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  • James Houser

August 3, 1944 - Merrill's Marauders and the American campaign in Burma

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 3, 1944. A combined American, British and Chinese task force finally captures the town of Mytikyina in northern Burma after a grueling jungle campaign of over a year. The victorious “Merrill’s Marauders” have not only beaten the Japanese, but some of the worst terrain any American serviceman has ever faced. Sadly, the bitter battle for the Burma Road remains mostly forgotten – with only one prominent legacy left.

How the heck did a bunch of American boys end up in the Himalayan foothills? Essentially, this all happened because Americans loved China. The Middle Kingdom had been an object of fascination for the United States for a long time, and the Japanese invasion of 1937 sparked a tidal wave of support for the beleaguered Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek. After a series of military defeats, Chiang was forced to retreat to the vastness of the Chinese interior as Japan occupied most of China’s major ports and naval bases. China was cut off from the world by sea.

Chiang was not completely cut off, though. He was still able to gain support by the treacherous overland routes; he was able to get some Soviet aid through modern Xinjiang (home of the hapless Uighurs today). The most critical route, though, ended up being the Burma Road. This track had been cut through the jungles of British-ruled Burma into China’s tropical southwestern province of Yunnan. Over this bumpy, single-lane jungle road, American weapons, supplies and advisors rolled into China after being shipped by sea to distant India. The Burma Road was Chiang Kai-Shek’s only lifeline to his support from America – it wasn’t a very GOOD lifeline, but it was all he had.

The Burma Road worked well as long as Japan was at peace with Britain, which had ruled Burma as a colonial possession for decades. In 1941, however, Japan launched its lightning offensive against the west, beginning with Pearl Harbor and climaxing with its conquests of the Philippines and Malaya. In February 1942, almost as an afterthought, Japanese troops invaded the dense, jungled land of Burma. Their main objective was first to cut the Burma Road and finally cut China off from the outside world, and secondarily to gain a launch pad for their projected invasion of India.

The Japanese invasion of Burma opened what is, to this day, World War II’s forgotten campaign. Right up until the last days of World War II, the Burma Campaign (or, as the Allies knew it, the China-Burma-India theater, or CBI) was at the absolute bottom of the priority list for men and supplies. Many regard the war in Italy, or in the Balkans, or in the South Pacific as the forgotten theaters of World War II, but these campaigns are all superstars compared with the protracted, agonizing, tense and ultimately triumphant Allied effort to retake Burma from the Japanese.

Soon after the war with Japan had begun, the United States had decided to send a senior military figure to coordinate strategy with Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese government in Chungking. Unfortunately for everyone, they sent one of their best generals and one of their worst diplomats, in a role that would be heavy on diplomacy and short on generalship.

Joseph W. Stilwell, known as “Vinegar Joe” for his abrasive personality, was one of the best tacticians in the Army and an expert infantryman who had run the Infantry School for years. He would have been a better fit for a field command in Europe or the Pacific, but he had China expertise after long service in that country in the 1920s and 1930s, so he was the logical choice. It was too bad that his personality was at daggers with Chiang Kai-Shek from the moment they first met, and Stilwell’s mission in China was based for three years on a trickle of supplies and allies who all hated each other. George Marshall once acknowledged that he had given Stilwell the hardest job of any American officer – even Eisenhower.

Stilwell had taken personal command of several Chinese divisions in early 1942 and led them south to try and help the British defend Burma, but even with Chinese help the Allies had been blown out of most of the country by June 1942. As the British retreated to the west to protect India, Stilwell had to lead his army on foot, and the 60-year old general led his Chinese divisions out with his Tommy gun slung over his shoulder over hundreds of miles of terrain. It was one of history’s great retreats; Stilwell did not lose a man by the time he reached friendly Chinese territory.

The Japanese occupation of Burma meant one big thing: the Burma Road was cut. China was isolated from the Western Allies by land the moment the Japanese captured Mandalay in May 1942. While the British never considered Burma a priority at all – they only trickled enough troops into the region to defend India’s eastern provinces from Japanese attack – the United States was desperate to keep China in the war.

