The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as "Merrill's Marauders," had become so weakened in seizing the airfield at Myitkyina that Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell had to call on the 209th and 236th Engineer Combat battalions to take the nearby town.
Monday, May 18, 2015
The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as "Merrill's Marauders," had become so weakened in seizing the airfield at Myitkyina that Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell had to call on the 209th and 236th Engineer Combat battalions to take the nearby town.
Wingate’s exploits so impressed Winston Churchill that the British Prime Minister summoned this “man of genius and audacity” to the Quebec Conference in August 1943. At Quebec, the Allies finally agreed to launch an offensive into Burma in early 1944. While the Chinese Y Force advanced from Yunnan into eastern Burma and the British IV Corps drove east into Burma from Manipur State, Stilwell’s Chinese-American force would attack southeast from the Shingbwiyang area toward Myitkyina. Capture of that key North Burma city and its airfield would remove the threat of enemy fighter planes to transports flying the Hump and also enable the Allies to connect the advancing Ledo Road into the transportation network of North Burma. A new Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) under British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten would provide overall control to the offensive. After listening to Wingate’s impassioned arguments on the benefits of Chindit-style long-range penetration groups, the Allied leaders also agreed to expand the number of such groups to support the advance, and the Americans agreed to supply their own long-range penetration force.
The American force which emerged, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) known as GALAHAD, proved a far cry from the elite unit which the Army’s leaders had envisioned. In the South and Southwest Pacific, the Caribbean, and the United States, the call for jungle-tested volunteers for a hazardous mission produced a collection of adventurers, small-town Midwesterners, southern farm boys, a few Native and Japanese-Americans, and a number of disciplinary cases that commanders were only too happy to unload. As the volunteers assembled in San Francisco, one officer remarked, “We’ve got the misfits of half the divisions in the country.” After arriving in Bombay, India, on 31 October, GALAHAD trained in long-range penetration tactics under Wingate’s supervision and soon earned a reputation as an unruly outfit. A British officer, who had been invited to GALAHAD’S camp for a quiet Christmas evening, noted men wildly firing their guns into the air in celebration and remarked, “I can’t help wondering what it’s like when you are not having a quiet occasion.” Although GALAHAD presented some disciplinary problems, Stilwell and his staff were overjoyed to obtain some American combat troops, and Stilwell managed to wrest control of the unit from the angry Wingate. To command GALAHAD, he selected one of his intimates, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, leading correspondents to dub the unit “Merrill’s Marauders.”
By the time GALAHAD reached the front in February 1944, Stilwell had already started his Chinese divisions into Burma. He had received word of Chiang’s decision to cancel the offensive into eastern Burma but was determined to continue regardless of Y Force’s plans. Taking command in the field on 21 December, he sent his Chinese troops southeast into the Hukawng Valley of northern Burma. The Chinese received a major boost in morale when a battalion of their 114th Regiment, with artillery support, drove the Japanese from a series of pillboxes and relieved a pocket of trapped troops at Yupbang Ga. Although a small victory, it made the Chinese believe that they could meet the enemy on equal terms. Despite this new confidence, the advance proceeded slowly, due to heavy seasonal rains and Chiang’s tendency to bypass Stilwell and direct his officers not to risk their men unduly. Using wide envelopments to outflank the Japanese defenses, the Chinese pushed to the line of the Tanai Hka, about sixty miles into the Hukawng Valley, by late February.
With GALAHAD’S arrival on the scene, Stilwell continued to press the advance. He ordered his two Chinese divisions to keep pressure on the Japanese front and sent the Marauders on a wide march around the Japanese right to cut the enemy’s communications. Once again, the Chinese advanced at a snail’s pace, heeding Chiang’s orders to conserve strength. Noting the glacial pace of the Chinese, Lt. Gen. Shinichi Tanaka, commander of the Japanese 18th Division, decided to leave a force to block the Chinese and destroy the threat to his rear.
