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Merrill's Marauders: The Untold Story of Unit Galahad and the Toughest Special Forces Mission of World War IIby Gavin Mortimer
Synopses & Reviews
From late 1941 through 1942, Japan overran much of the Pacific, including Burma. In March 1943, British Gen. Orde Wingate and his famed long-range penetration unit, the “Chindits,” cut through the Burmese jungle, skirmishing with Japanese troops, destroying bridges, and cutting rail lines. Their advance and success shocked the Japanese, who had been conquering East Asia at an unstoppable pace. The Chindits’ success, however, came at a price: they lost one-third of their three thousand men during the two-month-long mission. But though the Chindits were ultimately pushed back to India, their mission set the foundation for long-range penetration troops into Japanese-controlled territory.
Months later, in August 1943, a call went out for three thousand American troops to volunteer for a hazardous secret mission in the Burmese jungle. Casualties were expected to be 85 percent.
Despite these unfavorable odds, the required number of troops was raised, comprising men with varied military and personal backgrounds, such as Sioux and Japanese-Americans who later formed the core of the unit’s elite intelligence and reconnaissance platoons. Code-named “Unit Galahad” but lacking an official designation, they were christened the “Dead End Kids” by an embedded newspaper correspondent. After Col. Charles Hunter, the unit’s commander during training, was reassigned to second-in-command and replaced by Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, other members of the press coined the more popular nickname for the unit that eventually stuck: Merrill’s Marauders.
After training for months in India, the Marauders made their way into Burma in February 1944 and cut their way over mountain passes and through thick jungle growth, fighting off malaria and dysentery. The Marauders continued their trek through the Burmese jungle and engaged in several skirmishes with Japanese troops on their way to their ultimate goal: capturing the vital Japanese-controlled airstrip at Myitkyina, which linked northern Burma to the rest of the country.
Once the airfield was captured through a series of brilliant outflanking movements assisted by Chinese units and Kachin hill tribes, the Marauders dug in to defend it until troops from the First Chinese Army arrived. Only two hundred of the original three thousand Marauders remained in fighting condition when the support came. General Joseph Stilwell reorganized the group with reinforcements and then focused on taking the town of Myitkyina, which the Allies finally wrestled from the Japanese in August 1943.
For their bravery in the harshest fighting conditions, the group received a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, and forty-four Silver Stars. Merrill’s Marauders is the story of this highly decorated unit, one of the toughest special forces units of World War II.
Award-winning historian Gavin Mortimer is one of the world’s foremost experts on World War II special forces. His history of the wartime Special Air Service was praised by the BBC as “a highly authoritative but also absorbing account,” and it is currently under option from GK-TV in Hollywood. He has also written The Daring Dozen: Special Forces Legends of World War II, a study of twelve of the most influential wartime special forces soldiers from the United States, Britain, and Germany. He contributes regularly to World War II magazine, MHQ (Military History Quarterly), and other historical publications on both sides of the Atlantic.
From award-winning historian Gavin Mortimer, Merrill’s Marauders is the definitive nonfiction narrative of arguably the most extraordinary, but also unsung, American special forces unit in the Pacific in World War II.
Gavin Mortimer (Paris, France) is an award-winning writer and historian who has published extensively on World War II special forces, including Stirling’s Men (2005), an account of the SAS during World War II, as well as The Special Boat Squadron (2013). Among Gavin’s other previous titles are The Great Swim, the story of the battle to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, which was voted one of the best books of 2008 by the Sunday Times; and Double Death, which profiled Pryce Lewis, a daring spy during the American Civil War. In addition to his books, Gavin contributes articles to an eclectic range of publications and writes regularly on sport and current affairs for the online edition of the Week magazine under the nom de plume Bill Mann.
In September 1943, three thousand U.S. Army soldiers answered the call for volunteers to embark on a hazardous secret mission in spite of estimated casualties of 85 percent. The mission: advance into enemy-held territory in Burma to disrupt Japanese supply lines and ultimately recapture an important Allied airstrip at Myitkyina.
The men of the 5307th Compositional Unit (Provisional), eventually nicknamed “Merrill’s Marauders” after their commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, trained in India for months before crossing into enemy territory in February 1944. After traveling some seven hundred miles through grueling jungle conditions and encountering Japanese troops every step of the way, the Marauders, ravaged by disease and malnutrition, arrived at the Myitkyina airstrip in May 1944. There, they bravely held their position until reinforcements arrived, even as their numbers were whittled down to only two hundred able-bodied troops from the original three thousand.