Without the Burma Road, America spent great amounts of money and effort to supply China by air. This meant flying transport planes by a treacherous route over the Himalayas to land at Chungking. This route, called “The Hump” by the poor pilots that had to fly it, was at the extremity of the American supply chain, and could only transport whatever fit in the belly of a C-47. Only a trickle of supplies managed to reach the beleaguered Chinese, and even “The Hump” was open to Japanese air attack from units stationed in North Burma. To secure the air route to Japan, the Japanese air bases needed to be silenced – and that meant taking North Burma’s only major city, Myitkyina.

It should be noted that most of Burma was undeveloped in 1944, and North Burma made these regions look like Manhattan. An enormous, trackless swath of jungle as dense as the Amazon and larger than Kansas, it was mountainous and rugged, sitting at the base of the Himalayas and populated almost entirely by indigenous tribes that had little contact with the outside world. It may have been literally the worst terrain a modern army has fought in throughout the 20th Century, with the possible exception of New Guinea or the Chosin Reservoir. Supply was virtually impossible except by air.

For his reconquest of North Burma, Stilwell had only what he could scrape together. It would have to be a truly Allied effort. First, he had the Chindits. These were a set of British commando units led by the brash, controversial Orde Wingate, an adventurer who led airdropped raids into Japanese-occupied territory. Living off the jungle and supplied by air, the Chindits played havoc with Japanese communications and allied with local tribes who hated the Japanese worse than the British.

In addition, Stilwell had his Chinese units. As an expert infantry trainer himself, Stilwell was able to wrangle a handful of Chinese infantry divisions, arm them with American weaponry, and train them to American standards. The famously poor Nationalist Chinese armies were usually poorly motivated and led by corrupt and brutal officers, but under Stilwell’s tutelage brilliant young Chinese generals like Sun Li-Jen, the “Rommel of the East,” were able to emerge.

Since the war had begun, though, Stilwell had been pestering Washington to give him at least one American unit. There were almost no American troops serving in the entire theater, besides Stilwell’s staff and the Air Force units that helped keep “The Hump” going. Finally, reluctantly, the Army sent Stilwell a specially recruited force modelled on the Chindits and trained for deep jungle warfare. The regiment-sized 5307th Composite Unit was a deep penetration combat group of about 3,000 men, an all-volunteer force recruited from jungle-trained men from the United States with a heavy leavening of Pacific War veterans from MacArthur’s armies. The 5307th’s commander was Brigadier General Frank Merrill, and it would come to be known as Merrill’s Marauders – or by its code name, GALAHAD.

The 5307th first arrived in India in October 1943. As a light jungle-fighting unit, it was equipped with additional air and signal units as well as a full mule train. The unit enjoyed extensive physical conditioning, close-quarters combat training, and leadership courses, as well as complex training in air supply and camouflage. Merrill’s Marauders also received a large number of Japanese-American recruits to work as translators, interrogators and intelligence officers. The 5307th was the closest thing to an elite unit that the United States ever put into the field in World War II – even including the Rangers and Airborne.

By February 1944, Stilwell had decided to launch his major attack to reopen communications between India and China, the first and most difficult step of which would be conquering the Japanese forces and hellish terrain of North Burma to capture the airfields and supply dumps at Myitkyina. To accomplish this task, he had Sun Li-Jen’s two tough Chinese divisions, a Chinese-manned M3 light tank battalion and Merrill’s Marauders, who would act in tandem. The Chinese had numerous American engineer battalions and Indian labor units attached to build a new Burma Road as they advanced. They would have to cross a thousand miles of dense jungle and mountain terrain to reach their goal, but they would have help from the Chindits, who would land in the Japanese rear and disrupt their operations.

The trek was dense and tough, but the Japanese were surprised and disturbed by the fighting ability of the Marauders, who tore a bloody path through the rear areas of the Japanese 18th Division. The Marauders had to deal with the rigors of the jungle as well as war with the Japanese; they were virtually cut off from land supply routes most of the time, and had to subsist by limited airdrop as well as bartering with the local natives. The inhabitants of Kachin Province were a heavily Christianized and fiercely independent set of ethnicities who despised the Japanese invaders and were happy to help the newcomers.

Soon the Marauders had a number of Kachin guides to lead them through the sea of green, as these boys from Oklahoma and New York ventured into a land Americans had never entered. Their uniforms were soon in tatters, their faces unshaven, and their diets lean, but they always kept their weapons clean and kept boiling their water to rid it of parasites.

