In an action that has been long overdue, Congress has approved the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the famed Merrill’s Marauders of World War II. The House passed the resolution last week after the Senate had approved it last fall. It is expected that President Donald Trump will sign it shortly.
Only one Congressional Gold Medal is awarded each year to a person or institution. It is deemed, “the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions” according to the award’s official website.
Merrill’s Marauders were named after General Frank Merrill. The 3,000-strong unit was officially the 5307th Composite Unit. It was trained to work behind Japanese lines during the Burma campaign of World War II.
Unfortunately, combat, disease, and time have taken their toll. Today there are only eight surviving members of the famed unit. When the push for awarding the medal began in 2016, there were still 28 Marauders still alive.
“I feel like I’m floating on air,” Robert Passanisi, a 96-year-old veteran of the unit, who is also the spokesman for the surviving members and a historian, said when hearing the news.
“It has been a long journey, and we’ve had to struggle through three congressional sessions to obtain this great honor,” Passanisi said. “My one regret is that only eight of us are alive to enjoy this historic honor.”
Some individual members of the unit, including Japanese-American interpreters as well as OSS troops who fought with the Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, had already been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
The House passed the bill one day after the 77th anniversary of 2,000 volunteers boarding the SS Lurline on Sept. 21, 1943, in San Francisco to ship out to New Caledonia. There, another 1,000 veterans from the South Pacific front joined them.
After the U.S. troops had been driven out of Burma by the Japanese in 1943, the Americans decided that they needed a “Long Range Penetration” mission behind Japanese lines. The plan was to disrupt and destroy the enemy’s supply lines and communications, to attack him from behind, and to try to regain the Burma Road.
General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell grimly summarized the campaign: “I claim we got a hell-of-a-beating. We got run out of Burma, and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake [Burma].”
The call went out for volunteers for “A Dangerous and Hazardous Mission.” Over 3,000 men answered that call, some from far-flung bases in Panama and Trinidad; others were veterans from New Guinea, Guadalcanal, and elsewhere. Thus the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) was born.
The unit got its nickname from Time correspondent James R. Shepley. Reporters sent to cover the fighting in Burma were looking for a hook to capture the imagination of the American public back home. Nicknaming the unit served that purpose.
Frank Merrill didn’t look like a man whose job it was to lead a Special Operations Task Force behind enemy lines. Although he was a powerfully built man, he was plagued with a bad heart and poor eyesight. He had graying hair and smoked his pipe non-stop. He had little experience commanding troops but was a brilliant and unshakable leader.
During training and operations, Merrill drove himself even harder than his men; because of that, they loved, respected, and believed in him. The Chinese troops, part of General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell’s command, loved him nearly as much as General Chenault, the commander of the “Flying Tigers.”
Merrill was born in the small town of Hopkinton, Mass. (the starting point for the Boston Marathon.) He tried unsuccessfully to get into West Point before joining the Army as a private. Working his way up to Staff Sergeant, he was finally accepted to the U.S. Military Academy on his sixth application. He graduated and was commissioned as a cavalry officer.
Merrill spent time in Japan as an assistant military attaché and learned Japanese while stationed there. Just prior to Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the Chinese-Burma Theater and was with Stillwell on his long march out of Burma.
He trained his unit hard, working them for three months with Orde Wingate’s Chindits, the British unit that had already carved a name for themselves in the theater.
The Marauders were divided into three battalions and formed into six combat teams (400 per team), color-coded Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange, and Khaki. There were two teams to a battalion. The rest of the men formed the H.Q. and Air Transport Commands.
Originally the Marauders and Chindits were to serve together under Wingate’s command but Stillwell, a noted Anglophobe, would have none of it. He wanted the 5307th for his own plans. His noted feelings and bitterness toward the British would later prove costly.
During the next four months, Merrill’s Marauders would take part in five major and 30 minor engagements with the Japanese veteran 18th Division which had taken both Singapore and Malaya.
In their first action against the Japanese 18th Division, they moved to set up blocking positions at Walawbum 10 miles behind the Japanese lines. General Tanaka, who commanded the Japanese forces, fearing that Stillwell was trying to encircle his forces, promptly attacked the Marauders.
The Americans beat back several bayonet attacks and caused significant casualties. The Japanese had 650 dead and as many wounded. The Americans had just seven killed and 36 wounded.
In the south, Wingate’s Chindits were hitting Tanaka hard cutting the railway lines and forcing him to withdraw northward. After two months of near-constant fighting, the Marauders were reeling; many of them were already sick with malaria. But their biggest mission lay ahead.
