The U.S. Army Pathfinders. The vanguard of the Allied forces in World War II Europe. Countless times they preceded invasions and battles vital to bringing the enemy to its knees.
Because before the front lines could move forward, the Pathfinders had to move behind enemy lines . . .
The first into combat, and the last out, their advance jumps into enemy territory were considered suicide missions by those who sent them into action. World War Two’s special operations commandos, they relied on their stealth, expert prowess, and matchless courage and audacity to set the stage for airborne drops and glider landings throughout Europe.
They were born of hard necessity. After the invasion of Sicily almost ended in disaster, General Jim Gavin was determined to form an all-new unit of specialized soldiers who would jump ahead of the airborne forces—including the now legendary Easy Company—without any additional support, stealing across enemy terrain to scout and mark out drop zones with a unique array of homing equipment.
Sporting Mohawk haircuts, war paint, and an attitude of brash confidence, they were the best of the best. Their heroic feats behind the lines were critical to nearly all of the Allies’ major victories from Normandy to snowy Bastogne—where they saved the day for thousands of besieged American troops in an operation almost forgotten by history—to the attack on the Ruhr River in Germany.
This is the story of the U.S. Army Pathfinders—their training, bonding, and battlefield exploits—told from the perspectives of the daring men who jumped and the equally bold transport crews who risked everything to fly them into action.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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 missions—glad 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 Two—and 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 number—fewer 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 damaged—or 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 widespread—and well-deserved—public 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 of—and antidote to—the 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 important—and bloody—clashes 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 missions—there was an anticipated fatality rate of 80 or 90 percent—that 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 teams—and 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 Overlord—the D-Day invasion of Normandy. And it is with D-Day—or the night before, when the Pathfinders left England a short while ahead of the rest of the airborne troops—that 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 5–7, 1944
When you land in Normandy, you will have only one friend: God.
—General 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 favor—a 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 stogies—the Army rationed twelve a week—he 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 go—and 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 gun–toting 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 trailheads—in other words, mark their paths—so 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 soldiering—disciplinary problems, in other words. The incentive for becoming a Pathfinder, then, was often that it presented those men with an alternative to military punishment . . . 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 Airborne—the Screaming Eagles—would 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 plane—tail number 23098—soared into the night sky at 9:54 P.M., 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 pounds—although he weighed twice that in full uniform and gear—Captain 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 swagger . . . and 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 two—or possibly three—with 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 trouble, 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 Rocca—the boys called him “The Rock”—was 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 feet . . . 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.
Seated between Williams and the security detachment, saying little and keeping to themselves, were a Section 2 intelligence liaison, Staff Lieutenant Robert “Buck” Dickson, and his two-man guard, a couple of privates named Clark and Ott. A small, whippet-thin guy who looked like he could have run track, Ott seemed almost diminutive beside the thickset Dickson.
Although Dickson and Lillyman had stood over sand tables together at briefings, and Dickson’s team wore the Pathfinder wing patch, they hadn’t gone through the special training and were somewhat grudgingly accepted by the men who’d done so. Upon making landfall, Dickson and his team were to break off from Lillyman’s group on classified orders from regimental headquarters. The S-2s weren’t under Lillyman’s direct command, and their objective was separate from that of the Pathfinders. He wouldn’t be responsible for them once they hit the ground.
As he settled in after embarkation, Lillyman had ample time to ponder his own mission. The transport looped around the airfield for almost two hours—some of the paratroopers were told this was done to throw off possible German observers—before it left the English coast behind. Then, at about 11:30 P.M., it finally stopped circling and soared off over the Channel.
Lieutenant Crouch had a reputation for possessing a cool demeanor behind the controls, and tonight it was in complete evidence. His face taut with concentration, eyes sharply alert, he flew in radio silence, dropping beneath one hundred feet to thwart enemy radar—so close to the water that the troopers nearest their open cabin door could feel the sea spray whipped up by the aircraft’s propellers. Had the plane been any lower, it might have clipped the masts of the Allied invasion ships.
Behind him in the troop section, Captain Lillyman glanced out at the naval armada massed below. Destroyers, cruisers, troop carriers, battleships, gunships . . . they seemed to form a floating bridge that stretched on without end. He could practically imagine walking clear across to France on their decks.
