National Pathfinder Day is Wednesday

FT. BENNING, GA. — National Pathfinder Day honors Sept. 13, 1943.

In the ghostly darkness, a small secret unit of paratroopers would jump into Italy on a near suicidal mission to help save the Allied invasion from being pushed back into the sea. These select men would become known as Airborne Pathfinders, whose exploits are mostly shrouded in mystery to this day.

During World War II, paratroopers were making their first combat operations but the drops were so scattered they could not perform as a regular fighting unit. Soldiers were scattered as aircraft got lost; some were dropped up to 60 miles from their intended drop zone. A solution was needed or the U.S. Army would consider disbanding large parachute units. The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was impressed with the British 21st Independent Parachute Company, which had special equipment to guide aircraft to the drop zone. Col. “Jumping Jim” Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division also was impressed and had Capt. John Norton put together an elite band of paratroopers to jump before the main assault, use visual and electronic navigational aids to mark parachute drop zones and glider landing zones. This would allow the planes to “hone in” on the correct area and place the soldiers in a concentrated pattern, which would help them achieve their strategic objectives.

The idea came none too soon, as the Allied Invasion at Salerno, Italy was being pushed back into the sea by the German 10th Army. In an urgent request, Gen. Mark Clark asked for paratroopers to be dropped near his front lines for reinforcement and also a critical crossroads near the mountain town of Avellino, 16 miles behind enemy lines.

Sept. 13 was the first test of the newly formed Pathfinders and all were aware of the danger and importance of the mission. So, without hesitation three plane loads of 505th Pathfinders jumped from 800 feet and quickly set up the drop zone. Within 15 minutes, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped within 200 yards of their target, and the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment jumped the following night.

Not a plane or paratrooper was lost thanks to the Pathfinders, but the 509th Pathfinders were dropped south of the objective and only 12 of 31 planes found the drop zones because of the high mountains. Despite the difficulties the airborne troopers helped stem the German tide, and the invasion bridgehead was saved. They would gain fame for the jumps into Normandy, Southern France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

During the Vietnam War, 25 Pathfinder units would be deployed in the “Helicopter War” conducting 13 combat jumps, numerous combat helicopter assaults, operating landing zones at firebases and conducting special missions. Often it was only one or two Pathfinders for a mission that normally required four- to six-man teams. They risked standing in the open to guide in helicopters, often under heavy fire. Much of their accomplishments went unnoticed because of the small size of Pathfinder units and did not receive recognition.

Pathfinder units have served in the Korean War, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have worked with almost every federal law enforcement and many intelligence agencies, conducted classified missions in various countries and utilized their various capabilities in counter-drug and counter-terror operations. Five Pathfinder units have served in the Afghanistan War. Their official motto, “Semper Primus,” which means “Always First,” attests to their daring and bravery. Their combat motto “First In-Last Out” means they are willing to be first in battle and remain until the last soldier is extracted to safety.

From 1943, a total of 45 Pathfinder units have existed, with 126 Pathfinders making the ultimate sacrifice. Sadly, in 2017, the U.S. Army deactivated all Pathfinder units because of budget cuts. But the National Pathfinder Association, which formed in 2009, keeps alive the history, legacy and stories of these incredible soldiers. The Army still runs a Pathfinder School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the Army National Guard Warrior Training Center and Ft. Campbell, Kentucky as those skills are still needed daily.

It is a very coveted badge that few earn. The Pathfinder School trains all branches of the U.S. Armed Services and foreign units. While there are no U.S. Pathfinder units in the U.S. Army today, the NPA helps keep the torch lit and shining brightly.