The Japanese 18th Division was the expedition’s main opposition. The Chinese units guarded the engineers and laborers as they scratched the new Burma Road out of the jungle; whenever they ran into opposition, the Marauders were used to outflank the enemy through the jungle. Again and again, the Chinese troops functioned as the red cape, with the Marauders the hidden knife that stabbed the bull when it charged. The Japanese jungle tactics, so overwhelming in the Pacific War, were now being turned against them. Soon the engineers were even incorporating the Japanese supply routes into their construction of the new Burma Road as the wilderness was slowly hammered into a new Chinese supply route.

In April 1944, the Marauders were ordered by Stilwell to slip behind Japanese lines to Nhpum Ga and hold it against frontal Japanese attacks. The Marauders, organized as a light infantry force, were ill-equipped to stand up in an open defensive battle, but they did so. Surrounded on multiple occasions in the village, the expert infantrymen broke up every Japanese attack but suffered terrible casualties as they did so. They lost most of their mules and 359 combat casualties, along with even more men totally worn out from sickness and exhaustion.

Months of sustained combat took a toll on the Marauders. They had been living on a single K ration a day, which led to malnourishment in combat situations. The coming rainy season in Burma decreased their supply drops, and many men began to suffer from skin-eating fungal diseases and dysentery. If this had been any other front of the war, every man of the Marauders would have been sent to the rear to recuperate, but they had no choice but to continue on.

Month after month the combined forces ground forward, until by May 1944 the Marauders finally assaulted and seized the airfield at Myitkyina. By now they were down to only 1,300 men from the initial 2,750, most having been evacuated due to illness or collapse. The Japanese still held the town of Myitkyina, however, and even an assault by General Sun’s Chinese troops failed to dislodge them. The Marauders, in the jungle for three months already, half-starving and sick, would have to win one more fight.

Even as the monsoon came, the increasingly weak and sick Marauders grappled with a Japanese garrison three times their size for this tiny prize in the wilderness. Many of the Marauders contracted scrub typhus, endemic to the area. The Americans were stricken with bloody dysentery, fever, and chills, sleeping in the mud, assaulting and defending tracks of jungle with the Japanese. Men drained blood, abandoned their packs since their shoulders were worn raw. One man was seen fighting with no pants or underwear, since his illnesses were so severe that he simply could not stop defecating. He fired and reloaded his tommy gun as his dysentery-stricken bowels trickled down his leg.

On August 3, 1944, with the help of an airlanded Chinese division, the Allies finally captured Myitkyina. Merrill’s Marauders had won their victory after a thousand miles of marching and five months of combat, but they were shattered. In the campaign, they had lost over 360 killed, 955 wounded, and 980 evacuated for disease, some of these later dying of malaria, dysentery or typhus. General Merrill himself had been evacuated after a malaria-induced heart attack. By the time Myitkyina fell, only 200 Marauders were left standing out of the 2,750 that had entered Burma. Only two men had gone unwounded or without major illness. Ruined as a combat unit, the 5307th Composite Unit was disbanded on August 10, 1944.

The critical reopening of the new Burma Road allowed supplies to flow into China for the first time in three years, supplies that would help keep China in the war. Though the Chinese had done a lot of the lifting, Merrill’s Marauders had been the spearpoint to liberate North Burma from the Japanese. Through five months of combat, in the worst terrain American soldiers have ever experienced, they fought in five major and thirty-two minor battles against hunger, fever and disease. Every single member of the 5307th Composite Unit was awarded the Bronze Star, and the whole organization was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.

So why haven’t you heard of them? You have…you just don’t know it yet.

When the Marauders were disbanded, they were folded into the 475th Infantry, a new organization of fresh recruits that fought in Burma until the end of the war. The 475th, later disbanded, would be reactivated in 1954 – as the 75th Ranger Regiment. Despite the service of official Army Rangers in Africa, Italy, and France throughout World War II, the modern-day tasks of the U.S. Army Rangers have much more to do with Merrill’s Marauders than Darby’s men in Europe. Four Marauders, including three of the Japanese-American interpreters, would be inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. The Ranger Regiment we know today is, in truth, the descendant of Merrill’s Marauders.

No American unit has ever suffered more, or achieved more with less, than Merrill’s Marauders in the wilderness of Burma. It’s fitting that the Army’s elite light infantry should carry on their traditions.

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