The employment of Visual Tracking skills is nothing new and has been a critical skill in human survival and evolution. Primitive man developed the skill of tracking by associating a print laid by an animal to that of prey. As humans evolved, visual tracking played a significant role in everyday survival, whether hunting for food, protecting the tribe, or attempting to locate and attack another competing tribe.
As Europeans began to travel and colonize North America, they found themselves in an environment they were unfamiliar with. Many European settlements died out. The only colonists who survived, allied themselves with, and employed friendly Native American Indians to help them hunt for food and survive their new environment.
As time passed, the colonists became more self-reliant with their ability to read sign, either for the purpose of hunting game or determining whether unfriendly Indian raiding parties were operating around their settlements. When attacked by enemy tribes, the settlers along with their native allies used combat tracking techniques to hunt down and wage combat upon their enemy.
In the 1600’s and 1700’s the frontiersmen and their Native American allies were later recognized by the British for their excellent scouting and combat tracking abilities. The British, whose soldiers were not accustomed to the frontier guerrilla style warfare, formed independent companies of Colonial Rangers. The Rangers were exceptional frontiersmen who developed a new way of fighting that blended the Indian and European combat techniques and tactics.
Combat tracking was used as a method of trailing and gathering information on the enemy until finally locating and attacking them. Units such as Churches Rangers tracked enemy Indian bands through forests and swamps to conduct attacks on their camps. Major Robert Rogers developed military tactics that were so bold and effective that his Rangers became the chief scouting unit for the British Army and fought during the French and Indian War. Major Rogers even mentioned tracking in his original “Rules of Ranging:”
“If you march over marshes or soft ground, change your position, and march abreast of each other to prevent the enemy from tracking you…”
“If the enemy pursues your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks, and there form an ambush to receive them….”
Throughout the War of 1812 and the Civil War, frontiersmen and Native Americans fought on both sides as auxiliary scout trackers. In the 1800’s, during the westward expansion of the United States, trackers were often recruited to perform scout duties for the military and were instrumental in hunting down renegade Indians as well as other outlaws.
Hostile Indian raiding parties would attack when conditions would benefit them, with little or no risk to their raiding party. The attackers would hit their objective rapidly and quickly leave with whatever they had taken. If they were being pursued by the Army, the attackers would split up in different directions and link-up later once they felt they had lost their pursuers. To combat this threat, the Army again recruited frontiersman as well as Native Americans from many different tribes in the west to perform scouting duties.
When employed, the scouts would typically move ahead of the Army column looking for signs of the enemy. Other scout elements would move along the soldiers’ flanks to provide security. The concept was for the scouts to track the enemy, and once the enemy was fixed, the scouts would signal the soldiers, who would move forward or flank around the scouts’ position to conduct the attack. However, the trackers invariably would track right up to the enemy, initiate the attack and eliminate the enemy before the soldiers could make their way forward.
The U.S. Scouts was first authorized on 28 July 1866 by an act of Congress to recruit Native Americans to perform the task of scouts for the Army.
The infamous Apache Scouts had relentless combat tracking abilities and created the conditions for Geronimo’s surrender. The Apache Scouts served as the U.S. Army’s “eyes and ears” during the Apache wars from the 1870s to 1890s, the Navajo Wars, Spanish-American War, the Border War with Mexico, as well as saw stateside duty throughout World War II until officially disbanded in 1947.
Read Next: Short history of combat tracking
In 1890 the U.S. Amy authorized the Scouts to wear the branch of service insignia of crossed arrows. In 1942 the insignia was then reauthorized to be worn by the 1st Special Service Force during WWII. In 1987 the crossed arrows branch insignia was passed onto the U.S. Army Special Forces of today.