One thing was obvious—the water was anything but calm. A strong wind was blowing over the wave tops, tossing ships about in the chop. Depending on variables like gusts and direction, Lillyman knew the wind could cause a slew of problems for the jump. If the men were dispersed over a wider area than expected, it could prevent them from assembling as planned and put them in very dangerous situations.
They didn’t speak much throughout the forty-five-minute flight. Their exchanges were short, clipped, and perfunctory. Smoking was barred once they were over the Channel, and most of them abided by the prohibition; they’d been told something about the exhaust from the engines possibly blowing back into the cabin and combusting because of the smokes. Though the risk seemed tiny compared to the dangers they would soon be facing, they’d by and large kept the cigarettes in their pockets.
Some of the men were surprised to find themselves growing drowsy in spite of their nervousness. They felt oddly dull, as if their emotions had been slowed down, and more than a few quietly wondered if it was due to the airsickness tablets they’d been issued before takeoff. The pills came in little cardboard boxes that Sergeant Ray “Snuffy” Smith, the medic, dispensed to them on orders from his regimental superior. While a fair number of the troopers just tossed the pills away, others swallowed them. The contents of the pills, and their distribution to the troopers by the Army, would later draw a number of questions.
Overall the mood aboard the flight was tense. With their bulky gear making it hard to move, the men sat very still in their seats, squeezed together on either side of the troop compartment, butterflies fluttering in their stomachs. The 101st Pathfinders liked to think of themselves as supermen, the toughest of the tough. But as they faced one another across the aisle, their gazes would occasionally meet, and their hardened facades crack a little, each man recognizing his own nervous fear in his comrade’s eyes.
The staff sergeant from Headquarters who’d delivered their mission briefing back in England, Hugh Nibley, had asked repeatedly whether they had any questions, and they had raised their hands one after another, slowly, almost tentatively, everyone wanting to know the same thing from him: did they have any chance of survival?
The soft-spoken, articulate Nibley, a former missionary, historical scholar, and intelligence specialist, had given his replies in careful, measured tones. He felt a profound compassion for the men and refused to mislead them with double-talk and false optimism. He praised their courage and unique training, emphasized their preparedness for the mission, and mentioned the support they would have once the invasion force arrived. But the words that left his mouth hadn’t contained any more reassurance than the sorrowful look in his eyes as they moved from one young face to another. When the men had asked him their questions, he had seen the bravado drop away from their faces like the paper Mardi Gras masks people held up on sticks.
If nothing else, the Pathfinders had appreciated the sergeant’s honesty. They had confidence in their ability to accomplish their mission, but accepted that they didn’t have a prayer of coming home alive. Although official post-combat reports would describe them joining in battle songs on the transports, their few halfhearted attempts at singing had quickly petered off into silence, and the noise of the engines had been far too loud for them to hear one another’s voice anyway.
In his seat near the rear of the compartment, Dickson felt anxious and out of place. Only three weeks before he’d been coaching the regimental football team, a far cry from his current assignment. But with D-Day’s approach he’d been given his high-priority objective and rushed through jump training. Now the tall, broad-shouldered former varsity athlete noticed flashing green lights in the English Channel and wondered aloud about their purpose.
“It’s a rescue ship,” said one of the Pathfinders in a tone that was almost too flat. “Just in case.”
Years afterward, Dickson would find out they weren’t rescue ships at all, but a pair of Royal Navy patrol guide boats leading Crouch’s planes across the Channel with their navigational lights. It would leave him to wonder if the trooper had been pulling his leg or just mistaken. But his deadpan response and the water spraying in the door would always stand out in Dickson’s memory of the crossing.
Later, as the C-47 passed over the Channel Islands and made its hard left turn for France, he noted a big German searchlight sweeping the sky, probing for the arrival of the Allied planes.
It was not a comforting sight.
The Cotentin Peninsula on the French seaside jutted into the Channel at the western end of the Allies’ amphibious landing area, codenamed Utah Beach. The 101st Airborne had been tasked with capturing four roads between Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and Pouppeville, blowing their smaller bridges and seizing two of the major ones. The 82nd Airborne was to secure the Douve River and crossings at La Fière and Chef du Pont on opposite sides of the Merderet River, establishing a defensive line west of the Merderet. A glider infantry unit of the British 6th Airborne was to take Pegasus Bridge, a drawbridge spanning the Caen Canal.
