11th Pathfinder Company (Provisional)
CPL Ed "Bull" Warren controls a flight of two UH-1s into LZ Mike during Operation Masher, Vietnam,
Today's U.S. Army Pathfinders trace their illustrious history back to 1943. The concept first appeared in the U.S. Forces in the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB) following their initial drop in North Africa in late 1942 when landings were widely dispersed due to aerial navigation problems. Borrowing on ideas and equipment from the British airborne forces, the Battalion's scout company developed some initial terminal guidance procedures. However, it was the airborne phase of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 that drove home the need for a U.S. Pathfinder capability. Landings of American and British airborne forces were widely dispersed due to high winds, navigation errors, friendly antiaircraft fire and a lack of positive control of the inbound troop carrier aircraft. Some paratroopers were dropped more than 60 miles from their assigned drop zones.
The After Action Report pointed to an immediate need for specially trained and equipped parachute elements that could enter an objective ahead of the main airborne force to locate and mark parachute Drop Zones (DZ) and glider Landing Zones (LZ), and provide positive control of the troop carrier aircraft. These elite groups would precede the airborne force with visual and electronic signalling devices to guide aircraft to the designated DZs. The first U.S. Pathfinder teams were organized in the 82d Airborne Division at Comiso Airfield in Sicily by Captain John Norton*, and trained with assistance from the British airborne units.
Shortly thereafter, these teams performed flawlessly in the highly successful night airborne reinforcement of the Salerno beachhead on the mainland of Italy on 13-14 September 1943**. LT William B. Jones of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was the first Pathfinder to jump in a combat operation. The 505th PIRs Pathfinders led the way for that unit's successful drop the second night. The 509th PIB also attempted to employ their Pathfinders during a night drop on the 15 September near Avellino, but high winds interfered with navigation of the Pathfinder aircraft and terrain limited beacon effectiveness and the drop was again widely scattered.
After further expansion and training in England with the British 6th Airborne Division, Pathfinders led the Normandy invasion (Operation OVERLORD) during the early hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944. Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Frank Lillyman, leader of the 101st Airborne Division Pathfinders, was among the first Americans to land in France at 0015 hours on 6 June.
* Later Commanding General, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam, 1966-1967
** The 13th of September is National Pathfinder Day
Pathfinders also were employed during Operation DRAGOON, the invasion of southern France, but results were not good due to fog ans darkness which created navigation problems for the Pathfinder aircraft. Some Pathfinders landed 18 miles from their assigned DZs. Pathfinders later led the large airborne operations in Holland (Operation MARKET GARDEN); provided navigational checkpoints on the west side of the Rhine River for the jump across the Rhine (Operation VARSITY); and controlled the airborne resupply of American Forces at various locations including units surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
In the Pacific Theater, the 11th Airborne Division also employed Pathfinders in two successful operations on Luzon in the Philippine Islands in early 1945. One Pathfinder team moved stealthily through enemy lines on foot and the other landed by boat to locate and mark DZs for the assaulting parachute forces. The 11th Airborne Division was sent to Japan in 1945 for occupation duty at the end of the war, but it was not until 1947 that the Pathfinders of the 11th Airborne Division were "formally" activated.
During the Korean War the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team was organized out of the 11th Airborne Division in Japan and deployed to combat. The 187th did not employ their Pathfinders ahead of main forces at Sunchon and Munsan-ni in order to maintain operational security, but they were employed to successfully control follow-on parachute operations.
By 1958 the only Pathfinder units remaining in the Active Army were at the Infantry and Aviation Schools at Fort Benning, GA and Fort Rucker, AL and in the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.
The Vietnam War would see the widest use of Army Pathfinders. The Army's 1963-1965 test of the Air Mobility Concept by the 11th Air Assault Division (11th AAD) again proved the need for Pathfinders, but this time to support the conduct of airmobile operations using large numbers of Army helicopters and fixed wing transports. The 11th Pathfinder Company (Provisional) was organized in 1964 in the 11th AAD and deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in 1965. Early combat operations of the 1st Air Cavalry showed a clear need for a Pathfinder capability in combat aviation units. Nearly every combat aviation battalion subsequently had a Pathfinder unit and employed them routinely, but very few employed them as widely, as successfully, and for as long as did the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The 11th Pathfinder Company (Provisional) was the first and largest Pathfinder unit to serve in Vietnam, and a 1st Air Cavalry Pathfinder team was among the last Army units to leave Vietnam in 1972.
After the Vietnam War, Pathfinders were in the major airborne units and various combat aviation battalions and groups, notably the 11th Aviation Group, by then stationed in Germany. There also was an increase in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve Pathfinder detachments and platoons during the 1970s and 1980s. These units were used in many ways, but not always correctly.
In the late 1980s through 1990 the Army started disbanding its Pathfinder units. The rationale was that Pathfinder duties could be performed by members of a unit who were graduates of the Pathfinder or Air Assault Schools. However, operations during the Panama invasion and the Gulf War again showed that Pathfinders were an important factor in successful airmobile operations. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) retained its Pathfinder unit during and after the Vietnam War, and in 2005 expanded its existing company and added a second company, giving each of its two combat aviation brigades a company. The 82d Airborne Division also organized a Pathfinder company in its aviation brigade. Additionally, the 10th Infantry Division (Mountain) and the 25th Infantry Division (Light) formed Pathfinder companies that conducted combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today's Pathfinder units continue to build upon the outstanding legacy of their predecessor units. They proudly wear the Pathfinder Torch and still live by the official Pathfinder motto: Semper Primus (Always First).