By 1942 the US military saw the need for an elite light infantry unit that could penetrate deep behind enemy lines, destroy supply depots, intercept enemy convoys and communications, and seize key airfields. In 1943 the US Army created the 5307th Composite Unit, also known as “Unit Galahad.” This light infantry unit would be staffed by veterans already bloodied by a year and a half of jungle warfare against the Japanese. A call for volunteers went out, and almost 3000 men stepped forward for this new commando group. The leader would be Brigadier General Frank Merrill. Soon, no one would know them as “Unit Galahad.” Forever they would be called, “Merrill’s Marauders.”
They trained in the jungles of India to prepare themselves for the severe trial of combat in Burma. The Japanese had cut the Allied supply line through Burma to our allies, the Chinese Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai-shek. The Allies wanted to send in Merrill’s Marauders to open up that supply route.
The unit was divided up into six teams; each designated by a color: Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange, and Khaki. They would not have heavy weapons such as tanks or artillery; the terrain would be too mountainous for that. The Marauders would only have skilled riflemen, light machine guns, mortars, and bazookas. These light infantrymen would have to rely on quick mobility, surprise, and keen marksmanship.
Airplanes did not drop them into Burma. In February of 1944 Merrill’s men marched. . . they marched 1000 miles over the Paktai region of the Himalayas and into Burma. (Let that roll around in your head for awhile. These US Army soldiers marched 1000 miles. . . through the Himalayas. . . just to get to the battlefield.)
From April to August they were in almost constant fighting with the Japanese, who always vastly outnumbered them. Just when the Japanese thought the Americans were in one place, Merrill and his men would pop up in another part of the jungle to destroy a Japanese amp or supply depot.
Soon the Marauders were teamed up by two Chinese infantry regiments, who fought courageously alongside them. Unfortunately, by summer malaria, typhus, amoebic dysentery, and various jungle skin diseases had taken their toll on these determined US Army and Chinese soldiers. But on August 5, 1944 Merrill’s Marauders had finally driven the Japanese out of the key city of Myitkyina and had taken the airfield. The Burma Road was at last opened!
Merrill’s Marauders had killed 3,800 of the enemy while incuring only 272 of their own killed in action. Sadly, all but a handful of the survivors were fit for duty by the fall, and the whole unit was disbanded. General Merrill survived, but only after a severe bout with malaria.
But their story and valor lives on. They were the only US force to fight the Japanese on the mainland of Asia. They were the only US military unit to have each serviceman in the unit receive the Bronze Star. And today, the world’s premier airborne light infantry, the US Army Rangers, wear the colors of Merrill’s Marauders in the patch that adorns their tan berets.