I’ve never been very good about family history, despite my inclination toward history more generally and despite thinking that family, like local, history is something very important in this rootless world of ours. I’d like to blame my failings here on youth. I was relatively young when most of my grandparents passed (though not that young), and I spent a good deal of my adult life living far away. Still, that’s a small excuse, lame even in my mental articulation of it. Thus, I’ve been working to rectify these gaps in my knoweldge through reading, particularly about the Burmese front of World War II, where my grandfather served as part of the 2nd Battalion of the 5307th Composite Unit, more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders. The unit, and indeed the front as a whole, is largely forgotten today and was frankly a backwater theater at the time, but–and in part it’s precisely because of this neglect–saw some of the most harrowing, brutal fighting of the war. To give some sense, of the 2,750 Maruaders who entered Burma as part of Operation Galahad, precisely two made it through the campaign without being hospitalized, and only 130 were combat effective when the unit was disbanded after six months of fighting.
My grandfather was reticent, understandably when you read accounts of what went on, to talk about his time in the war, a reticence compounded by my aforementioned failure to speak to him on the subject, though I managed to hear a few scraps from him or my mother along the way. Of these scraps, what lodged most prominently in my mind was as story of his waking up with a snake on top of his sleeping bag (said snake was promptly bludgeoned to death and eaten), a rather grim description of experiencing a Banzai charge, his admiration for the Kachin people, and, most prominently, the claim that my grandfather was the only man in the entire unit to have gained weight during the campaign (reading the various accounts makes it clear just how remarkable of a claim this is, as the Marauders seem to have spent the majority of their time choking down half-rotten K rations, outright starving due to missed food drops, and suffering from dysentery).
I’ve read a number of books on the war in Burma, including Charles Hunter’s Galahad (Hunter effectively led the Marauders after Merrill was incapacitated by a heart attack), of which I remember virtually nothing (and another book about the Marauders which has left so little trace in my memory that I don’t even recall the title), and two books covering the British side, on the strategic level in William Slim’s Defeat into Victory and the lowly soldier’s view in Quartered Safe Out Here by George Macdonald Fraser (of Flashman fame). Both British works are certainly worth reading, Slim as a work of leadership and strategy and Fraser because he is an excellent writer, though his work doesn’t rank among the all-time greats of war memoirs (a perhaps unreasonable standard).
Ogburn, was a Marauder himself, commanding the signals unit in the 1st Battalion, and his book is the best I’ve read yet on the Marauders, though it is not as gripping as Fraser’s work. In what follows, I’m not going for a comprehensive survey of the book, more just highlighting passages that I found notable. I expect this will occupy multiple posts.
First, some background. The Marauders were a long range penetration unit, i.e. a unit designed to carry out special operations behind enemy lines, put together to, ultimately, wrest control of the Burma Road away from the Japanese and establish secure supply lines into China. Supplying China had become exceptionally difficult after the Japanese blocked the Road and seized the airfield at Myitkyina (the re-capture of which was the culmination of Galahad), requiring extremely dangerous flights over the Himalayas, a route known as “the Hump.” The Marauders’ mission was to strike suddenly behind Japanese lines, travelling light to engage Japanese forces where they least expected it and mitigating a large disadvantage in manpower with this element of surprise, alongside superior training, firepower, and mobility.
The genesis of the operation was British, particularly the experiences of the Chindits, units created by Gen. Orde Wingate, a rather colorful (read: insane) character. Wingate was a passionate advocate for the self-determination of indigenous people, a passion that approached what we might call “light treason” during his time in Palestine. Among the Zionists, Wingate first trained, then led paramilitary units on raids against their Arab opponents, raids which as time went on used increasingly questionable techniques like torture, summary execution of prisoners, and massacring entire villages. When Wingate began suggesting direct attacks on British interests, he was hastily removed from the area and prohibited from ever returning. Yet, he was a useful man, good at what he did, and thus shuttled to a different part of the empire, Africa, to continue his work.
After a semi-failed long-range penetration expedition in Abyssinia, a prototype of his later work with the Chindits and the mission of the Marauders, Wingate wrote a blistering report on the failures of British command to support his unit (this frustration with lack of support was common among the leaders whose careers intersected with Galahad. Hunter wrote a similar letter following the conclusion of the Burma campaign, though, Ogburn notes, was far more circumspect than Wingate, in keeping with both men’s characters). When Wingate’s report was suppressed, he attempted to slit his own throat in a Cairo hotel room. A mercurial fellow, to say the least.
Despite these setbacks, Wingate would set the foundation for what would become the Marauders, though Stilwell, the American commander who was not, putting it mildly, a fan of the British, refused to let him exercise any control over the unit. Wingate would eventually die in a plane crash in India during the early months of Galahad.
Wingate, therefore, led the British side of the operation at the outset and Joseph Stilwell the American. Stilwell was primarily responsible for liaising with our Chinese allies and thus spent much of the war banging his head against Chiang Kai-Shek’s intransigeance, and, at least perceived, incompetence Eventually, the conflict with Chiang would get Stillwell reassigned, but the hostility between the two soured relations between Chiang and the US Government, leading to the end of US support for the Nationalists subsequently victory for Mao and the Communists in the Chinese Civil War a few years later.
On Ogburn’s account, Stilwell was an exemplar of the Peter Principle, an excellent field commander, promoted beyond his ability into a role commanding an entire theater. There is thus sympathy there, alongside a lingering bitterness at the mal-treatment of the Marauders, stemming from Stilwell’s leadership failures and prickly personality (worth noting, his nickname was “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell).
Perhaps, the greatest of these failures was a lack of planning and organization that would plague the 5307th from the outset. Volunteer only, the unit was assembled hastily, and shipped overseas without a name, without insignia, without time traiing together to develop rapport, and shuttled throughout India for a secret and largely undefined mission that was, by the time it was launched, incongruent with the Allies’ larger strategic goals not to mention driven by a little too much “we’ll show those Brits” than appropriate for a theater in which the British were in overall command (Ogburn has many positive things to say about Mountbatten, so we might wonder if he would have preferred the unit to have remained under British control, as originally intended).
Slogging through the merciless jungles of northern Burma, the Marauders were undersupplied, underfed, and thoroughly unprepared for the rigors of the jungle. The response by American commanders was to dramatically extend their mission, pushing the unit beyond endurance and into what was essentially a state of open mutiny and outright collapse as a cohesive force, the latter most starkly illustrated by the statistics above. And this is the second great failure of Stilwell, who seems to have made the error that hard-driving, tough men often make in assuming that their own sheer bloody-minded determination can push through impossible limits.
Nevertheless, the Marauders succeeded, advancing 750 miles (more than any other US unit) through some of the most difficult jungle terrain on the planet, fighting in more than thirty engagements and five major battles against the Japanese, including defensive battles at Nhpum Ga and Myitkyina which, as a light unit, they were decidedly unequipped for, and succeeding in their mission before collapsing under the attrition of disease, combat, and starvation. Every soldier in the 5307th was awarded the Bronze Star and the unit as a whole received the Distinguished Unit Citation and, just last year, the Congressional Gold Medal in appreciation for its accomplishments. Following the end of the Galahad campaign, the Marauders were reorganized into the 75th Infantry, which eventually became the Army Rangers and which still uses the insignia of the Marauders (see above) today.
Next time, the meaning of it all.
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