In the thick of battle, the soldier is busy doing his job. He has the knowledge and confidence that his Job is part of a unified plan to defeat the enemy, but he does not have time to survey a campaign from a fox hole. If he should be wounded and removed behind the lines, he may have even less opportunity to learn what place he and his unit had in the larger fight.
American Forces in Action
American Forces in Action is a series prepared by the War Department especially for the information of wounded men. It will show these soldiers, who have served their country so well, the part they and their comrades played in achievements which do honor to the record of the United States Army.
Merrill’s Marauders is an account of the operations of the 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional) in north Burma from February to May 1944. The Marauders’ effort was part of a coordinated offensive the Allied reconquest of north Burma. Details of the offensive are summarized briefly to set the operations of the 5307 within the larger framework.
On August 10 1944 the 5307 was reorganized as the 475th Infantry Regiment. The combat narrative is based mainly on interviews conducted by the historian of the 5307 (C) after the operation and on information furnished the Historical Branch, G-2, War Department, by the Commanding General and several members of the unit. Few records were available because the Marauders restricted their files in order to maintain mobility while they were operating behind the Japanese lines.
During the second mission a Japanese artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule carrying the limited quantity of records and maps kept by the unit headquarters. During the third mission the heavy rains made preservation of papers impossible for more than a day or two. The unit’s intelligence officer was killed at Myitkyina, and his records were washed away before they could be located. The manuscript was submitted by the Historical Section of the India-Burma Theater.
The 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional) (Code Name : Galahad) of the Army of the United States was organized and trained for (LRPG) long-range penetration behind enemy lines in Japanese-held Burma. Commanded by Brig Gen Frank D. Merrill, its 2997 officers and men became popularly known as Merrill’s Marauders. From February to May 1944 the operations of the Marauders were closely coordinated with those of the 22nd and 38th Chinese Divisions in a drive to recover northern Burma and clear the way for the construction of the Ledo Road, which was to link the Indian railhead at Ledo with the old Burma Road to China.
The Marauders were foot soldiers who marched and fought through jungles and over mountains from the Hukawng Valley in northwestern Burma to Myitkyina on the Irrawaddy River. In 5 major and 30 minor engagements they met and defeated the veteran soldiers of the 18th Japanese Division. Operating in the rear of the main forces of the Japanese, they prepared the way for the southward advance of the Chinese by disorganizing supply lines and communications. The climax of the Marauders’ operations was the capture of the Myitkyina airfield, the only all-weather strip in northern Burma. This was the final victory of the 5307 Composite Unit, which was disbanded in August 1944.
The War in Burma, January, 1942 – March, 1943
Burma had been conquered by the Japanese 2 years before the Marauders’ operations. During the 6 months between December 1941 and May 1942 the enemy had overrun the Philippines, much of Oceania, all of the Netherlands East Indies, all of the Malay Peninsula, and almost all of Burma. In the Pacific Ocean his advance threatened communications between the United States and Australasia. On the Asiatic mainland his occupation of Burma menaced India, provided a bulwark against counterattack from the west, cut the last land route for supply of China, and added Burma’s raw materials to the resources of an empire already rich.
For the conquest of Burma the Japanese had concentrated two divisions in southern Thailand. In mid-January 1942, they struck toward Moulmein, which fell on the 30th. British, Indian, and Burmese forces, aided by the Royal Air Force and the American Volunteer Group, resisted the Salween and Sittang river crossings but were overwhelmed by enemy superiority in numbers, equipment, and planes. Rangoon, the capital and principal port, was taken on 8 March. The Japanese then turned north in two columns. One division pushed up the Sittang where Chinese forces under Maj Gen Joseph W. Stilwell were coming in to defend the Burma Road. The other Japanese division pursued the Indian and Burmese forces up the Irrawaddy Valley.
On April 1 and 2, the enemy took Toungoo on the Sittang and Prome on the Irrawaddy. From Yenangyaung, north of Prome, a column pushed westward and on May 4, took the port of Akyab on the Bay of Bengal. The conquest of southern Burma was complete. A third enemy column of two divisions, which had landed at Rangoon on April 12 1942, was now attacking on the east from the Shan States into the upper Salween Valley and driving rapidly northward to take Lashio, junction of the rail and highway sections of the Burma Road. Mandalay, completely outflanked, was evacuated by its Chinese defenders and occupied by the Japanese on May 1.
