By Scott Wentland

Stopping every hour along the sweltering trails of Burma to burn the leeches off their legs with the ends of cigarettes, these men fight through extreme exhaustion to complete their mission. The unit hears the enemy within spitting distance as they march quietly, single file through the narrow paths of the jungle, up and down steeply inclined hills. Forgetting they were in a remote corner of the world, they have one thing on their minds: victory.

Known as “Merrill’s Marauders,” the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) fought under some of the most grueling conditions ever endured in warfare during their 1,000 mile march through the punishing terrain of China, Burma, and India. Often overshadowed by the more high-profile units of European and Pacific Theaters, the 5307th Composite Unit was called to carry out a long range penetration mission aimed towards disrupting Japanese communication and supply lines in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. While President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill declared Germany the “first priority,” the Japanese were not to go unchecked, and Merrill’s Marauders were among the most notable forces to give the Japanese hell before the focus was shifted to the Pacific.

At the Quebec Conference in 1943 President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and other Allied leaders decided that the Japanese military must be met with force in Southeast Asia. As a result, some 3,000 rugged soldiers were assembled as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), and given the code name: GALAHAD. Later the unit would be called “Merrill’s Marauders” after its commander, Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill. Merrill’s Marauders were to be closely coordinated with the Chinese 22nd and 38th Divisions to engage the veteran Japanese 18th Division in Burma, around the strategically important Burma Road to China. From February through August 1944 the Marauders fought five major battles (Walawbum, Shaduzup, Inkangahtawng, Nhpum Ga, and Myitkyina) and 30 minor engagements.

Many volunteers were eager to fight the Japanese. Former Medical Officer with Merrill’s Marauders and author of Spearhead, James E.T. Hopkins, M.D. remembered that Merrill’s Marauders “looked upon the enemy as a murderous subhuman species.” Bitter resentment resided in the hearts of many American soldiers fighting the Japanese because of the events at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the Chinese and Burmese suffered deeply under the tortuous Japanese military occupation. Their suffering translated into an equally resentful outlook on the Japanese at that time. Hopkins said, “The men were fighting for their country and their comrades.”

Their foes were not limited to the Japanese 18th Division or other axis forces. The men of the 5307th faced terrifying terrain laced with some of the most deadly creatures earth has to offer. Merrill’s Marauders fought disease with as much tenacity as they fought the Japanese, ranging from amoebic dysentery, typhus fever, to malaria, and even psychoneurosis. Few if any Marauders escaped the CBI Theater without falling prey to some form of tropical disease.

Sgt. David Richardson, former YANK Staff Correspondent and the only reporter to march with the Marauders for their duration in CBI, remembered “you could go to bed at night, and you look at the guy next to you and he might be dead the next morning.” The Japanese became a mere battle in the war of survival; conquering disease proved to be the toughest hurdle.