Appointed to command them was Brigadier General Frank Merrill, who once served as a military attaché’ to Burma, and answered directly to the American boss of the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater, General Joe Stillwell.
He watched as the compliment of 2,880 men, some jungle trained and others seasoned veterans of island campaigns, began tackling the unique courses created for them. ‘Chindit’ designed guerilla style training was meant to prepare them for their destination of Burma, where in addition to Japanese, some of the most inhospitable and rugged terrain on earth awaited them.
Before they departed, though, war’s unpredictable nature struck.
Such a force needed to carry as much equipment as possible, as resupply could be sparse and even nonexistent, at times. For this the mule was the best answer, and they needed at least 360 of them.
A Japanese torpedo into a supply ship ended that request.
360 horses deemed unfit for jungle use were located and sent to the group and would have to do until another shipment of mules could be made.
Food became another tricky issue. There had been a jungle ration which contained an assorted mix providing 4,000 calories, an ideal solution, except that it had been discontinued. Therefore, the men would have to make due on a set that provided 2,830 calories. It was the bane of the American soldier or Marine the world over, the dreaded K-ration. Containing some appetizers considered so horrible that they were often thrown away. Its only respectable feature was it was it was less bulky in a backpack.
Regardless of these hindrances, the unit, code named ‘Galahad’, received something positive before it went to battle. A nickname. And it came not from members, but civilians. On the firing range, soldiers so impressed war correspondents with their skills, including their speed at engaging pop up targets, that they were deemed Merrill’s Marauders, and so the name stuck. Nevermore would they be known by anything else. And as they set off for Burma, their exploits in the coming months would prove it an apt name for history.
In February, 1944, the Allies began an operation to disrupt Japanese offensive movements, and on the 24th, the 3 battalions (2 color coded combat teams each) of Marauders began a trek up the Ledo road through the forbidding terrain of the Patkai region of India-Burma. This course took them 1,000 miles on foot through outlying regions of the Himalayan mountains, through dense jungle and ultimately behind enemy lines in northern Burma.
Once in position they began attacking the Japanese Army’s 18th division, using hit and run strikes against rear areas and supply lines, as well as laying ambushes. The guerilla method and training style they had received paid off in spades because they almost always fought outnumbered and were still able to pour a heavy and accurate fusillade into their surprised foe. Much of this was due to a new technique their officers had developed and pressed home: the integration of the light mortar and machine gun.
They used this advantage again when they moved in concert with the Chinese army near the town of Walawbum. The Marauders encountered a larger force than expected and hit them hard, killing almost 800 before the Japanese withdrew. This enabled the Chinese to enter the town with no opposition.
Incredibly, in comparison, the Marauders suffered 8 killed and 37 wounded. Various sicknesses such as malaria and dengue fever affected a further 109. And this, along with heat, incessant rain and mud would prove just as dedicated to defeating them as the hated Japanese.
Burma’s jungle played no favorites. The simple fact that one’s body was unaccustomed to such a harsh environment caused many to fall ill, not once, but several times. It was so bad at times, death seemed a welcome relief from the misery.
The Marauders slogged on through March with continuous fighting and cutting off supply lines in the Hukawng Valley. This set them up for April, where an order by Stillwell caused unnecessary casualties by using them as a conventional force rather than a penetration group.
He placed them, still some 2,200 strong in a blocking position at Nphum Ga, where they endured withering frontal assaults and encirclement several times. But they fought like lions, each battalion coordinating with the other to end up killing over 400 enemy, even though they lost 57 killed and 302 wounded. Furthermore, an additional 372 had taken ill.
With the Japanese beaten back and disaster averted, the exhausted Marauders linked up with Chinese forces and soon began enduring two other scourges: amoebic dysentery caused by drinking river water used as a latrine by the Chinese, and malnourishment caused by the paltry K-Rations of which by now they ate once a day.
On they went into May, willpower and a sense of duty their sustainment as the 1,300 remaining soldiers began a 65 mile march through mountains with elements of two Chinese regiments. Their final destination was more than two months in the making, and would become their most famous, and sadly, final battle.
Myitkyina was a town of great strategic importance to the Allies because of its rail and water links to the rest of the country. And, unknown to the enemy, it was the planned route through which more of the Ledo road would be built.
It also contained an airfield nearby which needed to be captured. This was the first objective assaulted when operations commenced on May, 17. In usual fashion, the Marauders emerged from the jungle to pummel a surprised enemy. The airfield fell quick, but the town, held by 4,600 Japanese did not. Both sides settled in for a lengthy see-saw action through the summer months. Monsoons battered them from the air while the Japanese did the same on the ground. The Marauders were at their best in this battle despite growing losses, inflicting far heavier casualties than what they received, often beneath a blanket of black clouds, through the rain and mud that was both bed and grave.
To hear one Marauder tell it:
“By now my dysentery was so violent I was draining blood. Every one of the men was sick from one cause or another. My shoulders were worn raw from the pack straps, and I left the pack behind… The boys with me weren’t in much better shape… A scout moving ahead suddenly held his rifle high in the air. That meant Enemy sighted… Then at last we saw them, coming down the railroad four abreast… The gunner crouched low over his Tommy Gun and tightened down. Then the gun spoke. Down flopped a half-dozen Japs, then another half dozen. The [Japanese] column spewed from their marching formation into the bush. We grabbed up the gun and slid back into the jungle. Sometimes staggering, sometimes running, sometimes dragging, I made it back to camp. I was so sick I didn’t care whether the Japs broke through or not; so sick I didn’t worry any more about letting the colonel down. All I wanted was unconsciousness.”
Wanting to break the deadlock, a Chinese division was air landed and joined in the fighting, finally capturing the town on August 3rd and sending the Japanese into retreat.
Frank Merrill was not among them. During the fighting he had suffered a heart attack and malaria, causing his evacuation. Colonel Charles Hunter had taken over, and upon seeing the shape of the unit, wrote a critical report of Stillwell’s evacuation policies.
Because of the stalemate at Myitkyina, the Marauders suffered 272 killed, 955 wounded and 980 evacuated for sickness. Only 200 of the original Marauders were present after the town was taken, falling to 130 on August 10th when the unit was officially disbanded.
In the end, of the 2,750 who began the march into Burma in February, only 2 men had never been hospitalized with wounds or illnesses.
In spite of their ignoble ending, their legend became secure for history. In a little more than 5 months of battle, which involved constant movement they traversed more jungle terrain than any American unit during the war, some 750 miles. They engaged in major fighting on 32 occasions, 5 of which were decisive battles and saw each member of the unit awarded a bronze star for valor.
They had fought not only the Japanese, but everything Mother Nature could throw at them, and emerged victorious as perhaps THE ultimate asymmetric warfare group.
Quite an accomplishment.
Their memory still lives on in today’s U.S. Army as the beret flash of the 75th Ranger regiment, in the colors of each of the Marauder’s six combat teams.