First to Jump: How the Band of Brothers Was Aided by the Brave Paratroopers of Pathfinders Company.
by Jerome Preisler, Berkley, 288 pages, $26.95
THE study of airborne operations is often the study of the struggle to bring order out of chaos. In First to Jump, prolific author Jerome Preisler writes about a unit whose creation was rooted in the desire to control the chaos of airborne operations. He examines the role of the elite within the elite: the Airborne Pathfinders of the US Army.
The success of the German Fallschirmjager ("Parachute Hunter") units early in the war--particularly glider operations against the Dutch and a stunning victory over Belgian forces at the seemingly impregnable Fort Eben-Emael in May 1940--sent notice to the United States about the usefulness of airborne troops. As an added incentive to develop airborne potential, the United States lagged behind the Soviet Union, Great Britain, Japan, and France, who were already employing units.
The deployment of troops into enemy territory by parachute or glider allowed for more flexible and creative operations planning, and defending against paratroopers often proved challenging. However, as shown by Operation Mercury--the high-casualty German airborne assault on Crete that began on May 20, 1941, and almost failed--airborne operations were difficult and costly.
The United States began by organizing a small test force of paratroopers in 1940. Two conventional infantry divisions, the 82nd and 101st, were designated as the first airborne divisions in the army while they were stationed at Camp Claiborne near Alexandria, Louisiana. The first combat operation for US airborne troops came in November 1942 during the Operation Torch invasion of North Africa, with elements of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment jumping in to support the landings and the fight that followed. There were also jumps into Tunisia.
The first large-scale jumps came during Operation Husky, the July 1943 invasion of Sicily. One problem all these actions had in common was that troopers landed well away from their assigned drop zones. Sicily proved especially costly because some men ended up in the Mediterranean, while others attracted friendly fire because their aircraft were mistaken for German or Italian planes. It became evident that something more was needed, something that would help make drops more precise, something that would bring more order to the chaos.
This is the point where Preisler begins his book. Preisler puts the start of the Pathfinder program with General James Gavin and Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch of the IX Troop Carrier Command (while members of the 509th maintain that they were the first to organize an advance scout platoon of troops to airdrop into targeted areas to provide guidance for coming troop transport aircraft). Gavin's experience with drop zone problems in Italy and North Africa convinced him of the need for a specialized school for an elite group of paratroopers: the Pathfinders. The Pathfinders would be the first to jump into enemy territory and would be tasked with the very difficult job of finding and marking the drop zones for later parachute assaults. Small, highly trained teams would jump and employ a mix of beacons, lamps, and other markers.
The results in combat were decidedly mixed. Preisler tells the story of the Pathfinders' largest operation of the war, the landings at Normandy on June 6,1944. He also goes beyond the usual range of the limited Pathfinders literature when he discusses the airborne operations during Operation Market Garden, the drops of September 17-25, 1944, in the Nether lands and Germany that did not end well for the British airborne. He also covers the efforts of a very small number of Pathfinders during the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge who guided Allied aircraft during resupply efforts to support the besieged forces of the 101st "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division in Bastogne, Belgium.
Preisler draws from official records, interviews, newspaper accounts, and books in putting together this non-academic history of the Pathfinders that follows paratroopers, pilots, and others through their various operations. The narrative is one of personal experiences, especially from paratroopers who participated in the Normandy drops. Frank Lillyman, Jack McNeice, Maynard Beamesderfer, and the other Pathfinders of World War II proved once and for all the value of airborne troops in combat.
New Orleans, Louisiana