From Lashio, the Japanese pushed up the Salween Valley well into the Chinese province of Yunnan. In north central Burma they sent a small patrol northward along the Irrawaddy almost to Fort Hertz, and to the west they took Kalewa on the Chindwin. The main remnants of Gen Stilwell’s forces retired from north Burma to India by way of Shingbwiyang, while British, Burmese, and Indian survivors withdrew up the valley of the Chindwin and across the Chin Hills. The Allied withdrawal was made on foot, for no motor road or railway connected India with Burma.
When the monsoon rains came in June the Japanese held all of Burma except for fringes of mountain, jungle, and swamp on the north and west. Gen Stilwell grimly summarized the campaign : I claim we got a hell-of-a-beating. We got run out of Burma, and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it. But this counteroffensive could not start at once, and the Japanese were able to make further advances in the next fighting season.
At the end of October they pushed northwestward along the coast from Akyab toward Bengal. Approximately a month later British forces counterattacked strongly along this same coast, but their gains could not be held, and the Japanese force reached the frontier of Bengal. In February of the next year the enemy began to drive northward from Myitkyina. He had covered some 75 air miles by early March and was closing in on Sumprabum, threatening to occupy the whole of northern Burma and to destroy the British-led Kachin and Gurkha levies which had hitherto dominated the area. The Allies were in no position to stop this advance. Their regular forces had retired from the area to India in May and were separated from the Japanese by densely forested mountain ranges and malarial valleys. The enemy was apparently secure in Southeast Asia. The question of the moment was whether his advance would halt along the Burma border or would continue into India.
From Defense to Offense
The strategic situation in Burma began to change in the spring of 1943 when the Allies assumed the offensive with an experimental operation behind the enemy lines. This operation, foreshadowing the part the Marauders were to take in the larger offensive of 1944, was an expedition commanded by Maj Gen Orde C. Wingate, who led long-range-penetration (LRPGs) units of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade across the natural barrier between India and Burma into Japanese-held territory. Wingate’s forces consisted of eight jungle columns totaling 3200 men, assembled from British, Indian, Burmese, and Gurkha troops.
Directed, by radio and supplied by air drops, in a period of 4 months (February to June 1943) his columns covered a distance of 1000 miles. In the area of northern Burma, from the Chindwin River eastward to China, they gathered topographical and other intelligence, harassed and confused the Japanese forces, and cut enemy lines of communication. The columns put the Mandalay – Myitkyina railway out of action for 4 weeks and engrossed the efforts of six to eight enemy battalions. When ordered to return, the columns dispersed in small groups, each of which successfully fought its own way out of Burma.
After this first penetration the seasonal rains again restricted ground activity. However, Allied bombers of the Tenth Air Force continued their attacks on Japanese supply lines in both Burma and Thailand with steadily increasing strength. Maj Gen George E. Stratemeyer’s force had established definite superiority over Burma by November, 1943, the beginning of the dry season during which a ground offensive was possible. At this time many indications pointed to a resumption of the Japanese offensive against India. Since the fall of 1942 the enemy had brought two more divisions into the area, making a total of five distributed along the India border. The one division (55th) on the front beyond Akyab was extremely aggressive. In the Chin Hills three others (the 15th, 31st, and 33d) were organizing for a strong offensive into Manipur Province.
The 18th Division, in northern Burma, was ready to oppose any advance from Assam. The Allies, too, were preparing for major offensive operations from both India and China. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, commander in Southeast Asia, was assembling troops and supplies in Bengal and Manipur. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was strengthening his forces along the Salween River in Yunnan. The first Allied blow was to come from the north, led by Gen Stilwell, Deputy Commander in the Southeast Asia Command and Chief of Staff for Allied operations in the Chinese theater. Operating from bases in the upper Brahmaputra Valley, Gen Stilwell had mounted an offensive to carry over the Patkai Range, conquer northern Burma, and open a new land route to China. American-trained Chinese divisions constituted his main striking force. In immediate support of his advance, long-range-penetration operations were to be carried out by combat teams of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) under Gen Frank Merrill.