Less than a year after its creation, the unit was tasked with conducting a long and dangerous mission over the mountains. They had to trek across nearly 1,100 miles over the mountainous, nearly impenetrable jungle, in the foothills of the Himalayas, with no tanks or heavy artillery, to attack the Japanese. Their goal was to capture the important Japanese airfield at Myitkyina. The Operation would be known as “End Run.”
Capturing the airfield would benefit the supply aircraft since it would no longer have to fly over “the Hump” to ferry supplies to Kunming, China. It would also allow the Allies to construct the Ledo Road through which supplies could also travel to Kumming.
Augmenting the Marauders, who were down to about 50 percent strength due to casualties and tropical diseases, were two Chinese regiments and 300 Kachin tribesmen who were led by the OSS.
Merrill, having just returned to duty after his second heart attack, was beside the men and encouraging them all the way. The trek was so steep, muddy, and treacherous. Merrill’s men would lose half of their pack animals, along with their necessary equipment. And nearly half of the men became sick with amoebic dysentery after drinking water from streams that the Chinese were using the streams as a latrine.
After wiping out a small Japanese garrison at Ripong, 149 of the men came down with typhus. Several of the men died including Colonel Henry Kinnison, one of the team leaders. The Marauders arrived at their target location on the night of May 16.
The next morning they began their assault which was led by Lt. Colonel Charles Hunter. The Marauders and two Chinese regiments snuck past the Japanese undetected and attacked the airfield from the north, south, and west. They took the Japanese completely by surprise.
Not only did they seize the airfield but the Chinese troops also took a ferry landing on the Irrawaddy River. By 1530 hrs on the 17th of May, Merrill had radioed the code words “Merchant of Venice” which meant that the airstrip was already set for taking in C-47 transport aircraft.
Lord Mountbatten sent Stillwell the following message:
“By the boldness of your leadership, backed by the courage and endurance of your American and Chinese troops, you have taken the enemy completely by surprise and achieved a most outstanding success by seizing the Myitkyina airfield.”
The airfield seizure was considered a brilliant military move. Yet the Americans had lost a major opportunity in not capturing the town of Myitkyina. The town was only defended by about 700 Japanese troops but Hunter had been given no orders to take it.
Additionally, a fresh division, the British 36th, could have easily joined the Americans but Stillwell wanted no part of the British in this operation. This was a big mistake. Stillwell then sent anti-aircraft crews and engineers to fix an airstrip that was already totally operational, instead of securing badly needed arms and ammunition. By the time Merrill’s Marauders’ 2nd Battalion attacked the town, the Japanese had been reinforced and now had 3,500 well dug-in troops. The Marauders’ attacks failed.
Diseases, typhus, malaria, and dysentery, kept reducing the Marauders’ numbers until only 200 effective riflemen were left. In response, Stillwell scraped together more engineers and support troops; yet these men were totally green.
The Japanese managed to hold onto the town of Myitkyina until late summer. By then, the Marauders were no longer an effective fighting outfit. They were pulled out of the line finally in June and disbanded by August.
But by the excellent efforts of both the Marauders and the Chindits, the airfield at Myitkyina saved the transports from flying over the dangerous “Hump” into China. And with the Ledo Road complete, the 1,100-mile supply route to Kunming was now open.
Merrill was promoted to Major General and was transferred to the Pacific Theater. He was the Chief of Staff of the 10th Army under General Buckner during the Okinawa campaign. Later he held the same position for the Sixth Army in the Philippines. He was present on the battleship Missouri for the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
After the war, he was briefly the Deputy Chief for the Military Advisory for the Philippines but a third heart attack forced him into retirement. He returned to his native New England and retired in New Hampshire where he was given the job of State Highway Commissioner by the governor. Merrill died of a heart attack in Fernandina Beach, Florida on December 11, 1955. He was only 52 years old. He was buried at West Point next to General Stillwell per his wishes.
On August 10, 1944, the surviving Merrill’s Marauders were consolidated into the 475th Infantry, which continued service in northern Burma until February 1945. In June of 1954, the 475th Infantry was redesignated as the 75th Infantry. Thereby, the men of Merrill’s Marauders became the parents of the 75th Infantry Regiment, from which descended the 75th Ranger Regiment of today. This is why the six colors that represented the Marauders’ combat teams are now worn on the beret flash of the Ranger Regiment.
Merrill was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992. In his honor, Camp Frank D. Merrill in Dahlonega, Georgia, is home to the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and the mountain phase of the U.S. Army Ranger School.
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