The Battle of the Bulge was one of the most infamous battles of WWII. Beginning in mid-December 1944, 30 German divisions assaulted U.S. forces in the Ardennes Forest, creating a bulge in the American line, thus giving the battle its name. As the situation became worse for the American forces, units of the 101st Airborne headed into the forest to defend the town of Bastogne.

The 101st Airborne was surrounded and running out of supplies. The weather was miserable, with freezing cold temperatures, snow, and almost no visibility. This made it virtually impossible to drop supplies to 101st’s cut-off soldiers. As the story goes, a miraculous break in the weather allowed American planes to drop supplies around Bastogne.

Yet, the real story is that a few courageous pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division agreed to a suicide mission: They would jump into Bastogne in order to guide the resupply planes in with beacons.

The Rebellious Paratrooper

This story starts early in December 1944, with Jake McNiece, a paratrooper in the Demolitions Section the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), of the 101st Airborne Division. McNiece had jumped into Normandy on D-Day and later in Holland. He had been a member of the “Filthy 13,” a group of guys that had mohawks, wore war paint, and had very little interest in the discipline and regulations that the U.S. Army had to offer. But, these guys were true fighters, and they had paid a heavy price. The 72 days of fighting in Holland, in the fall of 1944, were especially hard on the group. The Filthy 13 had been reduced to three.

McNiece had the reputation of being a rebel and had already been reduced to Private First Class for taking an extended absence without leave. Well, in December in 1944, he did it again, staying out past his three-day pass in Mourmelon, France. His commanding officers knew something had to be done.

McNiece had just walked into his tent, when his friend, Frank “Shorty” Mihlan, came in and told him that the 506th (PIR) company commander wanted to see him.

Mihlan said, “They want to send you to England.”

“Oh, is England where they are going to hang me?” McNiece replied.

“That’s not exactly it, Jake. It’s almost that though. They would like for you to volunteer for parachute pathfinding service,” Mihlan said.

Captain Gene Brown, the company commander, liked McNiece, but the 101st was in the process of getting rid of “trouble makers.” Brown made him an offer whereby if he accepted to go to Pathfinder School he would be able to keep his rank and leave the 506th with a clean record.

The fact that he would be able to sleep in a bed with clean sheets, eat hot food, and hang out in Chalgrove, England was enough for McNiece to accept the offer. Pathfinder missions were considered suicide missions, but McNiece figured the war may be coming to an end soon and there would be no need for pathfinders.

Word began to spread about McNiece’s transfer to the 9th Troop Carrier Command’s pathfinder group. Soon, other paratroopers, many of who looked up to McNiece, began to volunteer as well. Finally, Schrable Williams, a lieutenant who had been with the unit since its training days in Georgia, approached McNiece asking why half of his demolitions platoon had volunteered for Pathfinder School. McNiece told him why, and lo and behold, Schrable volunteered too.

A group of pathfinders in front of a C-47 in preparation for D-Day. (U.S. Army)

A Goof-off Sort of Group

After arriving at the 9th Troop Carrier Command’s pathfinder group, in Chalgrove, England, McNiece met with Captain Frank Brown, the commanding officer of the pathfinder detachment. Brown handed him First Sergeant patches, saying that he had been recommended.

“Boy, somebody’s been pulling your leg. 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,” McNiece surprisingly said.

Brown replied, “I’m in here for the same reason as you. 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.”

Firsthand account of Lt. Clair Hess during the Battle of the Bulge – 101st Airborne – 1945

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McNiece accepted the promotion, but with a few 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.” McNiece said.

“How many of these guys do you think we’ll get back?” asked Brown.

McNiece responded, “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. 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, 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,” Brown said.

The role of pathfinders was to jump into enemy territory, in order to guide in planes for airborne and glider operations and resupply. The pathfinders used the AN/PPN-1A Eureka beacon. This beacon would sent out a signal to the C-47 cargo planes that were outfitted with APN-2 (SCR-729) Rebecca receivers. Then, the C-47s with the receivers would guide the rest of the planes to the drop zone.

McNiece assigned sticks and began training. On December 22, at around 1:30 p.m., Lieutenant Williams told McNiece to get his stick together and report to the airfield in 30 minutes. McNiece wasn’t happy. He argued that doing a training jump in snow and terrible weather was a bad idea.

