8. Marauders, Walawbum

As so often happens, I started a series of posts without having a clear idea of where I was going, and, as often happens, I didn’t do a particularly good job taking notes on Ogburn, something I only realized after I lent the book away.  So, the second post in this series on the Marauders has been sitting, half-outlined, in my notes for months now.   That series itself was only supposed to be a post or two, less about the Marauders themselves and more threads, fragments, shadows of ideas, that Ogburn called to mind as I read, but as tends to happen to me, quick introductions expanded to fill whole posts, then series of posts, then I realized I had forgotten too much and postponed things until I got through the other history of the Marauders sitting on my shelf, then reading that got pushed and pushed and pushed as the new shiny thing caught my eye, and here we are. 

But, what is this little writing challenge but an opportunity to restart the series.  The vague plan, formulated in the aftermath of the first post, was two more narrative summaries, followed by the meditation on scraps from Ogburn that I’d intended to write on in the first place.  No idea when I’ll actually get them done, hopefully not five months from now.  I meant to get all the way to the devastating siege of Nhpum Ga today, where the Marauders were savaged though triumphant before being sent on even further to Myitkyina where they would triumph again, but in victory finally reach their breaking point and collapse, but felt I was going too long, so we’ll end on the eve of that action. 

On with the story.

The Marauders entered Burma in late February and began operations against the Japanese in conjunction with the Chinese troops commanded by Stilwell in the opening days of March.  In their first mission, the plan was for the Marauders to slip behind the Japanese 18th Division (their main opponents during the campaign) and set up a roadblock against which the Japanese would be crushed by the advance of Chinese troops along their front.  Moving quickly, the Marauders successfully established a position just outside the village of Walawbum after ten days of hard marching through the jungle. 

Unfortunately, the Chinese tended, here and throughout the fighting in Burma, to move with excessive caution, and the Japanese were able to turn the bulk of their attention on the Marauders, while leaving a smaller force to slow the Chinese advance further. 

(It’s worth remembering that the 5307th was badly outnumbered throughout the campaign, so the Japanese bringing the majority of their troops to bear on the Marauders was a serious problem.) 

At Walawbum the 18th Division smashed into the roadblock set up by the Marauders’ 2nd Battalion (my grandfather’s unit) who fought for 36 hours without food or water, before falling back to a more defensible position.  Fortunately, American air support and the arrival of Chinese tanks the next day forced the Japanese to withdraw.  Unfortunately, the typically slow advance of other Chinese soldiers allowed that withdraw to take place without the 18th Division falling into the trap Stilwell had prepared.  Nevertheless, the battle was a great success with the Japanese losing around 800 men, compared to only 8 for the Americans. 

The Marauders did not escape from Walawbum unscathed, however.  The Chinese, having successfully relieved the Americans and driven off the Japanese, promptly set up camp using a nearby stream as their toilet.  This was a problem, because that stream just happened to be where the Marauders got their drinking water, leading to a massive dysentery outbreak, not helped by the fact that, unlike the Chinese, the Marauders did not boil their water before drinking.

I don’t know if any instance was as a consequence of this specific moment, but my grandfather’s discharge papers reveal that he contracted dysentery on three separate occasions during the campaign, and by the time they left Walawbum, there were more than 300 cases among his unit.  From here on out, disease would be a terrible foe for the Marauders, claiming more men than combat, with typhus soon exacting an even greater toll than dysentery. 

Still, the 5307th had shown their mettle and the viability of their broader mission in Burma, which continued on the road to Myitkyina, the key to the north Burma road and broadening the supply line to China (something to bear in mind, that I didn’t mention in the last post, is that Japan had more than a million troops in China when the war ended, keeping these troops occupied was key to the success of American island-hopping, and thus it was vital that Chiang’s armies were prevented from collapsing by a steady infusion of American war materiel).  Stilwell’s plan was to again send the Marauders to penetrate behind Japanese forces, set up a series of roadblocks, and grind the 18th Division to dust between these roadblocks and Chinese forces.  Different this time was that the Marauders were divided, with the 1st Battalion setting up one roadblock at Shaduzup, while the 2nd and 3rd established another, ten miles further south at Inkangahtawng.  Meanwhile, the Chinese were intended to hit the bulk of Japanese forces just as these roadblocks were established, smashing the 18th between three fronts, driving them from the region and securing the air road to China.

And so, their numbers whittled down by combat and disease, they marched on to block the roads. 

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ me
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

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