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When the red light came on, veteran paratrooper Jake McNiece stood up and checked his parachute harness and equipment. He glanced back in the Douglas C-47 cabin at the other pathfinders in his stick. Most of them had been with McNiece for some time, and they were with him now because he had been convinced that by becoming pathfinders his men would not have to make another combat jump. Most had already made two jumps. Now they were about to make a third, and McNiece knew they were pushing their luck. Maybe so, but they had good reason. They knew their friends in the 101st Airborne Division were trapped in a shrinking perimeter around the Belgian town of Bastogne and were desperate for supplies. It was up to the pathfinders to set up vital signaling equipment to allow the 9th Troop Carrier Command to drop its supplies.
In December 1944 the weather around Bastogne had been consistently foul. Day after day, visibility had been very low — too low to risk dropping supplies into the perimeter surrounded by the besieging Germans. Nearly 60 years later, it is still most commonly believed that a fortuitous break in the heavy cloud cover made a drop possible. In truth, the drop's success had more to do with the skill and bravery of a handful of pathfinders than a break in the clouds.
Prior to the Battle of the Bulge, McNiece and the other pathfinders had been members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment's demolition section. Their antics on and off the battlefield had made them regimental legends. They wore Mohawk haircuts and war paint when they jumped into Normandy in June 1944. They were proud to be called the 'Filthy 13.' Combat during the 101st Airborne Division's grueling 72 days on the line in Holland in the fall of '44 had reduced the 13 to three. When McNiece, always something of a rebel, returned to the 101st's camp at Mourmelon, France, in December after overstaying a three-day pass, his military superiors decided something had to be done. And it was not enough to demote him to private first class as they had done after his first extended absence without leave following the Normandy invasion. As McNiece threw his gear on his bunk, his friend Frank 'Shorty' Mihlan ran into the tent to tell him that the 506th Regimental Headquarters Company commander wanted to see him. 'They want to send you to England,' Mihlan blurted out.'Oh, is England where they are going to hang me?' McNiece quipped to his friend.
'That's not exactly it, Jake,' Mihlan replied. 'It's almost that though. They would like for you to volunteer for parachute pathfinding service.'
McNiece reported to Captain Gene Brown, his company commander, as ordered. The first thing he did after saluting was ask his commander, 'What happened to all those guys who volunteered for this BS up in Holland?'
'When they came back, they un-volunteered,' Brown explained.
Brown admired McNiece, but after disciplinary problems in the regiment in Holland, pressure had mounted to clean house of troublemakers. In fact, the division commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, had just flown back to Washington to report on, among other things, the conduct of some of his men in Holland. When Brown asked McNiece to volunteer for the pathfinders, he promised McNiece that he could retain his rank (if he ever attained any) and leave the 506th with a clean record.
The offer did not impress McNiece, but he told the captain he would think it over. He returned to his quarters to ponder his options. Although pathfinder operations were considered suicide missions, he figured that the war was nearly over and there would be little need for further airborne drops. An added benefit was that the pathfinder school was located at the 9th Troop Carrier Command's base at Chalgrove, England. The idea of sleeping between clean sheets and eating good Army Air Forces food was appealing. He quickly returned to Brown and accepted his offer.
Brown then asked McNiece if he would talk Max Majewski into going with him. McNiece said he had his own reasons for volunteering but would not try to convince anyone else. As it turned out, he did not have to. McNiece had considerable influence in the company. When Majewski asked why he had volunteered, McNiece explained his logic and before long Majewski also signed up.
Soon Jack Agnew heard that McNiece had volunteered, and he did too, no questions asked. 'Hell, he's not going without me,' Agnew said. He was one of the original Filthy 13 and had joined McNiece's section back in the States. The Irish-born Agnew could fly a plane, drive a boat or fix any engine. He was also the company's crack shot.
As word of McNiece's new assignment spread through the company, others quickly volunteered. William Coad and John Dewey, who had been assigned to McNiece's section for the Holland jump, signed up. Finally, Lieutenant Schrable Williams, who had been with the platoon since its training days in Toccoa, Ga., came in to ask why half of his demolition platoon had volunteered for pathfinder training. McNiece explained their reasoning and the lieutenant also joined the group.
The volunteers reported to the 9th Troop Carrier Command's pathfinder group at Chalgrove in December 1944 to begin their training. Shortly after their arrival, McNiece reported to Captain Frank L. Brown, commander of the pathfinder detachment. To McNiece's surprise, the captain offered him first sergeant's stripes.
