D-Day, Original Rendezvous with Destiny

By Spc. Tracy WeedenJuly 13, 2010

D-Day, 1st Rendezvous with Destiny During the late hours of June 5 into June 6, 1944, members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, were the first Soldiers to be dropped into Normandy, France at the start of the now famous D-Day invasion during World War II. The 506th are the predecessors to the Army\'s elite Pathfinder Company of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. A small group of men from the 506th eventually gained the nickname of the "Filthy Thirteen." These men knowingly volunteered for the most dangerous part of an already dangerous mission. Despite the presence of enemy soldiers in France, these men were more afraid of catching head lice than getting killed during the operation. So just before boarding their planes for the jump into Normandy, they shaved the sides of their heads and adopted the Mohawk haircut. Additionally, the Soldiers applied "war paint" to their faces using the paint straight off of the invasion stripes freshly painted on the sides of the C-47 airplane they were to jump from. An Army Signal Corps photographer happened to be taking photographs of the invasion preparations and caught the Pathfinders with their Mohawks in the midst of their face painting. The subsequent photos became historic images and have since held a place in the heritage of the 101st Airborne Division and the U.S. Army. For the 66th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom X-XI, the Pathfinders of F Company, Task Force Eagle Assault at Forward Operating Base Wolverine, Afghanistan paid special tribute to those original World War II Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division by giving each other Mohawk haircuts and painting their faces much like their forerunners had. As a tribute to those brave Soldiers, the company took a group photograph with their modern aircraft and presented their new Pathfinders with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) combat patch. Finally, they recreated an image where two of the Filthy Thirteen were applying face paint to each other, one of the most historic of those D-Day photos. "We wanted to commemorate all of these guys generally, the role the original Pathfinders played in D-Day specifically and the special heritage they passed down to us," said 2nd Lt. William C. Poling, Pathfinder Company executive officer. "As I was trying to come up with various ideas for a D-Day commemoration, I read a news item about the passing of Jack Agnew, and it suddenly became obvious to me what we should do." The Pathfinders are going to frame the pictures they shot in commemoration of the original Pathfinders and send them to Jack Agnew's surviving wife and daughter. Agnew was one of the original and most famous of the 'Filthy Thirteen' who was caught in the famous photograph taken D-Day which hangs in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) conference room today. "It was a no-brainer," said Poling. "We had to recreate the Mohawk look and get a company photo taken. Our commemoration became all the more poignant with Mr. Agnew's passing." There are currently three Pathfinder companies in the Army today. The other Pathfinder companies were originated from long-range reconnaissance surveillance units and turned into Pathfinder companies. The 101st Combat Aviation Brigade Pathfinder Company is the only one of those companies that can trace its lineage directly back to those Pathfinders of World War II. "Everyone in this company, from the newest private to all the senior leaders, has a connection to this history," said Poling. "It really meant a lot to our Pathfinders to do this for our forefathers. This company is alone in that it has an impressive heritage that is unique to us as a company. It's one that we can actually trace, which makes it all the more powerful." Back during that fateful June day in 1944, the Pathfinders' mission going into Normandy was to deny German forces the ability to move against their main defense position by destroying all the bridges below the Douve Canal in the village of Carentan. They would then seize and secure the main bridge in the town. All of this was critical to the entire D-Day invasion because it constituted the main line of transportation leading into and out of the strategically important Cherbourg Peninsula. Once opened to allied forces, it would provide ease of access to the deeper interior of France and the lands beyond, including Germany itself. The Pathfinders were assigned the mission to secure vital roads and bridges behind enemy lines for the allied forces coming ashore. They knowingly volunteered for this mission in order to be among the first to get at the Germans guarding Hitler's "Fortress Europe." They were also the last to leave their positions once their job was done because they had to hold those vital points until additional landing forces had made it out of their beachheads. The enduring Pathfinder motto was born: "First In! Last Out!" "The 101st had its first rendezvous with destiny D-Day," said Poling. "The Pathfinders played an incredibly important part in that rendezvous." This was such a dangerous parachute operation that they anticipated losing half of their men during the operation. The plane flying the Pathfinders to their destination began to receive anti-aircraft fire and was sprayed all over by small arms fire. As the plane began losing altitude approximately 100 miles from their planned drop zone, the Pathfinders decided to jump. Proving to be a wise decision, as 19 of the 20 Pathfinders on board got out before the plane exploded. The Pathfinders landed about eight miles from the bridge they were ordered to secure, but were spread out over miles due to complications from the jump. Every Soldier was on his own for several hours in enemy territory. "It was a hell of a feeling to be by myself in the middle of a foreign land surrounded by enemy soldiers," wrote one of the original Pathfinders, Jake McNiece, in his book "The Filthy Thirteen." "I was beginning to think they had cancelled the entire invasion and I was the only American down there." The Germans had flooded the fields surrounding the bridges causing a rough landing for the Pathfinders and all the Paratroopers who subsequently followed them in. Many men who landed in the flooded fields with their gear ended up drowning before they could fire a shot. The surviving Pathfinders managed to get themselves together and move to their objective. They guarded the bridge surrounded by enemy forces for five days with no food or water. "Thinking back on these men and what they did specifically in World War II, plus the Pathfinders' continued heroism in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, I want to do what I can to keep the reputation of the Pathfinder Company alive," said Staff Sgt. Mario J. Espinoza, F Co., TF Eagle Assault squad leader. Historically, the World War II Pathfinders never managed to gain much rank. They were a rambunctious and wild bunch, always getting in various forms of trouble usually involving drinking and fighting, said Poling. Though the 506th was a rowdy group, they were brave and courageous men volunteering to be the first ones in the fight. They no longer wanted to fight their own men, but wanted to fight the Germans, explained Poling, and the fastest way to fight Germans was to get in first. Last year some of the current Screaming Eagle Pathfinders took a trip to Holland to meet up with a group of the original Pathfinders who actually experienced D-Day. "They think what we do today is hard," said Sgt. Shawn Burns, Pathfinder Co. radio transmitter operator. "But compared to what they did, we have it easy." They enjoyed telling their war stories to the current generation of 101st Pathfinders. "Each one told stories from their own perspective," said Burns. "The story I remember the most was about one of them dropping into the moat of the oldest castle in Holland, climbing out and then going back in to retrieve his gear. On the 66th anniversary of D-Day, it felt natural for the Pathfinders of TF Eagle Assault to pay tribute to the original Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division by doing something outrageous and meaningful. Although they are retired now and many, like Mr. Agnew, are passing away, the original Pathfinders are still in the fight through the memories and traditions passed down to their unit descendants. With commemorations like these and the constant honoring of their legacy, the Pathfinders of today assure the spirit of "First In! Last Out!" lives on in the 101st Airborne Division. Information for this article was gathered from the book The Filthy Thirteen by Richard Killblane and Jake McNiece