Part 1 of a four-part series concluding Memorial Day
An interview with Sgt. Major Ray Mitchell, one of Merrill’s Marauders.
It is early 1944. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as Merrill’s Marauders need replacements. A young volunteer named Ray Mitchell wants to volunteer to the Army. His father drives him and his cousin from Picayune to Camp Shelby just outside of Hattiesburg and drops them off at the gate. Only now, after being a father, does Mitchell understand what must have been occurring in his father’s heart that day.
“Wanted: Volunteers for a Dangerous, Hazardous Mission in Jungle Warfare” stated the sign plastered to the side of the mess hall.
“Pretty music was playing in my head as I signed,” he says in his memoirs. “Take a long sea voyage to a beautiful, lush, green island in a far away land and forget those that are overburdened in the 65th Infantry Division at Camp Shelby. The salt air will do wonders for your health and attitude. Not only did I sign the paper, I took one back to my company and got thirteen more nice soldiers to agree to that beautiful trip with me. None of them speak to me any more; I think I am the only survivor.”
That began Cpl. Mitchell’s trip around the world with a stop off in Burma and China chock full of horrors that we cannot even imagine. Many on the ship that zig-zagged across the Atlantic Ocean had not volunteered for jungle warfare, which left those who had, the butt of many jokes during the 31 days it took to get to Bombay, India where squads were formed and Cpl. Ray Mitchell was given 12 men to “look after”. Most of his motley crew were cooks, bakers, military police and green (untrained) recruits.
Six days of train travel, took them to a beautiful meadow, smooth enough for aircraft to land. C-47 and C-46 transport planes landed and the troops quickly boarded. After a lengthy flight, they landed to load guns, ammunition and other supplies needed to fight a war. Guns were passed to each man.
“Keep the gun that lands in your lap. We’ll match you with your weapon later,” they were told.
On the seventh day from landing in Bombay, all noncoms (non-commissioned officers) were ordered to a meeting, and Cpl. Mitchell went.
“You will be flown into combat this morning,” words which still cause the muscles in his chest to constrict today.
“Your mind races,” he said. “‘Combat!’ We are just a bunch of men that were put together on a ship, we had not trained together for a single day. Some of my guys didn’t even know what a combat pack was. Others looked at the weapon they held like it was a snake. Some knew nothing about the M-1 rifle, they were not infantry but could use the carbine. Trades were made. We had several -03 rifles that the fellow in military police took. One fellow that was in cook/bakery school took a .45 pistol as I did. I could use any of them, but it was necessary to have each man with a gun he could use.”
This motley group’s first mission was to protect the Battalion Commander and Headquarters on the flight to combat. Mitchell didn’t even have time to tell his 1st Sergeant they were flying out.
The Battalion Commander wanted to know what was taking so long to land the plane, and sent Mitchell to the front of the plane to find out.
Mitchell was told, “You tell the old so and so there are a bunch of Jap Zeros over the landing site and we ain’t going in till they are gone. Now, if he’s in such an all fired hurry, he can jump out and walk.” Mitchell may have been young, but he was wise enough just to mention the Zeros to the Commander. After the “Jap Zeros” cleared the area below, they landed.
“We were told that the only men to stay on the plane were those flying it or those that got shot while we were in the process of landing,” Mitchell said. “We are digging in along the edge of the runway at Myitkyina, Burma. It is the end of May, 1944 and we have no idea of what we are suppose to do now that we are here.
“During the last part of the campaign for Myitkyina, we were pushed to move forward and take the city. We were tired, hungry, sick, but with the promise of a flight back to India, clean clothes, bath, back pay, the promotion that we had been put in for earlier, and a leave to rest, we fought on just a little harder During the period of our heaviest fighting we received word from the rear supply that we were using too much ammunition. That hurt our feelings. I have no idea what the supply was using as a comparison to gauge the amount used,” Mitchell said.
“We had some very bad days,” he added. “We were bombed twice by B-25s bombing from 5,000 feet. Why? The enemy had no anti-aircraft guns where we were. It was very devastating to be bombed at all, but by your own force with never any explanation, or a ‘sorry it happened.’ To dig out the bodies and pick up the body parts of your friends, stays with you the rest of your life.”
Mitchell was called to Battalion Headquarters the same day more than 200 men were ambushed and killed. Seventeen of the company made it back behind friendly lines.
“I remember it so well,” says Mitchell. “It was the day I became acting Sgt. Major of 2nd Battalion. I had then more than two hundred men missing in action. This number continued to climb until the battle ended in August of 1944, and the 5307th CUP was deactivated. “The “second Team” paid its dues although no one seems to read or hear about these men and what they experienced in those jungles.”
Several Battalion Commanders came and went, some so quickly it seemed to Mitchell they were there a week or less.
“There was one major,” he said, “whose first order was for all officers and non-coms to wear their insignia of rank, you know how that went over.
“Fortunately, he tried to show one of the old Sergeant veterans that had served in Panama how to shoot an old beat up 37 mm antitank gun, but he forgot the recoil…he failed to listen to warnings. He got the full impact of that recoil in the face. He was evacuated with heavy lacerations to the face and eye area. I hope he’s still alive, and I hope his experiences mellowed his ways. He paid a heavy price.”
Mitchell and the rest of the 2nd Battalion pressed on, finally taking the city. When the city fell, Mitchell was given duty finding MIAs. He had to scour through lots of bodies that had lain in the jungle heat for days.
Merrill’s Marauders, named for their commander Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, was a behind enemy lines fighting unit. They were sometimes 300 miles behind enemy lines in jungle so dense it was dark on the ground. Their mission took them on foot 1,000 miles, hacking through foliage, trudging over mountains and through valleys filled with mud, and through such furious rain it was more like a swift waterfall than rain.
By October of 1944 only 200 fighting-trim men were left of the 3,000-man force. Most had been struck down with insect born disease, others had been killed in the five major battles this force won and the 30 skirmishes won despite being far outnumbered.
In November 1945, Mitchell landed in Tacoma, Wash., and saw the sign, “Welcome Home! Job Well Done!”
Mitchell said it was great to walk down that plank and set foot on the soil of a free nation. Can you put a price of freedom? “No way,” he says.