Together these groups were to block off German reinforcements heading down to the beachhead from the north, simultaneously opening passages for Allied armor and infantry to roll into the French mainland. If they failed to secure these junctures, the American 4th Infantry Division coming ashore at Utah would likely get trapped there on the dunes or bogged down in the flooded Cotentin wetlands—a disaster in either case.
Frank Lillyman’s 101st Pathfinder team had departed England shortly before the 82nd Airborne’s teams, which were led by Captain Neal McRoberts of the 505th PIR. Along with the American units, two sticks from the British 6th Airborne—it was at their Pathfinder school at RAF North Witham in Lincolnshire that the Americans had trained under Lieutenant Crouch’s command—were being sent to mark off the glider landing zones near Pegasus Bridge.
It was up to Lillyman and his men to mark Drop Zone A at the northern edge of the main attack—within six miles of Pouppeville. Meanwhile, two other teams would land nearby at DZs C, D, and E. In his approach to the Cotentin, Lieutenant Crouch had taken an aerial corridor that would run between the German-occupied Guernsey and Alderney Islands, then cross the peninsula’s west coast before delivering the Pathfinders to their destinations. But as he neared the shoreline, the veteran pilot saw a thick bank of clouds and fog ahead of him. Blotting out the moonlight, it appeared to reach to an altitude of about three thousand feet.
That immediately threatened to derail Crouch’s plan. The transports had been instructed to maintain visual contact until they were over the peninsula, where they would veer off toward their separate drop and landing zones. But once they entered the clouds, it would be impossible to stay in formation or see all the landmarks needed for accurate orientation. Moreover, he could not expect the troopers to jump blindly into the overcast. Their safety was paramount to him.
He thought hard about what action to take, drawing on long years of experience. Like other United Airlines pilots of his era, he’d learned to fly—and navigate—from the great old transcontinental airmail pilots who’d blazed the trail for commercial aviation. The stringent standards he’d set for himself and his IX Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder pilots far exceeded Air Corps requirements—as did his training techniques. Back in England, he’d deliberately confused navigators by recalibrating their instruments so they would have to rely on their eyes and intuition, and had once offered a cash reward and furlough to the crew that could drop a dummy parachutist closest to its target area.
With the cloud stack looming in front of him now, Crouch made a decision to fly in under its bottom layer. Although going in low would make him an easier target for antiaircraft guns, he saw no other acceptable course. Not if he was to give the paratroopers their best shot.
His hands steady on the controls, Crouch shed altitude, dropping well below five hundred feet. The strict radio silence edict had not allowed him to notify the rest of the troop carriers of his intentions, and he only hoped they would see his formation lights clearly enough to follow his lead. Once beneath the mass of clouds, Crouch made a sharp ninety-degree turn inland, throttled back to his 120mph jump speed, and flashed the red standby light beside the cabin door.
Four minutes from the DZ, he held the plane slow and steady.
Beside him, his copilot, Captain Vito Pedone, gazed down at the moonlit terrain below in silence. How did I get here? he thought, thankful they hadn’t yet come under fire from German antiaircraft batteries.
Pedone, a twenty-one-year-old native New Yorker, had flown twenty-five previous missions with the Air Corps. But this felt almost surreal. When you’d just gone over the English Channel and made the left turn that would take you into Nazi-occupied France, and you were, moreover, helping to fly the lead plane of the invasion, you knew you were part of something different, and understood how much hinged on your success. But you didn’t know—couldn’t possibly know—what was going to happen.
Still, he told himself, there was no time to be scared. If you were afraid, you might as well get right out of the stinking airplane and go back to base. You had to take control of your senses, think about the people in your plane, and do what was expected of you.
Back in the cabin, meanwhile, Frank Lillyman had been hunkered down on one knee, peering out the jump door and comparing what he saw to aerial photos of the drop zone that he’d memorized before the mission. Like the pilots, he’d been familiarized with important landmarks.