Written by award-winning historian Gavin Mortimer, Merrill’s Marauders profiles one of the most important and toughest special operations forces of World War II through new archival research and personal interviews with the surviving members of the Marauders.
In August of 1943, a call went out for American soldiers willing to embark on a "hazardous and dangerous mission" behind enemy lines in Burma. The war department wanted 3,000 volunteers, and it didn't care who they were; they would be expendable, with an expected casualty rate of 85 percent. The men who took up the challenge were, in the words of one, "bums and cast-offs" with rap sheets and reputations for trouble. One war reporter described them as "Dead End Kids," but by the end of their five-month mission, those that remained had become the legendary "Merrill's Marauders." From award-winning historian Gavin Mortimer, Merrill's Marauders is the story of the American World War II special forces unit originally codenamed "Galahad," which, in 1944, fought its way through 700 miles of snake-infested Burmese jungle--what Winston Churchill described as "the most forbidding fighting country imaginable." Though their mission to disrupt Japanese supply lines and communications was ultimately successful, paving the way for the Allied conquest of Burma, the Marauders paid a terrible price for their victory. By the time they captured the crucial airfield of Myitkyina in May 1944, only 200 of the original 3,000 men remained; the rest were dead, wounded, or riddled with disease. This is the definitive nonfiction narrative of arguably the most extraordinary, but also unsung, American special forces unit in World War II.
About the Author
Table of Contents
Prologue: Back into Burma
Chapter 1: Wanted: Men for a Dangerous and Hazardous Mission
Chapter 2: Destination Unknown
Chapter 3: India
Chapter 4: Teaching, Training, Teamwork
Chapter 5: Merrill and His Marauders
Chapter 6: Down the Ledo Road to Burma
Chapter 7: “I Fear No Son-of-a-Bitch”
Chapter 8: Death on the Trail
Chapter 9: “Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel”
Chapter 10: South to Shaduzup
Chapter 11: The Deadly Jungle
Chapter 12: Sixteen Banzai Attacks
Chapter 13: Merrill Goes Down
Chapter 14: Besieged and Bombarded at Nhpum Ga
Chapter 15: “This War Is Hell”
Chapter 16: End Run to Myitkyina
Chapter 17: Blazing the Mountain Trail
Chapter 18: A Force of Will
Chapter 19: “Will This Burn Up the Limeys!”
Chapter 20: Broken Promises
Chapter 21: The End of the Road
Epilogue: “The Soldier’s Soldier”
What Became of the Marauders
Back into Burma
April 1943. Two thousand British soldiers stagger from the steaming jungle of northern Burma. Bleeding, emaciated, worn out, these men are the remnants of the 77th Brigade. For two months, they’ve been fighting a primitive guerrilla campaign against the Japanese army. They are the survivors. One thousand of their comrades remain in the jungle, victims of the enemy, victims of disease, victims of hunger.
The survivors would never be the same men again. They had endured suffering the like of which few British soldiers had ever experienced: the terror of combat against a pitiless enemy, the horror of myriad diseases, the misery of searing heat, the fear of venomous snakes and bloodsucking leeches.
And for what had they suffered? How had the war in Burma been influenced by the sacrifices of so many young British men? Materially, there was little about which to brag.
An estimated two hundred Japanese soldiers had been killed, a few bridges destroyed, and a handful of railway lines severed. The Japanese war machine hadn’t exactly been brought to its knees by the British guerrillas, but it had been shocked nonetheless.
In the eighteen months since it had entered the war with its spectacular attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Japan’s forces had swept through Southeast Asia, conquering Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Indochina, and Burma.
Finally the British had struck back, jolting the Japanese out of their complacency and, with the aid of a brilliant propaganda campaign, boosting the morale of the Allies. The 77th Brigade was too prosaic a name for such a fearless band of warriors; such daring required something more exotic, more adventurous. They were rechristened “The Chindits,” in honor of the Chinthe, the mythical beast—half lion, half dragon—that guarded the Burmese pagodas.
British and American newspapers heralded the operation as proof that the tide was turning in the war against Japan. In its May 21, 1943, edition, the Washington Post described it as a “super raid” and told its readers that the Chindits had “swept through northern Burma on a 300-mile front, wrecking railroads and bridges, and generally harassing Japanese occupation forces.”