'Boy, somebody's been pulling your leg,' replied an amazed McNiece. 'What do you mean I've been recommended? I've been in here for nearly three years now and ain't even made pfc yet. I'm not first sergeant material; I'm the biggest goof-off in the Army.'
'I'm in here for the same reason as you,' Brown said. 'I'm a goof-off. I don't care about military discipline, saluting or picking up cigarettes and all that. We've got 400 goof-offs here. They told me that you have been through this thing since Normandy and that you can whip this group into shape and get it right and ready quick.'
'It sounds like we might be dealing right on the table,' McNiece said, and he accepted the captain's offer with some conditions. 'I want good food. I want good, reasonable quarters and I want these people to have an almost permanent pass as long as they will respect it. The first thing they're going to do is take a three-day pass to London.'
'How many of these guys do think we'll get back?' Brown asked.
'You'll get back all of them except the ones that are in jail, and just as quick as the police notify us, we'll go get them,' McNiece answered. 'They are a good bunch of men. They're just field soldiers — combat men, not garrison. They have been behind enemy lines for 72 days. They need to get into town and let some steam off.'
'Well, I'll tell you what I'll do,' Brown said. 'I'll get you a pass book and you can let everybody in here have a three-day pass without destination, but you've got to stay here and get these sticks organized and a training program set up. When they get back then you can go.'
Pathfinders were specially trained to jump into enemy territory to mark landing and drop zones for subsequent waves of supply aircraft, paratroopers and gliders. Each pathfinder stick was equipped with AN/PPN-1A Eureka beacons and other special equipment. After landing, the pathfinders would set up the Eureka beacons, which sent out a signal to C-47s equipped with APN-2(SCR-729) Rebecca receivers. Once the Eureka signal had been picked up, the Rebecca-equipped C-47s would guide other aircraft to the intended drop zone — no matter how small.
McNiece began to assign the men at Chalgrove to the sticks they would train with. For his own stick, McNiece picked men he knew had proven themselves in combat. In addition to the men who had come with him from demolitions, he selected George Blain from 1st Battalion Headquarters, Sergeant John Roseman of Company A, Sergeant Leroy E. Shulenberg of Company B and Sergeant Cleo Merz of Company C.
At 1:30 p.m. on December 22, Lieutenant Williams walked up to McNiece and told him to report with his stick to the airfield in 30 minutes ready to jump. McNiece protested that conducting a training jump in the snow would result in unnecessary injuries. Besides, most of them already had 40 to 50 jumps. To his surprise, Williams informed him that it was a real mission.
'Belgium. The 101st is cut off in Bastogne,' Williams said. 'They'll brief you at the plane.'
'You are really serious about this?' McNiece asked.
'I am, and you have not heard the worst of it,' Lieutenant Williams replied.
The order to assemble the pathfinder stick had come from Lt. Col. James T. Blair, the executive officer of the 9th Troop Carrier Command's pathfinder group. Because they were in Chalgrove only for training, it was pure coincidence that the pathfinders were available for the mission. The men had to borrow helmets, jackets and other field gear to get ready.
At 2 p.m., their truck pulled up to a C-47 with its engines running. Smoke grenades, panel markers and Eureka sets were waiting. While the men loaded the equipment, Williams and McNiece reported to group operations for the pilot-jumpmaster briefing. Several Army Air Forces colonels shook their hands and wished them good luck. McNiece queried: 'What do you mean good luck? Where are we going and what's the deal? When are we going to get briefed?'
'Right now,' was the reply. The officers pulled out a map and pointed to a circle drawn on it. 'That's Bastogne,' said one. 'Your division is cut off in there and completely encircled — at least the last time we heard from them. We have not heard from them in two days.' The division was in a desperate fight for survival, and an aerial resupply drop was its only hope.
The 101st had been rushed to Bastogne from its camp in Mourmelon on December 19 to seize the strategically vital town. In just a few days, the supply situation in the now surrounded Belgian town had become desperate. Most artillery pieces within the perimeter had only 10 rounds left. The commander of the Bastogne defense, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, told his artillery commanders not to fire on attacking Germans 'until you see the whites of their eyes.'
