I’ve been churning out the World War II posts lately primarily because I work with WWII military records in my day job. I think a lot about this generation and despite the immense collection of popular culture and mass media that’s been built up around the WWII conflict, there is still much that goes overlooked. Much of WWII gets homogenized as specific people, unit, events, and places receive more attention than others. The public boils down the Pacific Theater to Pearl Harbor, the Marines, General Douglas MacArthur, Iwo Jima, and the atomic bomb. I cringe at oversimplifications because you can’t deduce the peoples, nations, European colonialism, and the sheer vastness of millions of square miles into a handful of traits. Millions of service members, Allied and Axis, and civilians of numerous cultures and ethnicities died fighting in the largest theater of the war. That itself deserves more scholastic review rather than letting cable TV deliver the narrative for us.
Southeast Asia, 1940; European colonial possessions like French Indochina, Burma, India, Singapore, and many of the island chains in the South Pacific were woefully unprepared for the military machine of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Japanese was at war with China for over three years and were moving across Asia with startling speed. By 1943, many European colonial possessions in Southeast Asia were overrun by the Japanese; the most significant being the fall of Singapore and surrender of the Philippines. Allied commands were exploring options for subverting Japanese forces on the fringes of their empire. In the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater where the enemy was widespread, the jungles presented an opportunity for deep penetration and sabotage. Enter the long-range penetration and reconnaissance patrols. Senior British Army Officer Brigadier Orde Wingate was tasked with creating a specialized command that would exploit Japanese weaknesses behind enemy lines. Utilizing local Indian and Burmese troops, the outfit became known as the ‘Chindits’ a corruption of the Burmese word chinthe, meaning ‘lion’. Between February and April 1943, the Chindits attacked various Japanese outposts, crippled Japanese railroads, communications, and supply lines. They sustained disastrously high casualties though with over a third of their columns being killed or wounded and the remaining two-thirds crippled by tropical diseases. Although they didn’t achieve major military victories, the Chindits provided an immense moral boost to the Allies. The operational and command structure provided the framework for another long range penetration and reconnaissance patrol later in 1943.
The U.S. War Department called volunteers from various commands, including the Caribbean Defense Command and battle tested veterans from the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands campaigns for a special mission. Experienced soldiers and officers were required for jungle warfare, including those with animal handling experience. Such a group would undergo intensive guerilla tactics training in order to survive and outmaneuver the Japanese in a harsh environment. Some incarcerated servicemen volunteered in exchange for their release as many saw the new outfit as some sort of suicide mission. The U.S. was creating its own form of the Chindits; long range reconnaissance, deep penetration, and guerrilla warfare would be its modus operandi. This unique unit received its official name, the 5307th Composite Unit and was dispatched to Deogarh, a small village in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for training exercises.
Training the 5307th was not like the usual boot camp stateside. Volunteers needed to work well with horses, mules, and other pack animals. They would be covering terrain wholly inaccessible by jeeps, trucks, and tanks so they would march everywhere with their animal counterparts. Courses on jungle warfare, camouflage, and booby trap detection were covered while the unit was stationed in India. The men endured a grueling three months of training at Deogarh. They were even learning how to conduct resupply by airdrops, a novel practice in warfare. The Marauders didn’t carry heavy weapons such as artillery, mortars, or explosives. They didn’t even carry field rations over a certain weight either as they might slow down their mule trains. By early 1944, the 5307th was composed as a light infantry unit utilizing flexible approaches and outmaneuvering larger Japanese forces. Before the 5307th entered the field though, there was a disagreement over command. Chindit leader Orde Wingate was presumed to be the unit commander given his experience. However, U.S. General Joseph Stillwell decided that the unit should have an American commander instead. He convinced Admiral Lord Mountbatten in the South East Asia Command of his reasoning, which was approved and Stillwell appointed Brigadier General Frank Merrill as commander. In early 1944, the 5307th gained the nickname ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ and were ready for action.
