The year was 1943 – a pivotal year in the Second World War — and you’ve been fighting for nearly 1,000 miles, against vicious Japanese forces in the thick jungles of Burma, with no relief in sight.
Many, if not all, your comrades are dead, or sick.
The Japanese aren’t nice to prisoners, either … often torturing them and leaving them behind as barbaric trophies of war, splayed horrifically.
But you were ordered to keep going, no matter what.
Lacking proper bivy nets and wracked by malaria and dysentery, and forced to keep on fighting by General Stilwell, you weren’t bothered by the fact there was a hole cut in your pants, so you could relieve yourself while you fired your machine gun at Japanese forces in hit and run attacks.
Months ago, you were in the stockade, facing military justice for disciplinary problems – and now, after volunteering to help your country, you were faced with death almost every day, and untold suffering. In a place worse than hell.
You … were one of Merrill’s Marauders … perhaps the greatest special forces unit that ever served under an American flag.
So many volunteered … so many died.
Allied leaders decided to form a deep penetration unit that would attack Japanese troops in Burma. The new US force was directly inspired by, and partially modeled on Orde Wingate’s Chindits Long Range Penetration Force.
The call went out from President Roosevelt for volunteers for the dangerous mission and the US Army soon had 3,000 of its toughest men – for a mission so secret, they weren’t told where they were going.
Some of them were in military prisons for disciplinary problems and were promised a pardon if they took part. Others were promised they would go home earlier if they signed on – a promise that wasn’t kept.
Merrill’s familiarity with the region, fluency in Japanese and his rapport with the men in his command made him a natural choice to lead the mission.
Graduating from West Point in 1929, he would gain a degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being sent in 1938 to be military attache at the US embassy in Tokyo, where he learnt Chinese and Japanese.
His unit would hack their way through nearly 1,000 miles (1.600 kilometers) of jungle behind enemy lines in Myanmar, then called Burma, fighting in five major and 30 minor actions against veteran Japanese troops.
They would never get relief … they would only be expendable.
The unit would win a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 44 Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for every man in the regiment. Their shoulder patch was adopted by the 1st Battalion of the 75th Infantry Ranger Regiment.
A war correspondent created the nickname, after Brigadier-General Frank Merrill, because the formal name was a mouthful, according to the 2013 history Merrill’s Marauders: The Untold Story of Unit Galahad and the Toughest Special Forces Mission of World War II.
They may well have been the toughest special forces of all time, suffering horrific casualties – of those 3,000 volunteers, only about 200 surviving members of the original Marauders were left after the battle of Myitkyina, on August 10, 1944.
The casualties included General Merrill himself, who had suffered a second heart attack before going down with malaria.
He was replaced by his second-in-command, Colonel Charles N Hunter, who later prepared a scathing report on General Joseph Stilwell’s medical evacuation policies, eventually prompting an army investigation and congressional hearings.
Stilwell should have been court-martialed – instead, he wiggled off the hook.
On October 19, 1944, after being promoted to “4-star” general on August 1, 1944, he was recalled from his command by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Partly as a result of controversy concerning the casualties suffered by US forces in Burma and partly due to continuing difficulties with the British and Chinese commanders, Stilwell’s return to the United States was not accompanied by the usual ceremony.
Upon arrival, he was met by two army generals at the airport, who told him that he was not to answer any media questions about China whatsoever.
The unit, the 5307th, was disbanded with a final total of 130 combat-effective officers and men. Of the roughly 2,750 to enter Burma, only two were left alive who had never been hospitalized with wounds or major illness. None of the horses and only 41 mules survived.
By all accounts, the men of the 5307th were a thoroughly mixed bag. Some were seasoned jungle fighters. Others were city boys without much service.
Still others, some of them joining when the unit was training in India, were like the Dirty Dozen, leaving the stockade for danger and a pardon.
Racked with bloody dysentery and fevers, sleeping in the mud and never reinforced, the Marauders alternately assaulted, then defended in a seesaw series of brutal infantry engagements with Japanese forces. In a 1945 interview, Captain Fred O Lyons, a Marauder officer, related the nature of the struggle:
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 anymore about letting the colonel down. All I wanted was unconsciousness.
Robert “Bob” Passanisi, 94, of Lindenhurst, New York, said patriotism and family solidarity were his reasons for volunteering. He had two brothers serving in Europe. “I somehow felt that me doing my part would relieve my brothers,” he said at the last reunion, in New Orleans.
With mules and horses to carry 70-pound (32-kilogram) radios and airdropped supplies, they also had muleskinners and others to care for the animals. Lester Hollenbeck, 96, of Deltona, Florida, shod them. “Mules sometimes were ornery,” he said. “We sometimes had to throw ’em down on their side to put shoes on them.”
During the six-month campaign in 1944, malaria, amoebic dysentery and other tropical diseases took down five times as many members as bullets and shrapnel, which wounded 293 and killed 93. When they reached the airfield at Myitkyina, fewer than 500 were in shape to fight.
“We were expendable,” said Merrill’s Marauder Sam V Wilson, who turned 93 at the time of the interview. “A plan existed on paper to get us into Burma, but no plan existed to get us out.”
Yet those extraordinary volunteers achieved their final objective on May 17, 1944, capturing north Burma’s only all-weather Myitkyina airstrip by defeating the much larger elite 18th Japanese Imperial Guards Division in five major battles and 30 minor engagements.
It is said that the Marauders were so wracked with dysentery during the siege of Myitkyina, that they had to cut out the bottoms of their trousers, so they could fire and relieve themselves at the same time.
British prime minister Winston Churchill described Burma as “the most forbidding fighting country imaginable.” General George C Marshall, then army chief of staff, said the Burma mission “was one of the most difficult of the war.”
“The Marauders weren’t ordinary men,” said Wilson. “They were a tough, hard-nosed group of men with a sensitive chip on their shoulders. They had an almost disdain for danger.
“Their secret was learning to take the next step,” he emphasized. “That’s all you have to do, except wipe your hands off from time to time so they won’t be too slippery to hold your gun. Today’s motivated and well-trained infantryman knows how to take that next step, which is a universal truth that has a timeless application to the infantry doughboy.”
At age 98 and living his last days in a hospice facility in northern Michigan, Henry C Smith wanted to set the army’s record straight on what happened 75 years ago in the jungles of Burma, Stars & Stripes reported.
Sergeant Smith – a member of the famed Merrill’s Marauders that waged guerrilla warfare on the occupying Japanese – was leading an intelligence and reconnaissance patrol of roughly a dozen men in April 1944.
They chanced upon an enemy patrol perhaps 20 times their size, and the Marauders fought it out for several days before running out of ammunition.
The five surviving Marauders were captured and “subjected to beatings, humiliation and starvation,” according to the citation accompanying the Silver Star that Smith was awarded by the unit’s namesake, Brigadier-General Merrill.
Smith, however, tricked one of his captors into untying the ropes binding him, and the 21-year-old soldier overpowered and killed him. He then single-handedly killed eight other guards before releasing the other prisoners and escaping into the jungle, the Silver Star citation states.
But it wasn’t eight, Smith told Wes Goldman, a former Army Ranger who befriended the old veteran in the months before his death.
“I don’t think they’re telling the truth about that,” Smith told Goldman. “I think they’re exaggerating. I think I only killed five guys.”