Merrill's Marauders

Photograph of Merrill's Marauders on a mountain trail

U.S. Army

"Merrill's Marauders" was the nickname given by reporter James Sheply to 5307 Provisional Regiment (GALAHAD), which the members of the unit enthusiastically adopted for themselves in place of an official designation that "sounded disgustingly like a Los Angeles street address." The unit went into combat in northern Burma under Frank Merrill in February 1944. However, Merrill suffered from heart trouble and only led his regiment for part of the campaign.

The unit was the American counterpart of the Chindits, trained to operate far behind enemy lines with resupply and evacuation of the sick and wounded carried out by transport aircraft. As it turned out, the Marauders were employed instead as the spearhead of Stilwell's campaign to take Myitkyina. This did not go over well with Wingate, who reportedly told the unit's temporary first commander, Colonel Francis Brink, that "...General Stilwell can take his Americans and stick 'em up his a--."

The Marauders penetrated deep into the jungle to form a roadblock behind the retreating 18 Division. They were then supposed to be the anvil against which Stilwell's Chinese divisions would hammer the Japanese. However, the Chinese advance was sufficiently ponderous that Tanaka decided to throw his entire force against the Marauders. When the Marauders held their position, and a force of Chinese tanks under an American colonel moved rapidly south to split 18 Division and raid the divisional headquarters, Tanaka found himself in serious trouble and was forced to break off the attack and try to escape the trap. His division escaped but suffered heavily. A second attempt at envelopment went poorly and the Marauders were forced to retreat into the hills.

When the Japanese attempted an envelopment of their own, the Marauders cut their supply line at Nhpum Ga, holding the position until the Japanese gave up and resumed their retreat. During this battle, Sergeant Roy Matsumoto, a Nisei interpreter, overheard Japanese plans to attack part of the perimeter. The Marauders pulled their lines in from the position, heavily booby-trapped the area, and created a fire zone. When the lead Japanese platoon encountered the boobytraps, Matsumoto shouted "Charge!" in Japanese at the top of his lungs, bringing a second platoon into the killing zone.

At this point, the Marauders had seen enough tough jungle combat to bring the average soldier to the edge of breakdown from combat fatigue. Rather than relieve the unit, Stilwell ordered them to make one final envelopment through the Kuman Mountains to take the town of Myitkyina. The Marauders succeeded in taking the airstrip on 16 May 1944, but failed to take the town. Though a thoroughly spent force, they were ordered to assist the Chinese in taking Myitkyina, along with any other Americans that Stilwell could scrape together.

Casualties in the campaign were 123 dead, 399 wounded, and 2000 sick, an extraordinarily high figure. 1500 of the sick succumbed to various tropical fevers and the other 500 to dysentery. One battalion had just 12 effectives left out of a TO&E strength of 564 on 30 May 1944. Many of the Marauders were rendered permanently unfit for combat, and the remainder came close to mutiny after they were sent to a "rest camp" that was little more than a cow pasture surrounded by primitive huts. The unit was disbanded and few of its members ever saw combat again.

Stilwell's decision to keep the Marauders in combat for so long may have been justified by political necessity: The Chinese and British, unenthusiastic about jungle combat, could hardly slack off when Stilwell was pushing his American troops so hard. But it is much harder to justify Stilwell's extraordinary stinginess with combat decorations and other forms of physical and psychological support. This created lasting bitterness among the surviving Marauders towards Stilwell. In the end, the Marauders were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, and 44 Silver Stars.


Command and General Staff College Website (accessed 2009-9-29)

Cowdrey (1994)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Larrabee (1987)

Spector (1985)

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