The Marauders were living up to their image in Stilwell’s headquarters as a modern-day version of Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry. To reach the Japanese lines of communications, they needed to make their way through jungle-choked terrain cut by frequent streams and crossed by only a few trails. When the advance began on 24 February, the intelligence and reconnaissance platoons of GALAHAD’S three battalions took the lead, carefully probing ahead in single file on the narrow footpaths through the dense foliage, examining footprints, stopping frequently to watch and listen, cautiously approaching each bend in the trail. Occasionally, they clashed with Japanese patrols. Near the village of Lanem Ga, a burst of fire from a Japanese machine gun claimed the life of Pvt. Robert W. Landis, the lead scout of the 2d Battalion’s intelligence and reconnaissance platoon and the first Marauder to die in combat. On 3 March the Marauders reached the Japanese line of retreat and established a pair of roadblocks, the 3d Battalion at the little Kachin village of Walawbum, the 2d farther northwest near Kumnyan Ga, and the 1st in reserve. Digging in, they waited for the enemy’s response.
The Japanese did not take long to act. At Walawbum, the 56th Regiment struck the positions of the Orange Combat Team of the 3d Battalion on 4 March and 6 March. The emphasis on marksmanship in GALAHAD’S training now paid dividends as the Americans, aided by heavy mortars firing from their rear and by two heavy machine guns, littered the fields with Japanese dead. On the day of the 6th, the Japanese launched a banzai attack, but the frenzied enthusiasm of the assault again proved no match for American firepower. To the north the 2d Battalion came under severe pressure, repulsing six attacks in one day, before Merrill withdrew them. In all, the Marauders killed about 800 enemy soldiers at a cost of 200 of their own men. As pleased as they were with such a performance, Stilwell and Merrill were anxious to keep down GALAHAD’S losses, particularly given its status as the only available American combat unit. They relieved the Marauders with a Chinese regiment on 7 March. By that time, Tanaka had decided to withdraw south along a hastily built bypass of the American roadblocks to a strong position on the Jambu Bum, a range of low hills at the southern end of the Hukawng Valley.
In his plan for the campaign, Stilwell had hoped to reach the Jambu Bum before monsoon rains forced suspension of active operations. His divisions were practically the only Allied force making progress in the campaign. Not only had Chiang postponed Y Force’s advance, but the British, far from moving into Burma, were trying to hold against a major Japanese offensive into India. This Japanese advance, which began on 8 March, threatened both the British Army in Assam and Stilwell’s supply line to India. For the moment Stilwell could still proceed, but he would have to keep a close watch on developments to the southwest. He accordingly laid plans for the Chinese to continue their advance on the 18th Division’s front, while GALAHAD would split into two parts, again envelop the Japanese right flank, and cut Japanese communications in two different places.
In this flanking movement, GALAHAD had to march through some of the most difficult terrain of the campaign. The Marauders needed to climb out of the Hukawng Valley onto the hills to the east and then move south through territory in which only the extremely steep, narrow valley of the Tanai offered an avenue of approach. Fortunately, the Marauders in their march unexpectedly encountered the Kachin guerrillas, who served as guides, screened the advance, and even provided elephants as cargo bearers. On the right the 1st Battalion hacked a path through twenty miles of bamboo forests and streams, crossing one river fifty-six times. Early on the morning of 28 March the battalion surprised an enemy camp at Shaduzup and established a roadblock. To the south Col. Charles N. Hunter, Merrill’s second in command, led the 2d and 3d Battalions up the Tanai and through ridge lines to take up a position near Inkawngatawng. They had hardly arrived when they received orders to retrace their steps and take up blocking positions. A captured enemy sketch told Stilwell that a strong Japanese force was advancing on the Allied left to outflank the attackers. To head off the Japanese, the 3d Battalion occupied Janpan and the 2d Battalion took up positions at Nhpum Ga.
