After the U.S. troops had been driven out of Burma by the Japanese in 1943 during World War II, 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 while attacking the enemy behind their forces while also trying to regain the Burma Road.
The call went out for volunteers for “A Dangerous and Hazardous Mission”. Over 3000 men answered that call, some from far-flung bases in Panama and Trinidad, but some veterans from New Guinea and Guadalcanal and elsewhere. Thus the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) was born. But they became popularly known as Merrill’s Marauders.
Less than a year later, the unit would conduct a long and dangerous mission over the mountains to take the important Japanese airfield at Myitkyina. This would benefit the supply aircraft that no longer had to fly over “the Hump” to ferry supplies to Kunming, China and allowed the Allies to construct the Ledo Road where supplies could also travel to Kumming.
Merrill Chosen as the Commander:
Frank Merrill didn’t look like a man whose job it was to lead a special operations force behind enemy lines, although he was a powerfully built man, he was plagued with a bad heart and bad eyesight. He had graying hair and smoked his pipe non-stop. He had little experience commanding troops but was a brilliant and unshakable leader.
Because he drove himself even harder than his men, 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, commander of the “Flying Tigers.”
Merrill was born in the small town of Hopkinton, Mass. which is the starting point for the Boston Marathon. He tried unsuccessfully to get into West Point and then joined the Army as a private. Working his way up to Staff Sergeant, he was finally accepted to the U.S. Military Academy on his 6th application. He graduated and was commissioned as a cavalry officer.
Merrill spent time in Japan as an assistant military attache and learned Japanese while stationed there. He was assigned to the Chinese-Burma Theater just prior to Pearl Harbor and was with Stillwell on his long march out of Burma.
Merrill drilled his unit hard, working them for three months with Orde Wingate’s Chindits, the British unit that had already carved a name for them.
The 5307th was divided into three battalions and formed into six combat teams (400 per team),color-coded Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange and Khaki, two teams to a Battalion, the remainder 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 cost him and the mission dearly.
1000 Miles Of Trekking Across Burma:
The Marauders would soon be tested. Merrill’s men would trek across 1000 miles over the mountainous, nearly impenetrable jungle with no tanks or heavy artillery in the foothills of the Himalayas to attack the Japanese.
During the next four months, the 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, commanding the Japanese forces, fearing that Stillwell was trying to encircle his forces, promptly attacked the Marauders.
The Americans beat back several bayonet attacks producing horrific casualties. The Japanese lost 650 dead and as many wounded. The Americans lost just 7 killed and 36 wounded.
In the south, Wingate’s Chindits were hitting Tanaka hard cutting the railway lines and forcing Tanaka 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…
The debate was arising over whether to try to take Myitkyina and the airfield there nearby. But Stillwell got orders from George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff to capture the airfield. The Operation was known as “End Run.”
Augmenting the Marauders, who were at about 50 percent strength due to casualties and disease were two Chinese regiments and 300 Kachin tribesmen who were led by the OSS. To get there, the men would be marching over an 8,000-foot mountain range and cover 112 miles just to get there.
Merrill, having just returned to duty after his second heart attack, was beside the men and encouraging them all the way. The going was so steep, muddy and treacherous, Merrill’s men would lose half of their pack animals, along with their necessary equipment.
Then nearly half of the men became sick with amoebic dysentery from drinking water from the streams after they learned, too late, 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 on the night of May 16.
The next morning, the assault 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 the force 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 the airstrip was already set for taking in C-47 transport aircraft.
Lord Mountbatten sent Stillwell a 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 but the Americans lost a major opportunity. The town of Myitkyina had only about 700 Japanese troops. But Hunter was given no orders to take it. A fresh division, the British 36th could have easily been augmented to the Americans but Stillwell wanted no part of the British in this operation. It was a huge failure.
Rather than fill the first planes with arms and ammunition. Stillwell sent instead anti-aircraft crews and engineers to fix an airstrip that was already totally operational. By the time the Marauders’ 2nd Battalion attacked the town, the Japanese had been reinforced and now had 3500 troops, well dug-in. The attacks failed.
Disease now took out more Marauders than the Japanese did. Typhus, malaria, and dysentery reduced the force to about 200 effective riflemen. Stillwell scraped together more engineers and support troops who were totally green. The Japanese would hold on to the town of Myitkyina until late summer. By then, the Marauders were no longer an 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 1100-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 New England and retired in New Hampshire where he was given the job of State Highway Commissioner by the governor. Merrill died of a fourth 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 Marauders were consolidated into the 475th Infantry, which continued service in northern Burma until February 1945. On June of 1954, the 475th Infantry was re-designated as the 75th Infantry; here the men of Merrill’s Marauders became the parent of the 75th Infantry Regiment, from which descended the 75th Ranger Regiment of today.
Photos: US Archives