Memorial Day: Mars Task Force Is Formed

Part 3 of a special four-part series concluding Memorial Day

Read the other installments: Part 1: Remembering Burma and Merrill's Marauders | Part 2: Merrill's Marauders Take Myitkyina

In August of 1944, after Merrill’s Marauders had secured the strategic Myitkyina and had been deactivated, training for the 475th Infantry Regimental began in earnest. This unit was joined by the 124th Calvary Regiment, a Texas National Guard unit. The two together became a Brigade of about 6,000 men. The training for the units resulted in a finely tuned fighting machine which saw plenty of action in Central Burma.

Sgt. Major Ray Mitchell continues with just a little pride coloring his voice, “This new Unit was known as the Mars Task Force, a new name with new men, plus the veterans of Merrill's Marauders, making a fine fighting force that would make a name for themselves in the history books about WWII.

“The newly formed Unit completed training and moved out of Camp Landis, crossing the Irriwaddy River and headed south. We would march for 50 minutes and rest for 10 minutes — each man carried between 60 and 80 pounds of gear–blanket, toilet articles, extra underwear, socks, food, ammunition, his weapon, half a dozen hand grenades, two canteens, spoon, trench knife, compass, first aid kit and anything else you thought you may need.”

Mules carried the heavy things such as machine guns, mortars (60mm and 81mm), medical supplies, radio equipment. The men ate C-rations which weren’t that bad according to Mitchell.

The Brigade traveled 15 to 20 miles each day depending on the terrain, mountain trekking was somewhat slower than marching through the flat plains. Sometimes they would transverse streams numerous times, other times they would walk in the stream for miles. At the end of each day they would bivouac by a water source which was for bathing, watering the animals, and filling canteens for the next day. Each purpose had its own place of priority. Fires for heating food was allowed during daylight only. Then before light, they were up, broke camp and marching again.

Mitchell remembers, “First to leave in the morning was the Quartering party made up of several men from each company, a squad of riflemen, a radio man, a medic and several others. Their mission was as the name indicated, they scouted ahead and located the place for the Unit to stop for the night. The men would determine where each company would be located and as the main Unit came to the area the men of the Quartering party would lead their Company to their spot for the night. The water source had to be marked, upstream one color for drinking was marked, one color for watering the animals, and the last for bathing.”

The drop team would scout out and mark, the best place for food and medicine and other supplies to be dropped.

This went on for days until they finally reached Tonkwa, Burma where five trails met. The place was strategic for Allied occupation.

Ray Mitchell explains what happened, “The Second Battalion of the 475th Infantry moved into position after dark, dug in, set up machine guns, mortar and readied for battle. We didn't have to wait long because soon we heard the Japanese coming near our perimeter.

Fortunately, we had Nisei troops with us. These were American born Japanese men and they were very dedicated to their job. One of these men came forward, moved out near where the Japanese were digging in and listened to them. The Japanese did not have the faintest idea that we were anywhere in the area.”

“As it began to lighten up the next morning, several of the enemy wandered into our line. You can just imagine what took place. They were not prepared, we were. The slaughter began. The ground was level so the field of fire reached a long, deadly way. The Japanese's officer began trying to rally his troops, and then lead them into a 'banzi' attack on our fixed positions. The slaughter continued.

“To cause them even more confusion the Nisei shouted orders for them to fall back. This caused their troops to stop… and to begin milling around. This was complete disaster for them. Their attack failed, they were driven back, leaving many dead and wounded.

“In the days to come, we saw lots of action and found valuable information on several of the dead Japanese officers. The Nisei could read and interpret papers guiding us as to what we should do.

“We were shocked to learn that we were fighting a Division (which is) between 8,000 to 10,000 Japanese to our 1,000 or less. We immediately made radio contact for assistance. The 3rd Battalion was about a hundred miles away, and they began moving to assist us. They were there in five days.”

The Division that Mitchell’s battalion faced was expecting a poorly trained, and poorly equipped Chinese force. Instead they face a well-trained, well-equipped battalion which had Japanese speaking Nisei. Much later, the American force heard that the Japanese Division had suffered more than 80% casualties compared to the less than 50 American men who died at that battle. Mitchell said that was still too many to die. They left them in a temporary cemetery and moved on into the mountain jungles, deeper into Burma.

Mitchell recalls, “We moved further south and into higher mountains with more streams to cross. We had to be very careful day and night because at night we could hear the Japanese planes searching for us. We called the plane, “Bed Check Charlie”. This is one of the main reasons we would leave our bivouac area in the morning before daylight. Just in case the planes had spotted us during the night, we'd be gone.”

They continued moving with more restrictions: no fires at all, voices low, stay in quiet mode. They knew they were getting very close to their objective. After moving into the stream for several days’ march, they went into a force march, moving very fast. It wasn’t long before they broke out of the jungle crusted mountains into a beautiful valley. The high ridge on the other side of the valley was Loi Kang, later called Bull’s Eye Ridge.

Late that afternoon, they attacked the ridge making it up to the half-way point before it became too dark to move forward. The next morning, they took more than half of the top of the ridge. They could see the Burma Road from that vantage point. The ridge wasn’t very wide at any point so they became an excellent target for the Japanese artillery. But, the Burma Road was in sight and easy artillery range, so the Americans kept up a barrage of artillery to disrupt the Japanese supply line directed by the 475th up on the ridge they had just taken. It was a nasty battle, better told in Mitchell’s own words.

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