and their whole mood had changed. Glancing at their faces as they neared the target, he'd decided something was wrong.
“Hey,” he asked one of them, “what's the trouble with you fellas?”
“The captain hasn't got his cigar,” the trooper replied.
With that, Lillyman had taken one out of his pocket and chomped down on it so all the men could see. As he recalled, the plane had made an additional circle of the field, and the stick had jumped with their usual swaggerÂ .Â .Â .
a full measure of good luck, they would have agreed.
Of course Lillyman's confidence stemmed from much more than just the lucky cigar. He knew his men inside out. Most weren't big on rules and would have admitted to having had a close brush or twoâor possibly threeâwith insubordination. But, then again, he'd heard whispers that his own regimental commander, Colonel George van Horn Moseley, had called him an “arrogant smart-ass” behind his back before he'd gotten assigned to head up the Pathfinder training school.
If this was true, he was okay with it. He was proud of his unit. In his opinion, a maverick disposition was almost an essential quality for its fighters. It went along with a strong sense of independence and was partly what would allow them to seize the initiative and make quick decisions under pressure. In short, it gave them the wherewithal to do their job knowing they would sink or swim on their own.
Looking down the aisle at his troopers, Lillyman could have given a detailed recitation of their temperaments, backgrounds, and specialized skills. For instance, Private Gus Mangoni, the demolition man, was the best he'd ever seen at working with a stick of dynamite. Along with John “The Greek” Zamanakos, Mangoni could do just about anything he wanted setting an explosion. They were quite a team.
Private John McFarlen was in position to be the third to jump behind Lillyman. An ornery, rough-and-tumble Texan, he enjoyed fighting for the simple fun of it and had prompted many an aggravated Saturday night phone call to the Nottingham police after a fracas at the local pub. McFarlen was one of the guys for whom a three-day pass usually spelled
, and Lillyman had had his hands full keeping him out of the English guardhouse. But now McFarlen was hot to go up against the German Army, and that was their great misfortune.
Private Frank Roccaâthe boys called him “The Rock”âwas cut from the same toughened mold, a born scrapper. Knee-high to a keg of cider and hard as a barrel of nails, he knew how to handle an M-1 carbine as well as anyone. On the firing range, he'd show off his skill by weaving like a hula dancer with the Tommy gun at his hip as he turned silhouette targets to splinters.
The unit's scouts, Privates Frederik Wilhelm and Bluford Williams, sat toward the rear of the troop section, and Lillyman would have followed them anywhere without hesitation. Williams was also his cleanup man, the last Pathfinder in line aboard the plane. His orders were to keep pushing the stick forward in case anybody got cold feetÂ .Â .Â . though Williams had mused to himself that the door was so tight, it would have been hard to budge a man in full jump gear out of it.