Then he saw the red light blink on and rose to his feet, ordering his men do the same. Although heavily encumbered with gear, they weren’t wearing their bulky reserve chutes. It was standard procedure for them to climb aboard the plane with the packed reserves across their midsections, but Williams had asked for permission to remove his, and Lillyman had remained flexible and given it to him. He would place his trust in the private’s ability and experience, and his own common sense, over blind adherence to the rule book. If a trooper’s main chute failed to deploy at their low jump altitude, he’d be smacking into the ground before the backup could inflate.
After Williams got the go-ahead to shuck his reserve, most of his comrades followed suit—none more happily than Sergeant Smith. Besides his first-aid supplies and plasma bag, the twenty-year-old Kentuckian, who’d enlisted at sixteen without graduating high school, was carrying a fifty-five-pound Eureka radio transmitter. Ridding himself of the spare parachute meant one less heavy item of gear.
Now the troopers rose and went through their preparations, their discarded reserves pushed back under their seats. At Lillyman’s command to “Snap up!” they clipped their static lines—the cords that would connect their chutes to the aircraft—to an anchor cable running the length of the cabin. Their hurried equipment checks followed at once, each man inspecting the chute of the man in front of him and yelling out his okay.
Lillyman’s final order of business before the jump was to go down the line and make sure the men’s static lines were securely attached to the cable. Then he returned to the door to wait.
In the cockpit, Crouch and Pedone felt encouraged by the continued absence of antiaircraft fire, taking it as an indication that they’d surprised the enemy. But they’d missed some landmarks because of the thick ground fog, and it was already midnight before Pedone realized that they were over the village of Saint-Germain-de-Varreville—a mile and a half from their scheduled DZ.
Crouch could not risk getting any farther away from it.
At 12:12 A.M. by his stopwatch, he flipped the switch for the green ready light.
In the troop cabin, Lillyman and his men shuffled toward the exit.
The second team of Pathfinders had been headed for Drop Zone C outside Hiesville, several miles southeast of Team A’s goal. Their pilot, Captain Clyde Taylor, had trailed closely behind Crouch’s C-47, his eyes on its pale blue wing lights and the faint glow of the flame suppressors on its engine exhausts. But Taylor and his copilot, Lieutenant Hal Sperber, would not enjoy the element of surprise that gave the lead aircraft a reprieve from ground fire.
Shortly after they overflew the Guernsey and Alderney Islands—near the spot where Buck Dickson had noticed enemy searchlights—they lost sight of Crouch’s flight group and headed directly into the cloud bank. Peering out the windscreen, they searched for the planes ahead of them, but visibility was so poor they couldn’t even see their blue formation lights. It was as if Crouch’s V had disappeared, swallowed up by clouds and darkness.
Taylor knew his crew was on its own. Without any other recourse, he trimmed altitude, banked toward his team’s DZ, and flashed the ready light.
The paratroopers had no sooner stood up than the sky around the transport lit with red, blue, and green tracers, the pyrotechnics streaking across the night like ribbons of multicolored fire. Almost spellbound, the men stared out at this brilliant display with a mixture of fear and awe. It was as if all the Fourth of Julys in their collective memories had been rolled into one—but these weren’t harmless fireworks meant to thrill parents and kids at the town celebration. Their sole purpose was to help the enemy pinpoint the American aircraft’s location.
Sergeant Charles Malley was standing in the door when the warning bell clanged through the troop compartment. His wide-eyed attention abruptly shifted from the tracers to the wing of the plane. A loud explosion had shaken the airship; its left engine had been hit and was burning fiercely, trailing flames and smoke.
Taylor and Sperber knew they wouldn’t be able to stay in the air long, and that their only hope was to make it back to the Channel for a water landing. Acting at once, Taylor feathered the propeller, moving it parallel to the airflow to increase the plane’s gliding distance. Then he banked hard to the right to start his turn. Beside him, Sperber peered out his window and abruptly realized that turn was about to take them straight into another flight in their serial—Plane 5, piloted by Lieutenant Dwight Kroesch. His fingers tightly gripping the yoke, Sperber pushed it forward to bring down the aircraft’s nose. It dipped below the other plane in the nick of time, barely avoiding a collision that would have turned both of them into aerial fireballs.