Williams told him this was the real deal, not a training mission. “Belgium. The 101st is cut off in Bastogne. They’ll brief you at the plane.”

“You are really serious about this?” asked McNiece.

Williams responded, “I am, and you have not heard the worst of it.”

Pathfinder detachments were not normally in England, it just worked out that McNiece and his men were there for training and available for the mission. The men were short on equipment and had to scrounge up helmets, jackets, and other gear.

The men pulled up to a running C-47. McNiece and Williams walked over to some Army Air Force colonels and asked when they were going to be briefed.

“Right now,” they replied. “That’s Bastogne,” one of them said pointing at a circle on the map. “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 101st had been rushed to Bastogne on December 19, to respond to the German offensive. They were low on supplies and the situation was looking grim. Due to the terrible weather and near-zero visibility, resupply was impossible. The only solution was to drop in pathfinders with Eureka beacons.

This mission was going to be very hairy. The planes and paratroopers were going to face a barrage of flak and small-arms fire. If the pathfinders didn’t land right on target, they would most likely land on top of the Germans.

The mission planning was rushed. The Troop Carrier Command didn’t have good knowledge of the area around Bastogne nor intelligence on the situation on the ground. The initial plan had been laid out on a very basic map that lacked any detail. After the haphazard mission brief, McNiece’s response was simply, “I need a miracle!”

The pathfinders boarded the plane and at 2:52 p.m. they took off. Just three minutes later, Captain Brown returned to his office and learned about the doomed mission. He was appalled by the operation and the complete lack of planning. He quickly radioed the pilot and told him to turn around.

Back on the ground, the pathfinders headed to the operations room to put together a better plan. They had scrounged up some more detailed maps, but McNiece had doubts that the pilots were going to be able to get them dropped on target. To help mitigate this issue, McNiece suggested jumping two pathfinder sticks, from two separate planes. That way, if one stick fell into the German lines, the other stick may have a shot at landing within American-controlled territory.

The plan was that after the first stick jumped out, they would pop orange smoke if they landed within friendly territory and black smoke if they were on top of the Germans.

The pilot of McNiece’s plane was Lieutenant Colonel Joel L. Crouch. He had been involved with Troop Carrier Command pathfinder training since Sicily. He was the right man for the job.


The Pathfinders Finally Take Off

On December, 23, at 6:45 a.m., the C-47s carrying the two pathfinder sticks took off from Chalgrove and set a course for Bastogne. Other C-47s loaded with supplies were preparing to take off as well. They were all counting on the pathfinders’ success.

As the planes approached Bastogne, the co-pilot on McNiece’s plane turned on the red light, signaling the pathfinders to stand up and hook-up to the static line. At the same time, the Germans began opening fire with their anti-aircraft guns. During the barrage an 88mm round impacted right between McNiece and his friend Sergeant Merz, blowing a hole in the plane.

The German flak was not letting up. To avoid being blown to pieces, Crouch pointed the plane down, flying at treetop level. He then pulled the plane back up to jump altitude. The pathfinders pulled themselves up from the floor and hooked up. At about this time, McNiece saw a cemetery, thinking that they had to be over Bastogne. The green light kicked on, and the 10 pathfinders were out of the first plane.

McNiece didn’t like the idea of potentially hitting the ground without the support of the 10 pathfinders in the second plane, so he immediately started popping orange smoke. Seeing the smoke, 1st Lt. Lionel Wood’s stick in the second plane jumped as well. All of the pathfinders landed on the edge of Bastogne. They got to work setting up beacons and marker panels. The drop zone was set up between Senonchamps and Bastogne.

Within 30 minutes of the pathfinders jumping, 40 C-47s were bearing down on Bastogne, loaded with supplies. They had taken off in terrible weather conditions and had to use flying instruments to navigate. The pathfinders waited until they could hear the roar of the engines to turn on the beacons, minimizing the German’s ability to triangulate their position.