The Apache Scouts were not the only Native Americans recruited; the U.S. Army also enlisted Navajos for six month durations as U.S. Army Indian Scouts between 1873 and 1895. Between 1870 thru 1914, Black Seminole Scouts of pure African or mixed black and Seminole ancestry were also recruited. Between thirty to fifty scouts were recruited and were believed to be the best combat trackers and fighters during that particular time. During the conduct of one pursuit operation, 39 Black Seminole Scouts tracked Mescalero Apache raiders for 34 days over 1,260 miles. During their service four Black Seminole Scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor. When the Texas Indian Wars ended, the scouts remained on active duty until disbanded in 1914.
Non-native American civilians were also employed by the Army as scouts. Al Sieber, Tom Horn, Luther Sage “Yellow Stone” Kelly, “Lonesome” Charlie Reynolds, Moses Embree “California Joe” Milner and “Buffalo” Bill Cody were just a few. One very influential tracker who emerged from the United States south-west and later became the inspiration for Lord Baden-Powell’s scouting movement was Frederick Russell Burnham. Burnham was an American who began his career in the American Southwest as a scout and tracker for the U.S. Army during the Apache and Cheyenne Wars. Burnham later went to Southern Africa where he fought in both Matabele Wars. Later, Burnham was appointed by Field Marshal Lord Roberts as his Chief of Scouts for the British Army during the second Boer War (1898-1902).
During the war, Burnham, as a result of his outstanding tracking and scouting skills, was recognized by his superiors and promoted to Major. Later, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry. The African tribesmen, to include his enemies, respected his tracking abilities so much that they named him “He-who-sees-in-the-dark.” Frederick Russell Burnham’s exploits as the “King of Scouts” have influenced trackers all over the world, and that influence still resonates today.
During the early Twentieth Century, with the advent of new technology, warfare changed to Trench Warfare and the mechanization of armies. It wasn’t until the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that Visual Trackers would be employed once again.
In 1966, with the war in Vietnam escalating, General Westmoreland, Commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), was impressed by the British Army’s employment of combat trackers fighting Communist insurgents in Malaysia. That year, he sent LTC Starry along with a small team of U.S. Soldiers to the British Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia. LTC Starry was assigned the task of researching and assessing the British Army’s employment of Combat Tracker Teams (CTT’s).
The team of U.S. soldiers were trained by British and New Zealand instructors and later returned to MACV with a very positive report on the employment of Combat Tracker Teams and the value of Combat Tracking tactics employed to compliment larger military operations. Westmoreland approved the CTT concept and 140 U.S. soldiers were recruited to attend the British Jungle Warfare School’s 65 day combat tracker course.
When the U.S. Army soldiers completed their combat tracker training they returned to Vietnam. The Trackers were organized into four Combat Tracker Teams per division, and broken down further into two elements per brigade. The mission of the newly organized Combat Tracker Teams was to re-establish contact with an elusive enemy, collect information on any recent enemy activity within a specific area of operations and to relocate lost or missing friendly personnel.
The CTT was usually supported by an Infantry Platoon and patrolled well ahead of them to maintain noise discipline and the element of surprise.
Overall about 240 trackers were trained at the British Army’s Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia. Eventually, the United States Army established its own Combat Tracker School at Fort Gordon, Georgia, but by the end of 1970 the school was closed. Ironically, in 1973, the U.S Army published Field Manual 7-42, “Combat Tracker and Tracker Dog Training and Employment,” but no longer employed that operational capability. Therefore, at the end of the Vietnam War, Combat Tracking again began to disappear from military employment.
The employment of Combat Trackers to pursue, locate and interdict its nations enemies, has been used by many Militaries and Law Enforcement Agencies in other countries around the world with a great deal of success. The British Army has maintained a tracking capability based on their combat experiences during WWII, Malaysia, Kenya, Cyprus, and Borneo. Today combat tracking continues to be taught through their Jungle Warfare Wing now based in Brunei. The Malaysians also continue to maintain a Combat Tracking School since the British moved their Jungle Warfare School to Brunei.
