Tags: China | merrills marauders | world war II | burma

Time to Finally Honor WW II Heroes Merrill's Marauders

gilbert howland holding a plaque bearing a younger photo of himself
Gilbert Howland, one of the few remaining members of the famed WWII Army unit Merrill's Marauders, with a portrait and plaque bearing a photo of his younger self, during a gathering of remaining members, family and history buffs, in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

By    |   Monday, 27 May 2019 08:09 AM

Seventy-five years after “Merrill’s Marauders” liberated Burma from its Japanese captors, the legendary fighting unit remains a part of America’s World War II lore.

No less than eight books have been written about the unit officially named the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional -- code-named “Galahad”  -- but dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders” by the press after its heroic commander, Gen. Frank Merrill who at age 39 became a brigadier general — the youngest since George Armstrong Custer in the Civil War.

A hit movie with the eponymous name came out in 1962, with Jeff Chandler in his final role before death portraying Merrill.

In the Pentagon, military historians point to the almost 3,000 “Marauders” as the kind of elite operation they feel could work today in hotspots that involve the U.S. military.

The Marauders overcame the larger and better-equipped Japanese 18th Division in five major battles and 30 minor engagements. 

But, incredibly, Merrill’s Marauders have yet to receive the Congressional Gold Medal to honor the unit for heroism and sacrifice in what was a pivotal theatre in the war.  They were the first American troops to fight the Japanese on land in Asia and the first Americans to fight there since the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Just two weeks ago, Marauders Gilbert Howland, 96, and Bob Passanisi, 94, stopped traffic in Congress with people holding up cell phones to have their photos taken with the men. 

Those two Marauders approaching the end of their ninth decade exemplified what the Infantry stands for as they walked "ramrod straight" an average of three and a half miles daily -- wearing dress shoes for one of those days under the sun at the WW II Memorial -- seeking support for two Congressional bills that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to their unit.

“The Marauders' success, in what many described as an impossible mission, is an American story that all Americans should hear," said Jonnie Melillo Clasen of Columbus, Georgia, daughter of the late Marauder Vincent Melillo, who along with Howland's son, Bob, planned the Washington visit for the two Marauders.

On the eve of Memorial Day, after just being told that Marauder Marcos Barelas, 96, had died Saturday morning in Texas, Clasen shared with Newsmax that the 3,000 Marauders, who writers have described as everything from "misfits to magnificient," came from diverse backgrounds and lives.

The 14 Nisei, Japanese American interpreters sworn to secrecy about their service, volunteered from the Military Intelligence Service, with many volunteering for the MIS from internment camps.  Their language skills and knowledge of the enemy are credited with reducing Marauder casualties.

No less than fifteen ethnic groups from across the nation — ranging from a Canadian Black Watch Highlander, who served in World War I to Indian code-talkers — were Marauders. Retired LTG Gen. Sam Wilson, who was a young lieutenant with the Marauders, lied about his age when he enlisted at 14.

Of the original Marauders, only thirteen are alive. Despite not being expected to survive their mission, five Marauders have lived into their 100s. The longest-living was 102, two more were 101 followed by two 100-year-olds. The survivors today are all in their mid to late 90s. On May 20, there was widespread coverage in Traverse City, Michigan when Marauder Henry Smith, a Silver Star recipient, turned 98.

“But the China Burma India Theatre and its importance in World War II is something that is growing increasingly dim,” Clasen told us, noting that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided at the August 1943 Quebec Conference to form a long-range penetration unit that would fight behind enemy lines — hence, the genesis of Merrill’s Marauders.

Recognition is what the Marauders are seeking, while these last remaining heroes from the “greatest generation” are still alive.  Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., have offered H.R. 906 to give Merrill’s Marauders their long overdue Congressional Gold Medal, and companion bill S. 743 is in the Senate.

On Memorial Day, there are clearly few more noble forms of celebration than urging Congress to honor these remaining “greats” of the “greatest generation.” 

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​Seventy-five years after “Merrill’s Marauders” liberated Burma from its Japanese captors, the legendary fighting unit remains a part of America’s World War II lore.
merrills marauders, world war II, burma
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2019-09-27
Monday, 27 May 2019 08:09 AM
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