The Mars Task Force in Burma: A Personal Memoir
By Captain Richard W. Hale, USAR (Ret)
In June 1994, my local paper published an Associated Press column titled â€œWorld War II: Fifty Years Ago.â€ It stated that the conquest of Myitkyina by Merrillâ€™s Marauders in June 1944 had enabled the opening of the Burma Road, the overland supply route to China. To me, that was typical of the distortion of the history of World War II in what many of us who served there have come to think of as the most forgotten unit in the most forgotten theater of that war. That unit was the Mars Task Force, the brigade that, working with the Chinese, actually enabled the opening of the Burma Road in January 1945, not June of 1944.
The Mars Task Force (MTF) was the successor to the Marauders, and had absorbed many former members of that unit. These two were the only American infantry combat units to serve on the mainland of Asia in World War II. Unfortunately, most histories of the period either ignore the MTF altogether or refer to it along the lines of a â€œnew brigade in the image of the Marauders,â€ which was not quite correct.
Myitkyina was the main Japanese base and airfield in North Burma. It had to be captured, both to negate the constant harassment of â€œThe Humpâ€ flights by Japanese fighters based there, and because it was the junction point of the new Ledo Road coming out of India with the road network of pre-war Burma. The new route had to pass through there in order to link up with the Old Burma Road near the Chinese border.
The Marauders had been fighting and marching over difficult terrain since February 1944. They moved out of India with about 3,000 men, but by the middle of May, they were down to about 1,300. Combat casualties were outnumbered by exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, mostly typhus, malaria and dysentery.
By the time these remaining Marauders climbed over the 6,000-foot Kumon range to seize the Myitkyina airfield from the surprised Japanese on May 17, they were about done in. When the town of Myitkyina itself actually fell on August 3, all but about 200 had been evacuated. The battle was eventually won by the insertion of two battalions of Combat Engineers from the Ledo Road, plus MPs, truck drivers, clerks, and bakers; any men that could be found were pressed into service from the rear-echelon in India, along with infantry replacements fresh off the ships.
The official designation of the Marauders was â€œ5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).â€ Its army code name was GALAHAD. The name â€œMerrillâ€™s Maraudersâ€ was coined by a newsman. The name stuck, despite the fact that Brigadier General Frank Merrill was only in charge of the unit for very short periods (he had a number of heart attacks, and had to be evacuated), and was never in combat with the men. His deputy, Colonel Charles N. Hunter, was the man actually in charge throughout the crucial stages of the Marauder campaign. In any case, during the battle for Myitkyina, the original Marauders came to be called â€œOld Galahad,â€ and the replacements â€œNew Galahad.â€
After Myitkyina was captured, the Combat Engineers went back to work on the Ledo Road, while everyone else moved north, about ten miles, into a campsite on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, named Camp Landis in honor of the first Marauder killed in Burma. Most of the Old Galahad men were sent home. The New Galahad survivors were assigned to the newly created 475th Infantry Regiment (Long Range Penetration Regiment, Special), which became part of the also newly formed 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), dubbed the Mars Task Force.
The final input of manpower for the 475th Infantry was the arrival in early October of myself and 599 other cavalry-trained troopers from the Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas. We were flown in to Myitkyina from the troopship in Bombay, and trucked to Camp Landis in the dark. When we woke up the next morning, we were in the infantry. This was quite a surprise, considering that we were still outfitted with cavalry gear, including two pairs of boots, the spurs we were awarded after graduation from training (a cavalry tradition), riding breeches, and special cavalry raincoats.
Our group was originally intended to be used as fillers for the 124th Cavalry Regiment, which arrived shortly thereafter, but we were instead hijacked to bring the 475th up to strength. The 124th was a Texas National Guard unit. By the time they got to Burma, the Texan contingent was down to about half. One of my high school classmates from small-town Ohio was a medic in the 124th. He was quite shocked when I looked him up to say hello.