During the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, when Africa was ablaze with civil war, communist insurgencies and wars of liberation against colonial rule, combat tracking became a useful tactic employed to locate as well as gather information on an elusive enemy. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Rhodesian Army Tracker Combat Unit (TCU) was developed by Captain Allan Savory who was a combat tracking pioneer serving in the Rhodesian Territorial Forces. He learned to track while working in the Northern Rhodesian Game Department catching poachers. He later developed a very aggressive combat tracker and bushcraft program that not only produced a higher caliber soldier through the introduction of tracking and bushcraft, but was later instrumental in the formation of the Tracker Combat Unit.
TCU’s mission was to gather intelligence and track insurgents crossing into Rhodesia from neighboring countries. Later, TCU would be disbanded andabsorbed into the newly formed Selous Scouts.The Rhodesian SAS and Grey Scouts also had a remarkable tracking capability that had been employed against insurgents and the Rhodesian Army maintained a basic tracking school at Kariba as well.
Captain Savory’s techniques and tactics had saved trackers lives as well as influenced higher success rates during pursuit operations. While in command of his combat trackers, he never lost a tracker to an ambush. His techniques had been such a success during that time period that it is still being copied by others who teach tracking here in the United States without crediting Capt Savory.
During the 1980’s, while South Africa and Southwest Africa (Namibia) were fighting an insurgency themselves, they also developed a very robust tracking capability that they employed against insurgents infiltrating across the Angolan border. One unit with exceptional success was the South African Police’s (SAP) Koevoet (Afrikaans for “Crowbar”). Koevoet was a paramilitary organization who possessed police investigator skills and tracking capabilities, along with the employment of mounted tactics using Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) type vehicles and air support.
While tracking had always been a military tactic used by other South African Army units, Koevoet was the only organization to use tracking not only as a tactic but as a strategy that was constantly employed along the border of Namibia and Angola. During its ten years of operational existence, Koevoet fought in over 1,615 contacts and killed or captured 3,225 insurgents, while suffering only 160 killed of their own policemen.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has employed Israeli Arab Bedouin as trackers since 1948. The entire Tracker Unit is made up of volunteers who patrol Israel’s borders, and are the lead element who conducts pursuit operations that interdict terrorists and smugglers every day. Also the Bedouin Tracker Unit has lost more soldiers in combat proportionally, than any other IDF unit. Israeli Bedouins are not the only trackers employed. Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are also now being employed as trackers for the IDF.
In 2006, the U.S. Marines conducted a study to find ways to improve the survivability of Marines deployed in OEF and OIF. The Marines were looking at ways to be more proactive than reactive against insurgents. In an attempt to prevent Marines from being hunted by their enemy, the Marine Corps developed the Combat Hunter program. The Marine program was designed specifically to make Marines more situationally-aware and does employ some visual tracking to a limited degree. However the U.S. Military as a whole still does not have a real combat tracking capability as it once did and still depends heavily on scent dogs and technology to find and interdict their enemy.
Most of the world’s militaries have incorporated some type of formal tracking capability into their military professional development curriculum. Some have more of a capability than others. However, the lessons learned from others, regardless of where they originated from, are important in that they may change the way tactics are employed and save lives of the service members who participate in their nations’ wars.
About John Hurth
John Hurth is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier who served with 1st Special Forces Group at Ft. Lewis, WA where he participated in multiple deployments overseas to include two combat tours in support of the Global War On Terror. Prior to joining Special Forces John served as an Infantry Soldier in multiple Airborne, Light and Mechanized Infantry assignments within the continental U.S. and overseas.
After retiring John put to use his years of tracking knowledge and experience working as the program lead and head instructor for the U.S. Army’s Combat Tracker Course at Ft. Huachuca, AZ. He managed and oversaw the conduct and resourcing of the Army’s Combat Tracker Course and instructed many U.S. and Foreign military students in Combat Tracker Techniques. Today John continues teach Combat, Tactical and Visual Tracking through his company TÝR Group LLC.
John is the author of the recently released Combat Tracking Guide published by Stackpole Books and can be found on Amazon.com. Signed copies are also available on his website.
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