“Do you know what I’m going to do after the war? I’m going to get married and have six kids. Then I’m going to line them up and tell them what Burma was like. And if they don’t cry, I’ll beat the hell out of them.” – Bannister, Merrill’s Aide de camp; played by Lt. Col. Samuel Vaughan Wilson of the real 5307th Composite Unit in the 1962 movie “Merrill’s Marauders”
For most of us in the gaming community, World War 2 is mostly a backdrop for our gaming lives and virtual identities. Movies, books and other media have made this moment in our country’s history perfect for this type of setting. The bad guys were easily identifiable, and the good guys even more so. Movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” alongside novels such as “Flags of Our Fathers” and “The Guns at Last Light” have educated us to a point where the titles of 101st Airborne Division and places such as Iwo Jima have become identifiable if not outright personal.
Gaming community clans have long allied their names and identities with historic unites or call signs from the World War 2 conflict. And though, many of the names come with deserved recognition and earned honor, there are other units that may not be as well known. But their honor is no less polished. Or earned.
This is the story in which today’s 75th Ranger Regiment comes from. This is the tale of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional); code name “Galahad”.
Or as they affectionately became known as: Merrill’s Marauders.
In August 1943 at the “Quebec Conference”, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and other allied leaders decided that an American Long Range Penetration Mission behind the Japanese Lines in Burma was needed to destroy the Japanese supply lines and communications and to play havoc with the enemy forces while an attempt was made to reopen the much needed Burma Road.
President Roosevelt then issued a Presidential call for volunteers for “A Dangerous and Hazardous Mission”. These volunteers comprised of approximately 3,000 American soldiers coming from State side units, and from the jungles of Panama and Trinidad. Men also came from from the campaigns of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and New Georgia A few Pacific veteran volunteers came from stockades where volunteering earned them their freedom. They were sprinkled throughout the unit and called “The Dead End Kids” after the Hollywood film series featuring juvenile delinquents.
The Unit was officially designated as the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)” Code Name: “GALAHAD”, later it became popularly known as “MERRILL’S MARAUDERS” named after its leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.
In early 1944, the Marauders were organized as light infantry assault units, with mule transport for their 60 mm mortars, bazookas, ammunition, communications gear, and supplies. Although the 5307th’s three battalions were equivalent to a regimental-size unit, its lack of organic heavy weapons support meant the force had a combat power less than that of a single regular American infantry battalion. Without heavy weapons support, the unit would have to rely on flexibility and surprise to outfight considerably larger Japanese forces. And they did just that.
In February 1944, in an offensive designed to disrupt Japanese offensive operations, three battalions in six combat teams (coded Red, White, Blue, Khaki, Green, and Orange) marched into Burma. On 24th of February, the force began a 1000-mile march over the Patkai region of the Himalyas and into the Burmese jungle behind Japanese lines. A total of 2,750 Marauders entered Burma.
While in Burma, the Marauders were usually outnumbered by Japanese troops from the 18th division (Conquerors of Singapore and Malaya), 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, in one case cutting off the Japanese rearguard at Maingkwan. Near Walawbum, a town believed by General Stilwell’s NCAC staff to be lightly held, the 3rd Battalion fought magnificently, killing some 400–500 enemy soldiers. The Japanese were continually surprised by the heavy, accurate volume of fire they received when attacking Marauder positions. Its combat-experienced officers had carefully integrated light mortar and machine gun fires, and virtually every man was armed with a self-loading or automatic weapon in which he had been trained. In March they severed Japanese supply lines in the Hukawng Valley.
Informed by the British that the situation in Imphal was under control, General Stilwell wanted to launch a final assault to capture the Japanese airfield at Myitkyina, the only all-weather airfield in Northern Burma. Now down to a little over 2,200 officers and men, the 5307th began a series of battles on the march to Myitkyina. In April, the Marauders were ordered by General Stilwell to take up a blocking position at Nypum Ga and hold it against Japanese attacks, a conventional defensive action for which the unit had not been equipped. At times surrounded, the Marauders coordinated their own battalions in mutual support to break the siege after a series of fierce assaults by Japanese forces. At Nhpum Ga, the Marauders killed 400 Japanese soldiers, while suffering 57 killed in action, 302 wounded, and 379 incapacitated due to illness and exhaustion. A concurrent outbreak of amoebic dysentery (contracted after linking up with Chinese forces) further reduced their effective strength. Although the Marauders had previously avoided losses from this deadly disease (in part by use of halazone tablets and strict field sanitation procedures), their encampment with Chinese infantry, who used the rivers as latrines, proved their undoing (the Chinese troops, who always boiled their drinking water, were not seriously affected).
