FORT BENNING, Ga. (Aug. 6, 2014) -- Governors from throughout the United States are honoring World War II Merrill's Marauders on the 70th anniversary of their unit disbanding by proclaiming Aug. 10 as National World War II Merrill's Marauder Day.
That is the day in 1944 when the short-lived unit from the "forgotten" theater of World War II, the China-Burma-India Theater dissolved in Burma after defeating the Japanese 18th Imperial Division, which vastly outnumbered them, in five major battles and 30 minor engagements.
"This is the first time that Merrill's Marauders have ever been given this kind of national recognition," said Bob Passanisi, 90, Merrill's Marauder's spokesman, historian and outgoing editor of the Burman News.
"Our numbers are dwindling, and we are grateful to all the governors who have honored us by keeping our story alive," Passanisi said. "We are also grateful to the efforts of the Merrill's Marauders Proud Descendants - our sons and daughters -who launched this nationwide campaign asking the governors and mayor from the District of Columbia to declare this commemorative day."
National Merrill's Marauder Day was also acknowledged in the July 31 congressional record statement, thanks to the efforts of Congressman Sanford Bishop, Passanisi said.
There are only about 50 original Merrill's Marauders still living out of almost 3,000 volunteers who answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call in 1943 for a secret "dangerous and hazardous" mission, not knowing their destination or objective.
The unit didn't even have a name when men began volunteering from the jungles of Panama and Trinidad, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Georgia and the United States.
Expecting more than 85 percent casualties, the volunteers landed Oct. 31, 1943, in Bombay, India, and were officially designated Jan. 1, 1944, as the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, code-named "Galahad" and later nicknamed Merrill's Marauders by the press after their commander, Gen. Frank D. Merrill.
Merrill's Marauders were the first American combat troops to fight the Japanese on the ground in Asia. Modern-day Army Rangers, the 75th Ranger Regiment, honor their legacy by wearing the Marauder patch as their crest. Camp Frank D. Merrill, where the rigorous mountain phase of Ranger training is conducted in north Georgia, is named in honor of the unit's commander.
No other World War II American fighting force except the 1st Marine Division, which took and held Guadalcanal for four months, has had as much uninterrupted jungle fighting service as Merrill's Marauders.
The Marauders were considered "expendable," since a plan existed to get them into but not out of Burma, according to Marauder, lecturer and retired Lt. Gen. Samuel V. Wilson, who turns 91 in September. His many accomplishments range from serving as president of Virginia's Hampden-Sydney College to helping create Delta Force, the U.S. Army's premier counterterrorism unit.
The jungle fighters trained with England's Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate's Chindits under Lord Louis Mountbatten before their history-making march.
With only what they could carry on their backs or pack on mules, they walked almost 1,000 miles, farther than any other of the war's fighting force. No mechanized vehicles were part of the long columns of men and mules supplied by C-47 airplane drops.
They trudged behind enemy lines up the foothills of the Himalayas and into the jungles of northern Burma to capture the only all-weather airstrip May 17, 1944, at Myitkyina, crushing Japan's control of the sky and enabling the Allies to begin flying supplies into Burma to connect the Ledo and Burma roads and open up a crucial pathway into China.
Jungle diseases had ravaged their numbers so only about 300 of the approximate 1,300 remaining original Marauders were still considered fit for combat when they reached the Myitkyina airfield. Those survivors later went on to join replacements who continued to fight in Burma as the 475th Infantry, which became part of the Mars Task Force.
There are about 250 replacements still living out of the almost 3,000 who were flown into the Myitkyina airfield to reinforce the 5307th CUP before it disbanded. Most of the replacements had not been in combat, and many had to jump from still-rolling airplanes into the ongoing battle for the Myitkyina airfield.
For their accomplishments, Merrill's Marauders were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and have the extremely rare distinction of every member receiving the Bronze Star Medal. There were six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit and 44 Silver Star Medals awarded. Twenty-five Merrill's Marauders have been inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
"The involvement of U.S. ground troops in Burma has been largely overlooked in histories of World War II," said Gavin Mortimer, an English author whose book on Merrill's Marauders was released in November 2013. "But the Marauders are testament to the significant and important role that the U.S. Infantry played in the re-conquest of Burma. It was also one of the most unforgiving campaigns ever seen in modern warfare."
Keeping the history of the 5307th CUP alive for the aging CBI veterans and planning their annual reunions is done by the Merrill's Marauders Proud Descendants organization.
National Merrill's Marauder Day is only weeks away from the 68th annual Merrill's Marauders reunion, which will be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, over the Labor Day weekend. For more information, contact Jerrie Daly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-204-5002.