On February 24, 1944, the Marauders, (2,750 strong) crossed the Patkai mountain range and entered the Burmese jungles. Constantly outnumbered by the Japanese, the 5307th managed to outmaneuver, outrun, and out fight the enemy on many occasions. Additional support came from the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) when Kachin scouts provided valuable human intelligence on enemy movements. Elements of the IJA 18th Infantry Division were scattered throughout Burma and the Marauders engaged them on almost thirty separation occasions. Despite being numerically inferior to the Japanese, the Marauders were always able to inflict more casualties than they sustained. They were further bolstered by elements of ‘X Force’ (no, not Deadpool’s X Force), but the National Revolutionary Army of China that retreated to India after the Japanese invasion. The expedition was not without setbacks though. Disease was a greater threat than enemy bullets. Hundreds were incapacitated by dysentery, yellow fever, typhus, and malaria on a weekly basis. Some were so weak that they elected to be left behind rather than be a detriment to the unit. At any point, only 30% of the unit was fit enough for combat. The Marauders used every opportunity with the locals to trade their skimpy rations for fresh food. Many were still chronically underfed and suffered from malnutrition. They bathed in rivers to obtain some relief from the jungle’s fearsome dangers. Fungal diseases were common as everything was wet, warm, and rotting. Aerial resupply was dangerous as Japanese anti-aircraft weapons posed immediate danger and the monsoon season made airdrops even more unlikely.
In April 1944, General Merrill reported to his superiors that the Marauders were inflicting substantial damage on Japanese supply and communication lines. They had suffered high casualties in past few months as well; 1,400 were killed, wounded, missing, or sick. They continued to press on. Now the time came for them to achieve the most dangerous objective yet: capturing Myitkyina and its airfield. The Japanese was using the airfield as a major staging point for air and land patrols in the CBI Theater. General Stillwell wanted that airfield in Allied hands. He failed to inform Admiral Lord Mountbatten about these plans, but still pressed the Marauders and their Chinese counterparts to take Myitkyina.
The battle began on May 17, 1944 when the 1,300 Marauders and elements of the Chinese X Force hit the Myitkyina airfield. The Japanese were caught completely off-guard and the airfield was captured in a matter of hours. Despite this initial success however, the town itself was a much more difficult objective. It was the height of monsoon season and an outbreak of typhus incapacitated many of the Marauders. It took nearly three months of brutal, close quarters fighting, but Myitkyina was finally captured on August 3, 1944. Captain Fred Lyons later recounted the hellish experience fighting the Japanese and dealing with a multitude of diseases:
“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…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 [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 [Charles Hunter] down. All I wanted was unconsciousness.”Captain Fred Lyons, Merrill’s Marauders in Burma interview with Paul Wilder, 1945
The capture of Myitkyina meant that the Marauders were finally heading home. A secure foothold in the CBI meant the Allies could now launch large scale operations against the Japanese. It was not achieved without the blood, sweat, and lives of nearly every member of the unit. General Merrill himself had two heart attacks and was stricken with malaria before being replaced by his executive officer, Colonel Charles Hunter. The colonel harshly criticized the medical evacuations and treatment of the survivors and pulled every available resource to have them hospitalized in Australia and India. Of the 2,997 who entered Burma five months prior, only 130 officers and enlisted men were combat effective. Only two men did not suffer any illness or were wounded by enemy fire. The survivors were reorganized into the 475th Infantry Regiment on August 10, 1944. Years later, they would become a new unit; the 75th Ranger Regiment.
The war record for the 5307th was astounding to many who had a hard time imagining brutal jungle warfare. The unit marched over 750 miles across some of the harshest terrain in the world. They fought five major engagements at Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpum Ga, and Myitkyina. While they were trained in guerrilla tactics, they fought two major conventional battles for which they did not have the proper equipment or weaponry. Their greatest strength arguably rested with their esprit-de-corps and ability to improvise. Without modern military equipment such as tanks, jeeps, and airplanes, the Marauders used their knowledge of the land, people, terrain, and natural elements to their advantage. In June 1944, the 5307th received the Distinguished Unit Citation (now labeled the Presidential Unit Citation) and still holds a rare distinction among WWII-era Army units whereby every member received the Bronze Star Medal. In December 2020, Congress approved its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal to every Marauder, dead or alive. Their numbers have dwindled even more since the Siege of Myitkyina. It’s reported that only three members are alive today. Historians continue to debate the overall impact of the Marauders in the wider Pacific Theater and whether they had any role in the eventual defeat of the Japanese Empire. One thing is for sure though; if you can survive the world’s deadliest jungles, be afflicted with tropical diseases, carry all your weapons and supplies on pack mules, and still defeat one of the most disciplined armies in the world, that makes you a hero to many. The story of Merrill’s Marauders lives on.