At Nhpum Ga the 2d Battalion withstood eleven days of shelling and heavy attacks from three Japanese battalions which surrounded the position. The 2d’s perimeter, 400 by 250 yards on top of a 2,800 foot saddle of high ground, dominated the surrounding terrain, but it offered few amenities to battalion members. The Japanese captured the only water hole, necessitating airdrops of water into the position. The stench from rotting mule carcasses and unburied excrement, according to one soldier, “would have been utterly unbearable if there had been any alternative to bearing it.” Yet, somehow, the 2d managed to hold. Its Japanese-American soldiers frequently crept into no-man’s-land at night, eavesdropping on Japanese conversations to discover the enemy’s intentions. Meanwhile, the rest of GALAHAD rushed to the rescue. The 1st Battalion, leaving its position at Shaduzup to the Chinese, hastened to the aid of the 2d, and Merrill, though evacuated with a heart attack, arranged the drop of a pair of pack howitzers to the relief forces. Aided by this artillery fire, the 1st and 3d Battalions finally broke through and relieved the 2d on 9 April.
The march to Shaduzup and Inkawngatawng and the siege of Nhpum Ga had cost the Marauders 59 dead, 314 wounded, and 379 evacuated for wounds or illness. Of the original 3,000 men, only 1,400 were left, and those 1,400 were approaching a state of collapse. The Marauders anticipated a lengthy rest, but Stilwell had other ideas. The CBI chief received assurances from the British in April that the situation to the south was under control, but he was under pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to seize Myitkyina as soon as possible. Thus in late April, as the Marauders read their mail, received new issues of clothing, relaxed from their labors, and looked forward to the long rest in the rear which they believed they had earned, “a grotesque rumor began to be heard, passed along in deprecating tones, pretty much as a joke.” The rumor proved true. Stilwell was forming a task force of the Marauders, two Chinese regiments, and some Kachin guerrillas to carry out a quick overland march to seize the airfield at Myitkyina. The American commander recognized the poor condition of GALAHAD, but he believed he had no alternative. He promised Merrill that he would evacuate GALAHAD without delay “if everything worked out as expected.”
Stilwell’s promise sustained the Marauders through the grueling 65-mile march over the 6,000-foot Kumon range to Myitkyina. Despite the efforts of an advance party of Kachins and coolies, the trail followed by the task force proved treacherous to negotiate. Mud transformed sections of the path into slides, and in places the Marauders had to cut steps out of the ground for their supply mules to obtain a foothold. Even so, a number of mules lost their footing and fell to their death. The smothering heat and humidity, the rugged terrain, and disease caused some Marauders to drop out of formation along the way. On 6 May advance patrols clashed with the Japanese garrison at Ritpong, leading GALAHAD’S commanders to worry that their task had been compromised. Nevertheless, the Marauders pressed on, finally reaching the vicinity of the airfield on 16 May.
Despite the concerns of the commanders, the attack on the airfield on the morning of 17 May caught the Japanese completely by surprise. While GALAHAD’S 3d Battalion feinted toward the northern end of the defenses and the 1st Battalion seized the Irrawaddy ferry terminal at Pamati on the right flank, a Chinese regiment overran the airstrip and probed toward Myitkyina itself. Lacking accurate intelligence on the defenders, this initial attack on the city fell into confusion and was easily repulsed. Nevertheless, exultation reigned at Stilwell’s headquarters when word arrived of the capture of the airfield. The general made arrangements to fly in Chinese reinforce ments and, exuberant over his success despite British skepticism, he wrote in his diary, “WILL THIS BURN UP THE LIMEYS!”
The jubilation over the capture of the airfield soon dissolved in the gloom of a siege. Houses and railroad cars around the city and roads that rose twelve feet above flooded rice paddies provided natural fortifications for the defenders, who may actually have outnumbered their besiegers. Fortunately for the Allies, the Japanese grossly overestimated the strength of their opponents and stayed on the defensive. To fill gaps in the Allied line, Stilwell and his staff scrambled to find whatever troops they could. Swallowing his pride, Stilwell requested help from the British 36th Division, only to be informed that no troops would be available for another two months at the earliest. Engineers and GALAHAD replacements went into the line, frequently without sufficient infantry training. The arrival of the monsoon and the lack of heavy weapons further slowed the operation. A series of attacks made little headway against the defenses, and by 2 June, the Allies had resigned themselves to a lengthy investment.
