Counted among the heroes of World War II are a few whose exploits became the stuff of legend, there you will find Merrill’s Marauders. Officially known as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), but best remembered by their catchy nickname given them by a war correspondent, the unit’s special mission was to unite with Chinese and British allies in Burma, east of India, in order to harass and disrupt the Japanese Army’s offensive. The conditions in Burma were unbelievably harsh, not only were they out manned and outgunned by the Japanese, but they had to contend with exceptionally rugged terrain and tropical disease.
The six men pictured below were part of the 5307th and survived the brutal Burma Campaign. A Signal Corps photographer shot this photo as the men passed through Hampton Roads on their way home, December 26, 1944. The caption on the print labels them, “suicide outfit.”
By 1942 Imperial Japan had conquered Burma, today known as Myanmar, a mountainous country north of Thailand. The Japanese sought to further their gains by invading British-controlled India. The Allies were highly invested in stopping Japan’s territorial gains but also in reopening a land route southeast of the Himalayan mountains in order to move supplies and reinforcements to China. The former Burma Road had been shut down by the Japanese and without it the only way for the Allies to reach China was by flying over “the Hump,” a dangerous air mission without radio support over the uncharted and poorly understood Himalayan Mountains.
Under the command of General Frank Merrill, the 5307th was organized as three battalions of light infantry and engaged the Northern Front of the Burma Campaign between February and August 1944. The jagged and hilly geography of Burma is shaped by the same continental forces that created the great Himalayas. At the same time it is drenched by the seasonal monsoons that fall on India and Bangladesh. Merrill’s Marauders navigated hundreds of miles of this treacherous terrain on foot, supported by horses and mules.
Access to rations for Merrill’s Marauders was spotty, by the time the Burma Campaign began the U.S. had ceased production of the 4,000 calorie Jungle ration. The men were issued one 2,830 calorie K ration per day, to be supplemented by occasional bartering with locals for rice and chickens. Later this would be cut to the even lighter 10-in-1 rations and C rations. By the end of the Campaign malnourishment wore on the men.
Just as deadly as the enemy were incapacitating illnesses spread by parasites including amoebic dysentery, typhus, and malaria. The mountainous terrain and monsoons made evacuation of the sick and wounded difficult. Twice General Merrill himself suffered a heart attack in the field. A Wikipedia article notes, “Of the 2,750 to enter Burma, only two were left alive who had never been hospitalized with wounds or major illness.”
From the Wikipedia article on Merrill’s Marauders:
In slightly more than five months of combat, the Marauders had advanced 750 miles (1,210 km) through some of the harshest jungle terrain in the world, fought in five major engagements (Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpum Ga, and Myitkyina) and engaged in combat with the Japanese Army on thirty-two separate occasions, including two conventional defensive battles with enemy forces for which the force had not been intended nor equipped. Battling Japanese soldiers, hunger, fevers, and disease, they had traversed more jungle terrain on their long-range missions than any other U.S. Army formation during World War II.
Minor celebrities when they arrived home, a Signal Corps photographer from Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation sought them out. In the image below two veterans of Merrill’s Marauders break into a smile as they shop the local military exchange for some comforts of home including toothbrushes and Colgate toothpaste.
Discover more about Merrill’s Marauders:
In 1962 Warner Bros. Pictures released a feature film “Merrill’s Marauders” starring Jeff Chandler in his final role. Watch the original theatrical trailer below.
Far more realistic than the Hollywood portrayal is this piece of oral history below. Here a veteran of the Burma Campaign speaks over motion pictures shot in the field, 1944. It runs more than twenty minutes but the stories and imagery are unforgettable.