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In the predawn hours of June 5, 1944, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division prepared themselves for their night parachute drop behind enemy lines and with these paratroopers were an elite group known as the Pathfinders; men with specialized skills that would prove instrumental in setting up drop zones for allied aircraft to hone in on.
The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division would use what it learned from the British to implement signaling devices that would aid aircraft to drop zones with its first use in combat on September 13, 1943. The first harrowing test of the elite paratroopers was aiding Fifth Army in keeping the Salerno beachhead securely in allied hands.
Fighting had raged on for days and as the body count was rising, the US and her allies were in serious risk of losing the strategic beachhead if something wasn’t done immediately. A plan was quickly formed and the first strategic combat Pathfinder operation was in play; a night drop by the pathfinders of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment to mark the first drop zone in the shape of a “T” on the embattled beachhead. This single act helped secure the beachhead on all flanks to which the commander of the Fifth Army, General Mark Clark said of the 504th, they were “responsible for saving the Salerno beachhead.”
Several months later, another combat test of the Airborne Pathfinders would come in the early hours prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, a day which will go down in the annals of history as the day that started Nazi Germany’s demise. Members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, were the first Soldiers to be dropped into Normandy, their first “Rendezvous With Destiny” and among them, were thirteen brave men known as the “Filthy Thirteen.”
The “Filthy Thirteen” were the First Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company. Their job was to demolish enemy targets behind the front lines knowing full well that they may not live to tell about it. It was during Operation Market Garden where the Demolition Platoon was assigned to defend three bridges over the Dommel River in the Netherlands, but defending these bridges would come at a heavy cost. German bombing killed or wounded over half of the platoon and after a series of events, survivors of the Filthy Thirteen, joined up with the Pathfinders with their platoon sergeant, Jake McNiece. If McNiece’s name sounds familiar, it should; he and his men were the inspiration for the movie, “The Dirty Dozen.”
Close to 300 Airborne Pathfinders helped turned the tide of the war and defeat Nazi Germany and its axis allies in the pre dawn hours of D Day, June 6, 1944. Since their combat-tested acumen of World War II, these new Airborne Pathfinders proved so successful, that every airborne division was required to form an airborne pathfinder unit for future airborne operations and thus, the United States Airborne Pathfinder became an official staple of the famed US airborne divisions of the United States Army.
It was the bravery of the 300 Airborne Pathfinders who landed behind enemy lines during the Normandy invasion who lit the way for an allied victory over Nazi Germany, thus ending World War II in the European theater. Out of those 300, many did not come home; lest we forget the bravery, honor, selfless service, duty, and loyalty these men had and may history never forget our own 300 on this 72-year anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Theresa Giarratano is a retired US Army NCO studying Middle Eastern affairs with special emphasis on global terrorism. Her current status is assisting the Kurdish people by disseminating information regarding the fight against ISIS via social media platforms.