The Ogden Standard-Examiner called it “one of the greatest epics of the war” and devoted a full page to photographs of the Chindits and their commander, Brig. Orde Wingate. The Waterloo Daily Courier joined in the celebration but also offered the most perceptive analysis of the British operation. Its editorial praised the damage inflicted on the Japanese but also the fact that “the troops were supplied entirely by air.” In a stroke, Wingate had disproved the theory that the jungle was inaccessible by aircraft. “Cutting an army off from its base and penetrating deep into enemy territory is an exceedingly dangerous maneuver,” the paper stated. “In the past it has been possible only when the force is extremely mobile and can live off the country, or when resistance is somewhat demoralized, as was the case when General Sherman marched thru the south toward the end of our Civil war.
“But the ability to summon supplies by radio and receive them from the air makes such a maneuver more feasible. It may be that the Wingate expedition in Burma is only the forerunner of a new kind of warfare.”
Following his exploits in Burma, Wingate wrote a sixty-one-page report on the mission from which he drew five conclusions:
1. Long range penetration is an offensive weapon and should be
employed as a vital part of the major plan of conquest.
2. The men should be suitably equipped and trained: training is
more important than physical hardiness. On this point more
thought had to be given to basic jungle fighting including
ambushes and close quarter combat.
3. RAF (Royal Air Force) liaison officers must work in tandem with
column commanders to coordinate supply drops and air strikes.
4. There was room for improvement in wireless operations.
5. Columns need better training in river crossing, otherwise the
operation easily becomes a shemozzle.
The candor that suffused the report was in places openly critical of the British campaign in Burma. Many of the senior officers blanched at its findings, regarding Wingate as a dangerous renegade whose methods were unethical and not worthy of the British Army. But eventually the report landed on the desk of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. How he rejoiced!
Here was a kindred spirit, a man of independent mind not afraid to risk opprobrium in pursuit of the unorthodox. “A man of genius and audacity,” was how Churchill summarized Wingate. “There is no doubt that in the welter of inefficiency and lassitude which has characterized our operations, this man, his force, and his achievements stand out.” Summoned to London by Churchill, Wingate arrived on the morning of August 4, 1943, and that evening dined with the prime minister. By the time the dessert was served, Churchill knew he needed to take Wingate to the impending Quebec Conference so that he could “explain his theories to President Roosevelt.”
Churchill was anticipating a tense encounter with the Americans at the conference. President Franklin Roosevelt and his chief of staff were pressing for an invasion of France, but they also wanted some belligerent action in the Far East.
Since its conquest by the Japanese in the spring of 1942, Burma had posed a threat to American interests in the Pacific because of its proximity to China. Even before the capital, Rangoon, had fallen, Roosevelt sent a small force of 440 military personnel to China to help train its army to fight the Japanese. Their commander was Maj. Gen. Joseph Stilwell. He reported to Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader, on March 6, 1942, the day before the Japanese entered Rangoon.
Stilwell was confident that the British, together with the 3 million Chinese soldiers (organized in three hundred divisions), had the capacity to launch a counterattack from their strongholds in central Burma. Neither the British nor the Chinese shared Stilwell’s belief, and as the Japanese advanced north crushing all before them, the American mission was forced into a desperate retreat toward India.
After a brutal 140-mile trek, Stilwell emerged from the jungle in May looking, in the words of one war correspondent, “like the wrath of God and cursing like a fallen angel.” Stilwell had never felt so humiliated, and he told the world so, in words that made him a worldwide sensation as the straight-shooting general. “I claim we got a hell of a beating,” Stilwell told reporters. “We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.”
The causes were obvious. The Allies were novices in jungle warfare compared to their enemy. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had pushed right up into the north of Burma, seizing the vital airstrip at Myitkyina.
Here was Roosevelt’s problem. The speed with which the Japanese had swept through the Far East astounded the Chinese. The so-called invincible British Army had turned out to be anything but, and even the respected General Stilwell had been chased out of Burma.
Roosevelt was determined not just to restore the prestige of the Allies, but to keep China an active partner in the alliance. It was envisaged that further down the line, China would provide American bomber aircraft with the bases from which to attack the Japanese mainland.
British opinion diverged on the subject. Their preoccupation was India, and Winston Churchill was wary of having anything to do with the Chinese, fearful that if they ever entered Burma—a British colony—they would never leave.
Roosevelt’s opinion won out over Churchill’s, and the British placed Burma under their Southeast Asia Command and not their India Command. One British general called the idea “wild and half-baked.” In response, Churchill told his general that the United States viewed the supply of munitions to China as “indispensable to world victory.”