During the march, every wounded Marauder was evacuated, an extraordinary feat in itself. Each wounded Marauder had to be carried on a makeshift stretcher (usually made from bamboo and field jackets or shirts) by his comrades until an evacuation point was reached. These evacuation points where mostly small jungle village’s, where the Marauders would then have to hack out a landing strip for the small Piper Cub Evac. Planes. The brave sergeant-pilots of the air-rescue unit would then land and take off in these very hazardous conditions, removing every seriously wounded Marauder one at a time. The small planes, stripped of all equipment except a compass, had room for the pilot and one stretcher.
On 17 May 1944, after a grueling 100 kilometers (62 mi) march over the 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) Kumon Mountain range (using mules for carrying supplies) to Myitkyina, approximately 1,300 remaining Marauders, along with elements of the 42nd and 150th Chinese Infantry Regiments of the X Force, attacked the unsuspecting Japanese at the Myitkyina airfield. The airfield assault on 17 May 1944 was a complete success; however, the town of Myitkyina could not immediately be taken with the forces on hand. An initial assault by elements of two Chinese regiments was repulsed with heavy losses. NCAC intelligence staff had once again badly underestimated Japanese troop strength in the town, which had steadily been reinforced and now possessed a garrison of some 4,600 well-armed and fanatical Japanese defenders. Weakened by hunger,the 5307th continued fighting through the height of the monsoon season, worsening the situation; it also transpired that the area around Myitkyina had the largest reported incidence of scrub typhus, which some Marauders contracted after sleeping on infected areas of untreated ground,earth or grass. Racked with bloody dysentery and fevers, sleeping in the mud, Marauders alternately assaulted, then defended in a seesaw series of brutal conventional infantry engagements with Japanese forces.
After reinforcement by an airlanded Chinese army division, the town finally fell to the Allies on 3 August 1944. The Japanese commander escaped with about 600 of his men; 187 Japanese soldiers were captured, and the rest, some 3,800 men, were killed in combat.
In their final mission, the Marauders suffered 272 killed, 955 wounded, and 980 evacuated for illness and disease; some men later died from cerebral malaria, amoebic dysentery, and/or scrub typhus. Somewhat ironically, Marauders evacuated from the front lines were given jungle hammocks with protective sandfly netting and rain covers in which to sleep. This equipment which might have prevented various diseases and illnesses had they been issued earlier in the campaign. These casualties included General Merrill himself, who had suffered two heart attacks before going down with malaria in 1955. He was replaced by his second-in-command, Colonel Charles N. Hunter, who later prepared a scathing report on General Stilwell’s medical evacuation policies (eventually prompting an Army Inspector General investigation and congressional hearings). By the time the town of Myitkyina was taken, only about 200 surviving members of the original Marauders were present. A week after Myitkyina fell, on 10 August 1944, the 5307th was disbanded with a final total of 130 combat-effective officers and men (out of the original 2,997). Of the 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.
At the end of their campaign all remaining Marauders still in action were evacuated to hospitals suffering from tropical diseases, exhaustion, and malnutrition or as the tags on their battered uniforms said “A.O.E.” (accumulation of everything).
In slightly more than five months of combat, the Marauders had advanced 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) through some of the harshest jungle terrain in the world, fought in 5 major engagements (Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpum Ga, and Myitkyina) and engaged in combat with the Japanese Army on thirty-two separate occasions, including two conventional defensive battles with enemy forces for which the force had not been intended nor equipped. Battling Japanese soldiers, hunger, fevers, and disease, they had traversed more jungle terrain on their long-range missions than any other U.S. Army formation during World War II. Also, no other American force except the First Marine Division (which took and held Guadalcanal for four months) had as much uninterrupted jungle fighting
The men of the Merrill’s Marauders enjoyed the rare distinction of having each soldier awarded the Bronze Star. In June 1944, the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional) was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation:
- The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign.
On 10 August 1944 the Marauders were consolidated into the 475th Infantry. On 21 June 1954 the 475th Infantry was re-designated as the 75th Infantry; thus Merrill’s Marauders is of parental lineage to the 75th Infantry Regiment, from which descended the 75th Ranger Regiment.