One Marauder later referred to the siege at Myitkyina as “our little Gallipoli.” Such static warfare, with its emphasis on fortifications and heavy weapons, ill-suited a light infantry unit like GALAHAD, which needed relief in any case. Some Marauders cut holes in the seat of their pants so that their dysentery would not interrupt the firing of their weapons. On the 2d Battalion’s front, soldiers fell asleep in their trenches from sheer exhaustion. Yet Stilwell was pressing worn units of other nationalities onto the front at Myitkyina as well, and even using the Chindits as line infantry. He could not relieve the only American combat troops in the theater without raising cries of favoritism. Thus GALAHAD fought on, with predictable results. By 25 May the Marauders were losing 75 to 100 men daily to malaria, dysentery, and scrub typhus. Merrill himself was evacuated after a second heart attack. Morale plummeted even further when desperate staff officers, trying to hold down the rate of evacuation, pressed into service sick or wounded troops who could still walk. Such episodes, along with the broken promises of relief, confirmed GALAHAD’S sense that it was the maltreated stepchild of higher headquarters. The resulting crisis in morale later created a nasty scandal in the United States.
Only a few of the original Marauders remained when Myitkyina finally fell in August. Bit by bit, the Allies, ever improving in combat experience and close air support, had tightened their grip on the Japanese defensive perimeter. By 17 June, GALAHAD had reached the Irrawaddy River north of Myitkyina, cutting off the enemy from supplies and reinforcement from that direction. Mogaung, a key rail center southwest of Myitkyina, fell to the Chinese and Chindits on 27 June, ending any threat to the siege from that direction. With the capture of Mogaung, Myitkyina’s fate was sealed. Sensing the doom of the city, the defenders evacuated their wounded on rafts, many of which were ambushed by Kachins as they drifted down the Irrawaddy. On 3 August the Chinese attacked, sending a raiding party to infiltrate enemy lines and create havoc in the rear while the 50th Division made the main assault. The Japanese soon gave way, and by late afternoon the Chinese had secured the city. Stilwell had his victory, but at a heavy price. The campaign had cost the Chinese about 4,200 casualties, and the Americans lost 2,200.
The fall of Myitkyina represented the greatest victory of Stilwell’s career, but within three months he had returned to the United States following a final quarrel with Chiang. Y Force had finally crossed the Salween into Burma in May, but any hope of a rapid Chinese advance toward Myitkyina soon evaporated when a Japanese counterattack drove Y Force back toward the frontier. China’s fortunes grew even darker in August when a Japanese offensive in east China threatened Chennault’s air bases. Chiang wanted to withdraw Y Force from Burma, but when Stilwell notified Washington of Chiang’s plans President Roosevelt, who had lost patience with the Chinese leader, warned that he expected Chiang to place Stilwell in command of all forces in China, strengthen Y Force, and press the Salween offensive. A petulant Chiang assumed that Stilwell had instigated this humiliating dispatch and demanded his recall. On 27 October 1944, Stilwell left the theater for the United States. His old domain was split into two parts. Maj. Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer became Chiang’s new chief of staff and chief of the China theater; Lt. Gen. Daniel I. Sultan, an engineer officer and Stilwell’s CBI deputy, took over the India-Burma theater.
MULE SKINNERS AND PACK ANIMALS of the MARS Task Force plod through the hills toward the Burma Road, January 1945.
