Part 2 of a a four-part Memorial Day series. Part 1: Remembering Burma and Merrill's Marauders
The war in Burma (Myanmar), South China, and India resulted from the Japanese cutting off all supply lines into China where there had been fighting since 1937. Several million troops were there who needed supplies badly. The Allies were determined to get the supplies through, and the Japanese were just as determined to keep the supplies out; and they had taken every port along the coast line where supplies could be off-loaded except Burma which had been British territory for many years. The Allies’ loss of Burma left only one route for supplies. It was called “The Hump”, the Himalayan Mountains. Pilots had to fly this most treacherous route which was not only snow-covered, but often the peaks were engulfed with clouds. The weather was frequently stormy and gusty, and the Japanese planes scouted along the peaks as well which turned a risky mission into a hazardous flight bordering on suicide.
“The Japanese had fighter planes based in Myitkyina, Burma that could intercept the transports going over the lower, safer part of the Hump. This forced pilots to fly further north into higher, more dangerous mountains. These conditions caused so much loss of life, supplies and planes the route was often called The Aluminum Trail because of all the crashes along the trail. There were a few that had made the trip numerous times, but they had a rough time of it,” Sgt Major Ray Mitchell said as he sat with me recounting his days as one of Merrill’s Marauders. The Marauders are well-known for their heroic exploits behind enemy lines in the Burma, China, and India Theater of WWII.
The plan was to keep the Chinese supplied so they could keep the Japanese focused on China and out of the Pacific War, as well as hopefully freeing up the lower routes of the supply lines.
President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met and decided to take back Burma. Therefore, the call went out for volunteers to fight in a hazardous mission in jungle warfare. No mention in the flyers and posters that went up all over the States and Central America. A young man, barely 23 years old, did the one thing that most men will tell you to never do: Volunteer. He convinced several to go with him, and in 31 days, they landed in Bombay. Some trained, some with no training at all.
Myitkyina, Burma was a strategic base for Japan in that it had two air fields, a railroad and a river for boat traffic. From these two airfields, they curtailed supply transports between India and China. When Burma fell, all land traffic halted. Since the air route over The Hump was so hazardous, the need for ground troops to recapture this jewel of Burma, Myitkyina, was crucial.
In Mid-May of 1944, Merrill’s Marauders (nicknamed for Brigadier General Frank Merrill) overran Myitkyina. However, the unit was weak from miles of marching over mountains and and jungle trails, often where there was no trail at all. Disease carrying insects had decimated the troops just as vigorously as the enemy. Fevers, malaria, typhus, dysentery had taken a heavy toll. Yet, the airstrip was taken, not the city, but the US Troops had control of the airstrip at last. Two Chinese units were moved in to take the town which the troops had no strength to take. Soon these units had mistaken each other for the enemy and did not take the town. The Japanese took advantage of the confusion and brought in reinforcements. The US troops were in desperate need of reinforcements which had to come by air because Myitkyina was miles behind enemy lines. This is what Merrill’s Marauders were deployed to do, go behind enemy lines and make things as miserable as possible for the Japanese. While creating this havoc, these bravemen gave their lives for their mates and for their country.
The first responsibility was to defend Myitkyina air strip and secondly to take the city. In Mitchell's Battalion, the losses were great. Company G, 2nd Battalion was caught in an ambush and more than 200 men were killed, and only 17 escaped the ambush to report what happened. One of the survivors had been shot through the face and left for dead. He managed to crawl back through the enemy to friendly territory, but he didn't look human. His face was covered in maggots. The medical officer said the maggots had saved his life by eating all the infection which would have killed him. The man did survive, and in fact was returned to the unit months later with his jaw wired and instructions to be fed soft diet. He was evacuated on the next transport to the rear area.
Quoted directly from Mitchell’s Memoirs…
One of the worst things, other than the Company G ambush, was when some of the brass in the rear felt that the stalemate we were involved in could be broken by sending in B-25 bomber planes and bomb at high altitude, 5,000 feet, which they did. The bombs were dropped short and as many hit us as hit the enemy! We lost lots of men, over a hundred. It was a horrible experience trying to dig out men covered in their fox holes, blue from suffocation, body parts everywhere, wounded and dying everywhere. Several weeks later, the same planes came back again, (but) gave us warning ahead of time, therefore, we could move our lines back 100 yards. The B-25 bombers came in again and hit our lines causing may more casualties. No one ever admitted responsibility or offered any reason or any “sorry about that”. We never again had bombing by B-25s, thank goodness.
Our air support was by fighter bomber planes. The old P-r0s did an outstanding support job. They would fly in very low dropping 250 pound bombs or the napalm bombs, belly tanks which were filled with a liquid mixture that would ignite, covering a large area with flaming liquid, going into bunkers, fox holes and trenches, very frightening even to us. The P-40s also came in low, strafe the enemy positions with 50 caliber machine guns. We never lost any men from this type of air support.
During the campaign to take the city, it was monsoon season. The rain would fill fox holes and keep the men soaked. They would climb out of the protection and lay on the wet ground. When the sun did come out for a few hours, they were soaked in perspiration. Leeches were a problem, finding their way under clothes attaching to their bodies. Men would strip asking buddies to touch the leeches with lighted cigarettes to make them fall off.
After Myitkyina was taken, Mitchell had the inauspicious duty of searching out the MIA’s and burying the dead from both sides of the conflict. They searched for unexploded shells as well. They moved back from the city about 15 miles and established Camp Landis, named for the first Marauder killed in action. Within days of the move, most of the battle weary troops had to be evacuated to hospitals too weak and sick for duty.
Mitchell recalls, “At Camp Landis, the 5307th CUP, Merrill's Marauders, was deactivated in early August 1944. Those of us that were left activated the 475th Infantry and began to receive men back from the hospitals and also troops from the states. We had the foundation of combat troops to begin a new Unit.”