With a solid cloud cover over Bastogne, the only way for the C-47 transports to accurately drop their supply bundles into the hands of the defenders was with the aid of pathfinders. McNiece's men would have to brave enemy small-arms fire and jump with pinpoint accuracy within the perimeter to set up the Eureka beacons that would emit a signal for the transport aircraft to home in on. The waiting C-47s, each carrying approximately 1,200 pounds of supplies, would fly on instruments toward the signal and drop their critical supply bundles.
The colonel finished his sober briefing with a half-hearted 'Good luck.'
'I don't need good luck,' McNiece replied to the colonel, 'I need a miracle!'
At 2:52, nearly an hour after their arrival, McNiece and his men boarded the plane. Planning had been rushed. Troop Carrier Command had only a vague picture of the situation around Bastogne and had planned the entire operation on a large-scale map that lacked the detail necessary for a close reconnaissance of the intended drop zone.
Captain Brown, temporarily away from his office when McNiece and Williams were briefed, returned at 2:55, after the plane had taken off. When he learned about what his men had been asked to do, he was horrified. The pathfinders had not had time to properly plot their course, or even plan for emergency procedures in case things went wrong. With such hasty and slipshod preparations, Brown knew the mission had little chance of success. After checking weather and sunset time, he radioed the pilot to return to base. The pilot acknowledged and returned.
After they landed, the pathfinders went to the operations room to plan another, better-prepared attempt the next day, even though some reports indicated that the 101st had already been overrun. Although they now had more detailed maps, McNiece doubted that their pilot could find the target. As a safeguard he suggested that they fly two pathfinder sticks in separate planes. If the first stick landed within German lines, it would send a black smoke signal. The other plane would circle around and try to locate surviving pathfinders. If the first stick landed in friendly lines, it would throw orange smoke and the second stick would try to jump on the same spot.
McNiece lucked out on the pilot of his plane. Lieutenant Colonel Joel L. Crouch had been involved in Troop Carrier Command's end of the pathfinder training since Sicily. No other pilot was better qualified for the mission.
At 6:45 in the morning on December 23, planes carrying the two pathfinder sticks took off from Chalgrove headed for Belgium. As they did so, other C-47s loaded with supplies were getting ready to take off. As soon as they received a clear signal from the pathfinders, the heavily laden transport planes would head immediately for the besieged town.
As they neared Bastogne, Crouch's co-pilot turned on the red light over the jump door of McNiece's C-47. Just as the men stood to hook up their static lines before jumping, German anti-aircraft fire burst all around the plane. After one particularly loud bang McNiece and Sergeant Merz flinched. A hole in the fuselage showed that an enemy round had passed between the two men, who were only inches apart. The Germans had an 88mm gun emplacement directly in their flight path.
With no other means of defending himself, Crouch nosed his C-47 down to treetop height and scattered the Germans as he flew over them. He then pulled back up to jump altitude and leveled off. The heavily burdened pathfinders picked themselves up off the plane's floor, hooked up and prepared to jump.
As he waited to jump, McNiece saw a large cemetery through a window. The only town in the area big enough for such a cemetery was Bastogne. Time to go. The green light flashed on just after 9:35 a.m., and McNiece and the rest of the stick exited Crouch's plane in record time. Not wanting to be stuck on the ground with only 10 men, as soon as he left the plane McNiece began throwing orange smoke in every direction. Agnew's first act after his chute opened was to loosen his Thompson submachine gun so it would be ready for use as soon as he landed.
Spotting the orange smoke ahead, the 10 pathfinders in 1st Lt. Lionel Wood's plane jumped as well. Both sticks landed in a field on the edge of town. Lieutenants Williams and Gordon Rothwell immediately reported to division headquarters, which ordered the drop zone set up in the fields between Bastogne and Senonchamps. McNiece led his men to a sizable pile of bricks on a bit of high ground to their front. Agnew climbed to the top of the pile and set up his signaling equipment. The rest of the pathfinders laid out marker panels to identify the drop zone.
As the pathfinders worked, 40 C-47s of the 441st Troop Carrier Group loaded with the desperately needed cargo orbited over France waiting for a signal. They had taken off in the worst flying weather possible, operating solely on instruments through clouds that hugged the ground. But this was par for the course. They had flown in weather so bad that, according to one pilot, 'even the birds were walking.' The C-47s flew in 'V' formations by altitude separation right over the treetops. About 40 miles out from their target, the skies cleared. 'You could see for a hundred miles in all directions,' one pilot remembered. To the pilots' surprise, all the aircraft were in sight of each other. They flew over columns of northbound German tanks that scattered when they first heard the roar of the aircraft. Once they recognized the planes as transports, the Germans returned to their guns and fired at them.