By late October 1944 it was clear that final Allied victory in Burma was only a matter of time. In June and July the British had decisively defeated the invading Japanese Fifteenth Army at Imphal, removing the threat to India and opening the way for a British counteroffensive into Burma. After Imphal the British IV and XXXIII Corps pushed to the Chindwin River, while the XV Corps prepared to advance down the Burmese coast: General Sultan could now call on one British and five Chinese divisions, as well as a new long-range penetration group known as the “Mars Task Force.” This brigade-size unit consisted of the 475th Infantry, containing the survivors of GALAHAD, and the recently dismounted 124th Cavalry of the Texas National Guard. The Allies possessed nearly complete command of the air. CBI’s logistics apparatus was well established, and the leading bulldozer on the Ledo Road had pushed to within eighty miles of the road from Myitkyina south to Bhamo. From that point the engineers needed only to improve existing routes to the old Burma Road, fifty miles south of Bhamo. Myitkyina had grown into a massive supply center with an expanded airfield and a pipeline. Sensing victory, the Allies planned to continue their advance in two phases, first to Bhamo and Katha, then to the Burma Road and Lashio.
The offensive resumed on 15 October. While the main British force to the southwest completed its push to the Chindwin, Sultan advanced three divisions toward the Katha-Bhamo line. To the west the British 36th Division, after overcoming stubborn Japanese resistance at the railway center of Pinwe, encountered no opposition until its occupation of Katha on 10 December. In the center the Chinese 22d Division likewise encountered little initial opposition, occupying its objective of Shwegu without incident on 7 November. South of Shwegu the 22d ran into advance elements of the 18th Division near Tonkwa on 8 December. Since the 22d Division was scheduled to leave the front for China, the 475th Infantry replaced the Chinese and held its ground against repeated assaults until the Japanese withdrew. Meanwhile, the Chinese 38th Division on the left flank had skillfully used flanking movements to drive the Japanese on its front into Bhamo. After a delaying action the Japanese evacuated Bhamo on 15 December and withdrew south toward Lashio.
Reaching the Burma Road now lay within the grasp of the Allied forces. The next phase of the campaign would involve a larger role for the Mars Task Force. General Sultan wanted to send the force up the line of the Shweli River to threaten the Burma Road and the rear of Japanese forces opposing the advance of the Chinese 38th and 30th Divisions from Bhamo. But the 124th Cavalry, many of whose troopers still wore the old high-top cavalry boots, first had to make the killing hike from Myitkyina south through the rugged mountains to the Shweli. Making their way along narrow paths which took them from deep valleys to peaks above the clouds, the men of the 124th finally reunited with the 475th at the small village of Mong Wi in early January 1945. From there the Mars Task Force moved east to drive the enemy from the hills overlooking the Burma Road. Bringing up artillery and mortars, the Americans opened fire on the highway and sent patrols to lay mines and ambush convoys. After the experience with GALAHAD, however, Sultan and the force’s commander, Brig. Gen. John P. Willey, were anxious not to risk the unit’s destruction by leaving it in an exposed position astride the road.
The Mars Task Force may not have actually cut the Burma Road, but its threat to the Japanese line of retreat did hasten the enemy’s withdrawal and the reopening of the road to China. While Y Force advanced southwest from the Chinese end of the Burma Road toward Wanting, the Chinese 30th and 38th Divisions moved southeast toward Namhkam, where they were to turn northeast and move toward a linkup with the road at Mong Yu. To oppose this drive, the Japanese had deployed the 56th Division at Wanting, troops of the 49th Division at Mong Yu, and a detachment at Namhkam, but these units planned to fight only a delaying action before retreating south to join the defense of Mandalay. They withdrew as soon as the Chinese applied pressure. As the Marsmen were establishing their position to the south, the 30th and 38th Divisions captured Namhkam and drove toward Mong Yu. On 20 January advance patrols of the 38th linked up with those of Y Force outside Mong Yu. Another week proved necessary to clear the trace of any threat from Japanese patrols and artillery fire, but on 28 January the first convoy from Ledo passed through on its way to Kunming, China. In honor of the man who had single-mindedly pursued this goal for so long, the Allies named the route the Stilwell Road.