A pair of C-47s flies over south France during WWII. (U.S. Air Force)

Forty miles out from Bastogne, the clouds miraculously cleared and the pilots said they could see 100 miles in every direction. As they approached the drop zone, the C-47s came under heavy fire. Nonetheless, at 11:50 a.m., supplies began falling from the sky into Bastogne.

The 506th and 501st PIRs rushed out to the drop zone in jeeps and trucks to retrieve the desperately needed supplies. Over the next four hours, 241 planes dropped 144 tons of supplies.

During the day, McNiece and other pathfinders set up two more drop zones with beacons. One of the zones was set up near the Massen family farmhouse. After nightfall, air operations were completed for the day and it was time for the pathfinders to find a place to spend the night. They went to a three-story chateau. It was occupied by a hodgepodge group from the 28th Infantry Division and other units that had become displaced during the initial retreat from Bastogne.

McNiece asked the major in charge if his men could stay in the basement for the night. The major replied that he had no room for pathfinders.

McNiece wasn’t having it, he told him to call 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!” McNiece said.

After a quick call with the general, the major allowed them to stay in the basement.

Just as the pathfinders were settling in, a bomb hit the chateau, wiping out the top two floors, with the floor above caving in on McNiece and his men. Two men from his unit, Agnew and John Dewey, were outside when the bomb hit. They rushed over to the destroyed building and found a hole in the rubble to help get the rest of their friends out. In all of the excitement, Agnew and Dewey had not realized that an unexploded bomb lay right next to the hole. When McNiece clambered out, he saw the bomb. Yet, there were no other means of escape. The only thing the pathfinders could do was to be as careful as possible to not set it off.

All of the pathfinders made it out unscathed, but the major and his men upstairs didn’t fare so well: most were either killed or wounded.

The pathfinders needed a new place to stay. McNiece recalled the Massen Farmhouse. He figured it would be safe since it was on the perimeter and the Germans would be less inclined to bomb that area. They then headed over there in the early evening.

After getting some sleep, the men got up before sunrise on Christmas Eve morning. They headed out to the drop zones and engaged the beacons, allowing another 322 tons of supplies to be dropped. Their day ended by enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner with the Massen family.

There were no supply drops on Christmas Day due to inclement weather, but operations resumed on December 26. C-47s and gliders once again began bringing in supplies and much needed medical personnel.

From the air, the pilots could see American tanks and soldiers on the offensive, a vastly different view from a few days prior.

One pilot recalled, “Now it appeared that our men were resuming the offensive. This was an entirely different ground situation from that on our first mission [on] Saturday. Then it seemed a situation of impending disaster.”

December 27 was the last day of supply drops into Bastogne. The first drop of the day, involving 138 C-47s went well. The second flight of the day, consisting of 50 C-47s and 50 gliders, didn’t fare as well. General McAuliffe had expressed his concern about the resupply aircraft flying the same route over and over and had suggested they change it up. But, due to limited time, the pilots didn’t feel comfortable with altering the flight path.

Eight miles out from the drop zone, the planes came under a barrage of flak and ground fire. Thirteen C-47s were shot down, along with 17 gliders, many others were badly damaged.

Once the supply drop operations came to an end, the pathfinders rejoined the 506th and fought with them through January, pushing the Nazis back towards Germany.


The Day Is Won

Captain Brown put the pathfinders in for Silver Stars, but since the pathfinder training school was only a temporary duty assignment, Colonel Sink, the commanding officer of the 506th, would have to approve the awards. Sink denied the Silver Stars. His belief was that McNiece and the others didn’t go to Pathfinder School because they were special. In Sink’s opinion, the men were only doing their jobs and therefore recommended them for Bronze Stars. He also stated that he wanted the men reassigned to the 506th PIR.

Brown agreed, yet he wanted to keep McNiece. His rank of First Sergeant and the vast experience he had, made McNiece an integral part of the pathfinder training program. Lt. Williams also stayed on. The two would eventually make another jump, as pathfinders, into Prum, Germany.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower later said that the aerial supply drops and the pathfinders that made it happen were the reason for America’s success at Bastogne. Even if there had been good weather, without the Eureka beacons set up by the pathfinders, the C-47s would’ve had little chance of successfully dropping the supplies on target.


This story was based on an article written by Richard E. Killblane and originally published in the 2003 issue of World War II.