Within 30 minutes of the pathfinder landings, the planes were nearly over Bastogne. The pathfinders waited until the last minute to turn on their Eureka set so as not to give their position away to German radio direction-finders. When the sound of the approaching aircraft was loud enough, Agnew switched on his beacon, and the pilots knew exactly where to drop their bundles. This also was the signal for waiting American jeeps and trucks to get ready to rush out into the drop zone to get the supplies. At 11:50 a.m. hundreds of brightly colored parachute canopies filled the skies over Bastogne. The spectacle even startled the Germans, who momentarily stopped firing.
Lieutenant Colonel Carl W. Kohls, the 101st's supply officer, had tasked the 501st and 506th Parachute Infantry regiments with preparing recovery details. As the parachute bundles touched ground, the men raced out to drag in the desperately needed ammunition, food and medical supplies. The heavily loaded jeeps raced back to collection points where they were unloaded and the contents sent on to the most needy units. Meanwhile, other supply-laden C-47s headed for Bastogne through a hail of heavy groundfire — unarmed, unarmored and without fighter escort. In just over four hours, 241 planes dropped 144 tons of supplies to the Bastogne garrison.
To ensure that the aerial lifeline remained open while Agnew and his men worked on the first landing zone, McNiece located two other sites for Eureka beacons. One of the spots he chose was a small hill near the farmhouse of the Massen family.When darkness ended the supply drops for the day, the pathfinder teams began to look for a place to spend the night. Although shelter was at a premium, they soon came upon a three-story chateau occupied by members of Team SNAFU. This was an improvised outfit made up of men from the 28th Infantry Division and other units, who had been caught up in Bastogne during their units' retreat at the start of the battle. The major in charge told McNiece that he had no room for any pathfinders and that they could not stay with his men. McNiece pointed out that his men could sleep down in the basement. He preferred that anyway, since it would be safer from the artillery fire and bombing, and the heater down there would keep them warm. Again the major told them to look someplace else.
Angry, McNiece told the major to telephone General McAuliffe. 'Tell him that Jake McNiece is here with his pathfinders requesting quarters and that you don't have room for him. Me and my men are going to stay here in this house tonight, I guarantee you!'
When the major hung up, he told the pathfinders that they could stay.
They had just settled comfortably in the basement for the night when a bomb hit the chateau, blowing away the top two floors. The bottom floor caved in on the pathfinders, nearly burying them alive. Fortunately, Agnew was outside with John Dewey when the bomb hit and was able to rush to the ruins of the building and find a small opening amid the wreckage. The two men worked quickly to help the others out of the basement. In their haste to rescue their friends, however, they did not notice an unexploded bomb that was just feet away from the opening. McNiece was the first out of the basement and was horrified to see the bomb in front of him. He knew that the slightest movement could set it off. With no other avenue of escape, McNiece warned the others of what lay just outside, jumped over the bomb and raced to safety. The entire unit escaped unharmed, lugging most of their pathfinder equipment with them. The inhospitable officer from Team SNAFU and his men in the floors above were not so lucky, as many of them were killed or wounded in the blast.
Following the pathfinders' lucky escape, McNiece reasoned that the Germans would be unlikely to drop bombs anywhere near their own men, so he decided to move his pathfinders out of the town and onto the perimeter. McNiece remembered the Massen farmhouse from his reconnaissance earlier in the day. At about 9 p.m. he moved his men there.
The next day, Christmas Eve, the pathfinders awoke before sunrise. After breakfast the men went out to the Eureka sets and began sending signals. More than 322 tons of supplies were dropped to the Bastogne garrison that day. The pathfinders returned to the Massen house after sunset, and joined the family for a Christmas Eve dinner of chicken soup.
The supplies dropped on the 23rd and 24th had been a great help but had not met all of the needs of the division. The shortage of medical personnel was particularly acute. The division's entire field hospital had been captured on December 19; by Christmas the few remaining medical personnel within Bastogne were barely able to keep up with the increasing number of casualties.
