Former Staff Sgt. Robert Passanisi, 93, and retired Master Sgt. Gilbert Howland, 94, two of the 18 survivors of about 3,000 original Merrill's Marauders, visited the West Point Cemetery Aug. 4 to place a wreath on two of their commanders' gravesite, Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill and Lt. Gen. Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell.
A wreath laying ceremony followed a brief welcome reception at the West Point Old Cadet Chapel with U.S. Military Academy Historian Sherman Fleek giving a quick history of the chapel.
Roughly 50 family members or members of the Merrill's Marauders Proud Descendants organization headed by Bob Menta, whose father Carmine was part of the Merrill's Marauders.
"There were six of the China, Burma, India Theater veterans in Philadelphia for their reunion last year and everyone treated them like heroes," Menta said. "They presented them with a flag that flew over Independence Hall and opened up the Liberty Bell to allow them to touch and pose with it. This is something that is very rare."
Passanisi and Howland said they volunteered for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1943 call for volunteers for a secret, dangerous and hazardous mission that none were expected to survive. They were known as the 'expendables' and originally codenamed Galahad, but were officially known as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).
Roosevelt needed an American long-range penetration unit that would be assigned to the British under Lord Louis Mountbatten's Southeast Asia Command and trained under Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate's Chindits Operation Unit until transferred to the China-Burma-India Theater under Stilwell.
Their mission: To capture the North Burma's Myitkyina airstrip to allow supplies to be flown in and allowing Ledo and Burma roads to connect to forge a crucial land route into China, an important ally at the time.
"Man and mule moved a thousand miles over mountains, always fought while outnumbered by the Japanese and fighting deadly dysentery, dense jungle and malaria," Col. Matthew Pawlikowski, U.S. Military Academy chaplain, said. "These heroes left a legacy for our Soldiers."
When the remaining unit was disbanded in 1944, less than 100 remained.
Merrill's Marauders was the first of the 'special forces' units, the precursor to the modern Army Rangers (75th Ranger Regiment). Howland and Passanisi recently were inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame and Merrill's Marauders also received a Bronze Star for everyone in the unit.
Passanisi, from Brooklyn, New York, is the 12th child of Italian immigrant parents and said that he enlisted at the age of 17 by lying about his age, and later volunteered for Roosevelt's secret mission.
"While securing the airfield at Myitkyina, I developed malaria and three weeks later, received shrapnel wound in my right side. Six months later, I was wounded again in the right temple by shrapnel," he said.
Howland, from Pennsylvania, is a World War II, Korea and a two-tour Vietnam veteran. His name is displayed at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, for being a "triple Combat Infantryman Badge recipient."
"Our mission was Burma," Howland said. "We spent five months there. Gen. Stilwell trained us well and he cared about his men.
"I first met Gen. Merrill in Burma on a trail leading to a river where the Marauders were fishing with hand grenades," Howland continued. "He was all alone. He met me on the trail and said, 'Nice day for some ice cream'--and kept walking. I never did get any ice cream."