By February, when the 5307th arrived in the area of operations, Gen Stilwell’s offensive had made good progress. The Chinese 22d and 38th Divisions had crossed the Patkai barrier and were engaging the Japanese forces in the flood plains of the Hukawng Valley. Covered by this advance, United States engineers had pushed a road over the Patkais to Shingbwiyang, 100 miles from the starting base at Ledo. However, the main enemy resistance and strongest prepared positions were still to be met. Secondary Allied operations had been planned to support the main drive into north Burma. Gen Wingate’s jungle columns of the 3 Indian Division were ready to thrust into central Burma, with the aim of cutting enemy communications far south of Gen Stilwell’s objectives. On the Irrawaddy headwaters in northeast Burma the Allies had a base at Fort Hertz, in wild country which the Japanese had never been able to conquer. Here, Gurkha and Kachin levies from the native tribes were harassing Japanese outposts in the Sumprabum – Myitkyina corridor.
Origin and Training of the American Force
The 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional) was organized to participate in the Burma operations as the result of a decision made at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943. Five months later, on February 1 1944, the three battalions comprising the provisional unit had been transported to India, organized, trained, and equipped for employment. They were the only American ground combat troops designated at this time for the China-Burma-India Theater.
On September 1 1943, when the size of the battalions had been fixed at 1000, the War Department began recruiting personnel from jungle-trained and jungle-tested troops, primarily infantrymen. Gen George C. Marshall requested 300 volunteers of a high state of physical ruggedness and stamina from the Southwest Pacific, 700 from the South Pacific, and 1000 each from the Caribbean Defense Command and the Army Ground Forces in the United States. In answer to Gen Marshall’s request the South and Southwest Pacific commands selected 950 men from veterans of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and other operations in those theaters. The Caribbean Defense Command secured 950 more troops who had served on Trinidad and Puerto Rico, and a similar number came from highly trained units within the United States. The Caribbean volunteers flew to Miami, crossed the continent by rail, and assembled in San Francisco with the volunteers from the States. These men formed two battalions; the third from the South and Southwest Pacific areas was to join the force on the way to Bombay.
Col Charles N. Hunter, the senior officer among the volunteers, was appointed commander of the battalions. He was ordered to prepare the men while en route for the performance of their mission, to keep Gen Stilwell informed of the progress of the movement and to report to the General upon arrival in the theater. On September 21, the two battalions sailed from San Francisco on the Lurline. As much of their equipment as could be loaded aboard went with them; the remainder was sent to San Diego, and from there it was to be forwarded in one shipment to Bombay. The Lurline proceeded to Noumea, New Caledonia, where 650 officers and men from the South Pacific Theater came aboard.
The contingent from the Southwest Pacific joined the ship at Brisbane, Australia. After a brief stop at Perth, the Lurline steamed across the Indian Ocean and up the Arabian Sea to Bombay, where the three battalions disembarked by October 31. Organizing and training of the 5307 began immediately. Col Francis G. Brink, selected because he had trained Chinese troops in India, instructed the unit in long-range-penetration tactics. After meeting the Lurline at Bombay, he accompanied the troops to a British camp at Deolali and 3 weeks later moved with them to Deogarh, close to an area suitable for jungle training.
From the end of November 1943 to the end of January 1944, the 5307 remained at Deogarh and trained intensively. On the advice of Gen Wingate who supervised the over-all preparation of the unit, each battalion was formed into two jungle columns, called combat teams by the Americans. These were not combat teams in the accepted American sense, for their organization represented only a division of each battalion into two smaller units, without any addition of elements not organic to the battalion. The division was made in such a manner that each combat team had its share of the heavy weapons and other organic battalion elements and thus was able to operate as a self-contained unit.
Lt Col William L. Osborne was assigned command of the 1st Battalion (two combat teams, Red and White) placed under Maj Edward M. Ghiz and Maj Caifson Johnson, respectively. Lt Col George A. McGee, Jr., became commanding officer of the 2d Battalion (two combat teams, Blue Combat Team under Maj Richard W. Healy and Green Combat Team under Capt Thomas E. Bogardus. The 3d Battalion was placed under command of Lt Col Charles E. Beach (two combat teams, Orange Combat Team under Maj Lawrence L. Lew and Khaki Combat Team under Maj Edwin J. Briggs.
COL CHARLES N. HUNTER
Second in Command
5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)
For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
rue des Thiers 8
Email : gunter [at] eucmh.be
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(NB : Published for Good – March 2019)