With Burma in Japanese control, to resupply China from India meant the Americans flying twelve thousand tons of supplies into the country each month on one hundred DC-3 transport planes. It was a perilous route even before the Japanese seized the airstrip at Myitkyina, as the turbulence over the Himalayas was a force of nature that challenged the most skilled pilot. With Japanese fighter aircraft now able to attack the United States Army Air Force from Myitkyina, the supply line to China was jeopardized. Another route had to be found—an overland route.
In November 1942, construction began on a three-hundred-mile road starting in Ledo, in the very far northeast of India close to the border with Burma. The road would cut through the unoccupied northwestern corner of Burma, tapping the Burma Road at the Chinese frontier, an existing route that ran from Rangoon in the south through mountains, jungles, and valleys, all now occupied by the Japanese. Simultaneously, a pipeline would be laid to run parallel to the road in order to increase the flow of motor fuels to China.
In February 1943, engineers crossed into India. They celebrated their three months of toil with a sign: “Welcome to Burma! This way to Tokyo!” Their jubilation at the rate of their progress was premature. Constructing a road in India was the easy part; continuing it through Burma’s nightmarish terrain was altogether more daunting. In May the monsoon arrived, and for three months Burma was saturated with tireless rain. There were no more triumphant signs hammered into the soil, and Stilwell became more irascible with every tropical downpour.
Stilwell wasn’t alone in voicing his frustration at the lack of progress being made in Burma. Winston Churchill was beginning to doubt if any of his senior officers had the aggression and initiative to take the fight to the Japanese. Then Wingate’s report fell into his lap.
Wingate was a hit with the Americans at the Quebec Conference. “You took one look at that face, like the face of a pale Indian chieftain, topping the uniform still smelling of jungle and sweat and war and you thought, ‘Hell, this man is serious,’” recalled General H. H. Arnold, commander of the USAAF. “When he began to talk, you found out just how serious.”
Wingate first talked to the Americans on August 17, explaining in a presentation that long-range “penetration affords greater opportunity of mystifying and misleading the enemy than any other form of warfare.
. . . To sum up, long-range groups should be used as an essential part of
the plan of conquest to create a situation leading to the advance of our main forces.”
The following day, Wingate repeated his presentation in front of Churchill and Roosevelt. The prime minister was impressed, praising the Chindit leader for having “expounded a large and very complex subject with exemplary lucidity.” Roosevelt also approved, and agreed to deploy for the first time, American ground troops in Burma.
The telegram authorizing the deployment was sent to General Stilwell on August 31 from Washington’s Operations Division (OPD) of the War Department General Staff. It was headed “Information Pertaining to Three American Long Range-Penetration (LRP) Groups,” and it informed Stilwell that a “total of 2,830 officers and men organized into casual detachments will arrive in India in early November. They will all be volunteers. 950 will be battle-tested troops in jungle fighting from the South and Southwest Pacific. 1900 will be from jungle-trained troops from the Caribbean Defense Command and the Continental United States. All will be of a high state of physical ruggedness. Above volunteers have been called for with requisite qualifications and commensurate grades and ratings to form three Independent Battalions after their arrival in the theater. They must be intensively trained in jungle warfare, animal transportation and air supply in a suitable jungle area in preparation for combat in February .”
This final sentence was a stipulation of Gen. George Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, who, though impressed with Wingate’s concept of long-range penetration, nonetheless recoiled at the British general’s callous attitude for his wounded during the first Chindit expedition. No wounded American soldier would be abandoned to the mercy of the Japanese; rather, the proposed LRP unit would be reliant on air support for supply and evacuation.
Stilwell was delighted with the news, writing in his diary on September 2: “Only 3,000, but the entering wedge. Can we use them! And how!” His good humor was brief, lasting until he learned that the American force—code named “Galahad”—would not be under his command. That honor fell to Orde Wingate, now promoted to major general, who had been given permission to raise eight new LRP groups for operations in Burma at the same time as the American troops. Additionally, the USAAF accepted Wingate’s request for close air support in Burma and put its special air unit, No. 1 Air Commando, at his disposal for the forthcoming operation.
Stilwell was mad as hell, and for once he had some justification. Hadn’t he been the man calling for American troops for months? Wasn’t he, commander of Americans in the China Burma India (CBI) Theater, the man who should lead them? Yet instead, as Stilwell raged in his diary, “We get a handful of U.S troops and by God they tell us they are going to operate under WINGATE! We don’t know how to handle them but that exhibitionist does! He has done nothing but make an abortive jaunt to Katha, cutting some railroad that our people had already cut, get caught east of the Irrawaddy and come out with a loss of 40 percent. Now he’s the expert. That is enough to discourage Christ.”
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