General Frank Merrill, commander of the famed "Merrill's Marauders," with two Japanese-American soldiers in northern Burma (May 1, 1944).

About 3,000 patriotic men volunteered for Merrill’s Marauders in the Second World War, heeding the call of US President Roosevelt for a greater cause in a place worse than hell.

Only 200 would survive.

Let that sink in, for a bit, OK? … Only 200 would survive … consider, for a moment, the sacrifice these men made in the jungles of Burma.

Fighting a vicious and genocidal Japanese army, wracked by unrelenting tropical diseases and no relief in sight. Death, your only friend.

America’s greatest Special Forces, bar none.

While only eight of the original Marauders are still with us, House lawmakers this week approved a bill that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the famed unit, Wyatt Olson of Military.com reported.

The Senate passed a version of the bill late last year, and supporters say they expect President Donald Trump will sign the legislation — a recognition that was a long time coming.

The Marauders were named for Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, who led the Army unit as it fought behind Japanese lines in Burma during the war.

The Congressional Gold Medal would recognize the extraordinary service of the nearly 3,000 men of the 5307th Composite Unit, as the Marauders were formally known, the report said.

Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill with members of Merrill’s Marauders, study a map during the Burma campaign. Credit: US Army Corps.

The unit — code name: Galahad — was tasked with capturing the Myitkyina airfield in northern Burma, which they did on May 17, 1944, after an arduous trek over the Himalayan foothills, through jungles and enemy resistance.

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.

“I feel like I’m floating on air,” Robert Passanisi, a 96-year-old Marauder veteran, said in a statement after the bill passed.

“It has been a long journey, and we’ve had to struggle through three congressional sessions to obtain this great honor,” said Passanisi, who emerged as the Marauder’s spokesman and historian as the years have passed.

Members of Merrill’s Marauders, clearly showing the effects of malnutrition, cross a foot bridge with a pack horse. Credit: US Army Corps.

“My one regret is that only eight of us are alive to enjoy this historic honor.”

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.

Passanisi was luckier than most.

Traversing nearly 1,000 miles behind enemy lines, the Marauders marched over some of the most treacherous terrain in the world, combating not only a determined enemy, but fighting off myriad diseases, scorching heat, venomous snakes and bloodsucking leeches.

After five months of hellish combat, 95% of the Marauders were dead, wounded, or deemed no longer medically fit for combat.

Some individual members of the Marauders have in the past received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Second-generation Japanese-American soldiers, known as Nisei — some of whom worked as translators with the Marauders — were presented the medal in 2011.

Members of the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, were given the medal in 2018. OSS members were among the Marauders, the report said.

But as an overall unit, Merrill’s Marauders had been overlooked for what is perhaps the most prestigious award bestowed to civilians.

Jonnie Melillo Clasen, daughter of Vincent Melillo, a Marauder who died in 2015 at age 97, has spearheaded the effort for congressional recognition of the Marauders’ role in the war, which was tantamount to a suicide mission given what they faced.

She has served as an informal liaison to the still-living Marauders and their families after the group of surviving veterans grew too old and too few to maintain an association and plan reunions.

It was her father who first sparked the idea of seeking the Congressional Gold Medal for the 5307th, the report said.

Members of Merrill Marauders take a break during their arduous 1,000 mile journey deep into Burma. Credit: US Army Corps.

After reading a newsletter about Roy Matsumoto, a friend of his who was among the Nisei awarded the gold medal in 2011, Melillo said to his daughter, “Why can’t we get this for the rest of the guys?” Clasen told Stars and Stripes.

“And I thought, well, why not?” she said.

By all reports, Merrill transmitted his enthusiasm to his men.

He overworked himself and his aides, but he was fair to all and concerned with the welfare of both officers and enlisted men, Warfare History Network reported.

Philip Piazza, who later headed the Merrill’s Marauders Association, recalled, “The men actually idolized him. A GI would walk up to him and speak, and he would actually sit down and talk with him.”

Merrill’s struggling soldiers were hungry all the time. They subsisted on lightweight field K-rations, canned meat, cheese, hardtack biscuits, chocolate, date bars, powdered coffee, and chewing gum, but there was never enough. The supply drops, from C-47s, were infrequent.

The Marauders were usually outnumbered by Japanese troops from the 18th division, but always inflicted many more casualties than they suffered.

Led by Kachin scouts, and using mobility and surprise, the Marauders harassed supply and communication lines, shot up patrols and assaulted Japanese rear areas.

Japanese forces were continually surprised by the heavy, accurate volume of fire they received when attacking Marauder positions.

Merrill’s Marauders are photographed as they march through the Burma jungle. Credit: US Army Corps.

Its combat-experienced officers had carefully integrated light mortar and machine gun fire, and virtually every man was armed with a self-loading or automatic weapon.

Winston Churchill, British prime minister at the time, described Burma as “the most forbidding fighting country imaginable.” 

The unit, a shadow of its former self, was mercifully withdrawn and disbanded in August of 1944 — by then the majority of the men were diseased or wounded, and those still on their feet had lost an average of 35 pounds.

It seemed like an inglorious end, but their brief campaign became a legend in US Army annals. No Special Forces unit had suffered as much, or accomplished as much, with so little recognition and fanfare.

Thanks to their efforts, and those of Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate’s fierce Chindits, Allied transport planes were now able to use the Myitkyina airfield to fly to Kunming, China, bypassing the hazardous Hump.

After the war, Merrill served as deputy chief of the US Advisory Military Mission to the Philippines, but a third heart attack in Manila forced him to retire in July 1948.

Meanwhile, he kept in touch with his surviving Marauders. He wrote to them regularly, loaned them money when they needed it, and attended all their Labor Day reunions.

How did the unit get its name?

Several American war correspondents had come to Deogarh, India to hear about the unit and its training; the reporters sat around trying to think of an appealing nickname for the 5307th that would capture the interest of the American public.

Time correspondent James R. Shepley came up with “Merrill’s Marauders” and that name stuck.

(Editor’s update, Oct. 19: President Donald Trump has signed into law a bill authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for the legendary all-volunteer jungle fighters of World War II known as “Merrill’s Marauders.”)

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