Historians have found it fashionable to characterize the CBI as a forgotten theater, low in the Allied list of priorities. To be sure, the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters all enjoyed greater access to scarce manpower and material than the CBI, which had to cope with an extended line of supply back to the United States. Only a few American combat troops served in China, Burma, or India. Yet one can hardly call the CBI an ignored theater. It occupied a prominent place in Allied councils, as Americans sought an early Allied commitment to reopening China’s lifeline so that China could tie down massive numbers of Japanese troops and serve as a base for air, naval, and eventually amphibious operations against the Japanese home islands. The American media, with its romantic fascination with China and the Burma Road, followed the campaigns closely and kept its audience informed on Vinegar Joe Stilwell and Merrill’s Marauders. Interest in the theater did drop after early 1944 as estimates of China’s military capability declined, but Allied leaders continued to keep a close eye on developments in a region where they still felt they had much at stake.
For the American supply services, their performance in the CBI theater represented one of their finest hours. The tremendous distances, the difficult terrain, the inefficiencies in transport, and the complications of Indian politics presented formidable obstacles to efficient logistics. Nevertheless, by early 1944, American logisticians had developed an efficient supply system whose biggest problem was the time needed to ship material from the United States. The supply services expanded the port capacity of Karachi and Calcutta, enhanced the performance of India’s antiquated railroad system through improved maintenance and scheduling, and developed techniques of air supply to support Chinese and American forces in the rugged terrain of North Burma. Despite the skepticism of the British and other observers, American engineers overcame the rugged mountains and rain forests of North Burma to complete the Stilwell Road which, joined to the old Burma Road, reopened the line to China. A tremendous feat of engineering, the Stilwell Road deservedly earned considerable applause.
Stilwell himself has received more mixed reviews. A fine tactician, he maneuvered his Chinese-American forces with considerable skill in the campaign to drive the Japanese from the Hukawng Valley, and he showed commendable boldness in the decision to strike for Myitkyina before the monsoon. In the end the gamble barely paid off, but it did succeed. Stilwell’s record indicates that he would have likely performed quite well as a division commander in Europe, the role that Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had in mind for him before his appointment to the CBI theater. Unfortunately, most of Stilwell’s responsibilities at the CBI emphasized administration and diplomacy, areas for which he possessed much less aptitude than for field command. He had little patience for paperwork, and he lacked the tact to reconcile the differing viewpoints of the nations involved in the CBI. Admittedly, in his three years in the theater, he probably held more concurrent positions than should ever have devolved on one man.
In Stilwell’s record, though, perhaps no aspect has stirred greater controversy than his treatment of GALAHAD. After the Myitkyina campaign numerous reports appeared in the American media about a breakdown of morale in the unit. Marauders complained that theater headquarters seemed to view them as expendable, bastard stepchildren, not worthy of medals or promotions. Many also protested that recruiters had told them that GALAHAD would serve for only ninety days of combat before returning to the rear for rest and rehabilitation. It seems clear that Stilwell and his staff could have done more to make the Marauders feel welcome in the theater, whether through decorations or some other means of recognition. Here Stilwell’s personality played a key role. As a man who viewed himself as a regular doughboy, he looked with displeasure on individuals who seemed to demand more than their fair share of attention. When Hunter asked Merrill why GALAHAD was not receiving more medals, Merrill replied, “Well, the boss is kind of funny about those things.” Yet before criticizing Stilwell too harshly, one should take into consideration the importance he placed on reaching Myitkyina before the monsoon, GALAHAD’S status as his one reliable unit, and his inability to relieve that unit while other equally exhausted nationalities continued to fight.
In the end, how valuable were Myitkyina and the Burma Road? The capture of the city and the reopening of the highway certainly made possible a vast expansion of the supply effort for China. By January 1945, however, few American leaders cherished any illusions about a major Chinese contribution to the defeat of Japan. In eight months the Japanese would surrender, but any American hopes that China would become a benign, democratic great power were soon dashed by the victory of the Communists over Chiang’s American-equipped army in the Chinese revolution. Thus the reopening of the Burma Road had little effect on the eventual outcome of the war and even less on its aftermath. Nevertheless, as a story of human endurance under some of the worst conditions to face soldiers in wartime, it holds a special place in the annals of World War II and American military history.