Merrill’s Marauders were meant to be fast and flexible, a light infantry assault unit that used mules to haul mortars and bazookas, but were otherwise reliant on the faithful combat boot to get them through the fight in Burma. Also called Unit Galahad and the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), they were an early version of special operations forces under Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill.
One of their early members was 1st Lt. Russell Blair, born in 1915, who was about one-third of the way through a distinguished Army career. Blair was an enlisted cavalryman in Kansas before the war. He attended Reserve Officer Training Corps at Norwich University. There, he taught map reading to freshmen and pursued a degree himself. He later was a platoon commander in the all-African American 10th Cavalry Regiment in California.
As the fighting in the Pacific increased in volume and intensity, Blair volunteered for Merrill’s Marauders and served as a reconnaissance platoon leader.
Burma was a “tough, stinking environment,” Blair said, where weather, terrain and disease were often the enemy. One of Blair’s fellow officers, Fred O. Lyons, told historian Paul Wilder that his own “dysentery was so violent I was draining blood.” Blair said he experienced “fevers and a general weakness” even while humping with helmet, field pack and rifle. “Then, there were the Japanese.”
On June 13, 1944, a Japanese machine gun emplacement pinned down a patrol Blair was leading. Lying flat and maneuvering mostly with his elbows and feet, Blair crawled alone to a spot behind the gun crew, aimed his M1 carbine, and killed all three Japanese soldiers manning the machine gun.
Jungle warfare in Burma could be relentless. Just three days later, Blair crawled under heavy fire to rescue two wounded members of his patrol. These combined acts of heroism resulted in a battlefield promotion to captain and the award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor.
Blair remained in the Army after World War II. He was in Tokyo when the Korean War began June 25, 1950. On Sept. 14, 1950, he was in command of the 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, of the 25th Infantry Division. According to Army records, Blair and his men were near Haman, Korea, when one of his companies was in heavy fighting and lost all but one of its officers.
Realizing the unit needed leadership, Blair joined the company. He was loud and busy and inspired the company’s soldiers as they confronted a series of attacks. He organized a perimeter defense of 40 to 50 men, and encouraged his soldiers to hold this position “despite four banzai attacks by over 400 enemy troops until almost all of their ammunition had been expended.” (The citation for his award used banzai, a term associated with World War II Japanese forces, to refer to the North Koreans attacking his position.) Wounded in the leg and in severe pain, Blair led his soldiers out of an ambush. This ensured that a larger U.S. force nearby, including wounded, would be able to withdraw to safety.
For his valor that day, Blair was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross in January 1951.
Lt. Col. Blair retired from active duty in November 1954 with more than 20 years of service. In addition to his two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, Blair received a Silver Star, two Bronze Star Medals (one with “V” for valor), three Purple Hearts, and two awards of the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Blair worked in public relations at General Motors. The ex-cavalryman’s love of horses and his expertise as a rider brought him to the New York Military Academy, a college-preparatory boarding and day school, in 1965. He served as that institution’s riding master and Director of Horsemanship until 1972. He was made an honorary graduate of the academy in 2000. Blair’s contributions to the Army were not forgotten either. In 2003, he joined an elite group of soldiers when he was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
In later years, Blair lived in Cornwall-on-Hudson where the academy was located, and died at a local hospital after suffering a stroke. His passing was a loss for the Army and for America.