Weather conditions prevented any resupply missions on Christmas Day, but McAuliffe was able to make an urgent request for additional medical assistance. The Army asked for volunteers who would be transported to Bastogne by glider. Five doctors and four medical technicians stepped forward. Dangerous even in ideal conditions, the glider descent into Bastogne would be a particularly hazardous undertaking. Nevertheless, Dr. Lamar Soutter, the Third Army surgeon who would lead the team, wrote, 'This was something we felt we absolutely had to do.'
On the 26th, the medical volunteers left Metz by truck for Thionville, France, where a glider awaited them. First Lieutenant Charleton W. Corwin Jr. and his co-pilot, Benjamin F. Constantino, would fly the glider. The volunteers loaded medical supplies and boarded at 4 p.m.
They took off and caught up with 10 other gliders containing 2,975 gallons of 80-octane gasoline, which were being towed by the 440th Troop Carrier Group out of Orléans. The planes flew at treetop level. At 5:20, the C-47s rose to 600 hundred feet and cut the gliders loose. They landed without incident. Later that day, the weather cleared enough over England for other planes to take off. Throughout the day, the 434th, 435th, 437th and 438th Troop Carrier groups flew additional resupply sorties.
As the pilots flew these hazardous missions to Bastogne, they were encouraged to see columns of tanks and men from the 4th Armored Division below. One remembered: 'Now it appeared that our men were resuming the offensive. This was an entirely different ground situation from that on our first mission Saturday. Then it seemed a situation of impending disaster.' At 4:40 in the afternoon on December 26, tanks from the 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division, made contact with an outpost from the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, and the siege of Bastogne was finally broken.
The next day was the last for the aerial resupply drops into the city. The first 138 C-47s delivered their cargo with little difficulty. A subsequent flight of 37 C-47s from the 439th and 13 from the 440th Troop Carrier groups towing 50 Waco CG-4A gliders loaded with high explosive ammunition had more difficulty, however.
The gliders were scheduled to fly the same route the resupply missions had flown since McNiece and his pathfinders had first set up their Eurekas. McAuliffe was concerned about this and suggested a change in route. However, the pilots flying the mission decided that there was little time to prepare a new flight pattern and that it would be best to use the original route. The tow planes and gliders ran into heavy flak and groundfire eight miles out from their landing zone and five C-47s were shot down. By the time the 440th Troop Carrier Group towed the remaining gliders over the target area, the Germans had their range. Flak and groundfire brought down eight more tow planes and badly damaged five others. Only four of the C-47s were able to make it back to their home base at Orléans. The gliders fared somewhat better. While 17 of the fragile craft were lost en route, the remaining 33 were able to arrive at the landing zone with their cargo relatively intact.
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower later claimed that the resupply drops had ensured victory at Bastogne. The pathfinder teams and their Eureka beacons were critical to that success. Had it not been for the pathfinders, the fast-moving C-47s, even with good weather, would have been unable to ensure that the badly needed supplies were dropped inside American lines. As it was, 95 percent of the dropped cargo was retrieved by the defenders.
When aerial resupply missions were no longer necessary, McNiece and the other pathfinders rejoined their old regiment and fought with the 506th through January as the ground lost to the Germans at the start of the Battle of the Bulge was retaken. Meanwhile, back in England, Captain Brown recommended the pathfinders who had jumped into Bastogne for the Silver Star. Normally this would have been a straightforward affair. In this instance, however, the pathfinders were only on temporary assignment to the 9th Troop Transport Command, and their parent organization, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, would have to approve all awards. When Brown's recommendations arrived on his desk, Colonel Robert Sink, the 506th's commander, refused the awards. Sink had not sent McNiece and the others to the pathfinder school to be heroes. He said that the men had only performed routine paratrooper duty and instead awarded them Bronze Stars. In a telegram to Brown, he requested that the pathfinders from Regimental Headquarters Company be officially reassigned to the regiment. 'Evidently I can kill them off faster than you can,' Sink said.
Brown told Sink that he could have all of them back but McNiece. As the acting first sergeant of the pathfinder school, he was critical to the training. Lieutenant Williams also stayed, and the two made one more pathfinder jump, into Prum, Germany, to bring in supply drops for the 90th Infantry Division.
Jake McNiece, Schrable Williams, George Blain and Lockland Dillon, another one of the 506th pathfinders, finished the war with four combat jumps each. No one unit had made more than three combat jumps, and most only made two. These four men may hold the unique honor of being the only American paratroopers to survive four combat jumps during World War II.
This article was written by Richard E. Killblane and originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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