Journalists called them Merrill’s Marauders. Officially, they were the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). To the transportation planners, they were Shipment 1688. Operationally, they were Galahad Force. The story of their campaign in the jungles of northern Burma showed the capabilities of this improvised force of American soldiers. They gained surprise by undertaking seemingly impossible marches through mountainous jungle and defeated numerically superior forces of the Imperial Japanese Army that previously had an aura of invincibility in jungle warfare. They gained and held their objective despite too few supplies, too much disease, planners that did not understand special operations forces (SOF) and, in the end, exhaustion. Some 75 years after they became the U.S. Army’s largest special operations force to be
sent into battle in World War II, this unit – intended to last only for one 90-day combat mission – is part of the heritage of today’s Rangers.
The Road to Burma
The 5307th originated at the August 1943 Quebec Conference of the Anglo-American political and military leadership. The charismatic British Brigadier Orde Wingate described how he had organized the Chindits, SOF light infantry, and infiltrated behind Japanese lines in Burma. Politicians, generals, and public alike were hungry for news of victories from the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater of war, where there had been little except defeats.
Wingate offered hope of success in the CBI in 1944. President Franklin Roosevelt committed to send ground combat units to fight under Wingate. The chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, enabled the formation and deployment of what became the Air Commandos to support Wingate. The difficult coalition command relationships in the CBI – where U.S., British, and Chinese Nationalist strategic interests all widely differed – made it imperative that the United States have “boots on the ground” in Burma.
The U.S. Army pulled together a force of volunteers, mixing combat-tested infantrymen that had fought the Japanese on Guadalcanal and in New Guinea, and others, jungle-trained, from garrisons in the Panama Canal Zone and Caribbean, with shortfalls made up from Army correctional facilities. A provisional force, intended for only one mission, its personnel arrived with no official commander or staff, no shared loyalties, no shoulder insignia, no colors, and limited cohesion. Few in the U.S. Army had any experience or knew about special operations, whether Wingate’s or any other model.
U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Stilwell was tasked with keeping China in the war. He was openly hostile to the British, the Chinese Nationalist, and the Army Air Forces leadership; his nickname was “Vinegar Joe.” There were no U.S. Army combat units in the CBI, although Stilwell had asked for infantry divisions. The CBI was the lowest priority for the U.S. Army, at the end of a supply line running halfway around the world. Everything, not just combat units, was scarce.
The British, planning to launch another Chindit offensive (supported by U.S. Air Commandos), were primarily concerned with defending India against a Japanese offensive. Stilwell insisted that no U.S. ground combat units would fight under Wingate; he wanted these soldiers in north Burma to, in effect, spearhead an offensive by Chinese units based in India to open up a new land route to China. Since the Japanese had overrun the original Burma Road to China in 1942, U.S. transport aircraft based in India had been China’s only link to the Allies, flying over the Himalayas on a route that their crews called “The Hump.”
In October 1943, two months after the Quebec Conference, Shipment 1688 disembarked in India and started three months of training. Its three battalions were organized Chindit-style: a total of six color-coded combat teams, with machine guns and mortars but no artillery, and with limited logistical and medical support. All movement would be by foot, leading the vital pack horses and mules acquired locally after the ship carrying their own mules was torpedoed. Air liaison officers would accompany the 5307th; they would rely on airdrops for resupply and light aircraft for casualty evacuation.
Unlike the Chindits, the 5307th, under Stilwell’s Northern Combat Area Command, would seize and hold an objective: the airfield at Myitkyina, the key to northern Burma and a vital way station on both the air and ground routes from India to China. But while the Chindits that trained the 5307th assumed that, like them, they would remain in combat no longer than 90 days before withdrawing, sustained combat was implicit in Stillwell’s plans. Also, unlike the Chindits, they would be called on to spearhead an offensive by Chinese units, though they were not told this at the time.
In January, they officially became the 5307th. Col. Charles Hunter, who had trained and organized the unit, was replaced by an official commanding officer and now became second in command. Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill had been an enlisted soldier before going to West Point. A trained staff officer and a speaker of Japanese, he had been in Burma at the time of the invasion in 1942, working with both the British and Chinese. But Merrill had no experience with SOF or commanding units in combat. His story – the U.S. Army to take the offensive in Burma – was amplified by the press. Merrill’s Marauders became a household name before firing a shot.
The 5307th left their training camp on Jan. 24, to move to their jumping-off point in northern Burma. On Feb. 24, the 5307th, some 2,750 strong, moved out toward their first objective, the village of Walawbum.
The 5307th would turn Japanese hammer-and-anvil tactics, near-unbeatable in 1941-42, against them, making a flank envelopment march through thick jungle to get behind them. They would be the anvil. The hammer would be provided by Chinese 22nd and 38th Divisions, attacking down the Hukawng valley on the eastern flank of the jungle-covered Kumon Range mountains.
It took up to 10 days of hard marching before the 5307th took up blocking positions on the Kaimang Road near Walawbum. The U.S. Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) Detachment 101 led indigenous Kachin fighters to help defeat Japanese patrols while the 5307th made effective use of their three intelligence and reconnaissance (I&R) platoons and volunteer U.S. Army Nisei (Japanese-American) interpreters. “Some of the most valuable men in our outfit were the Nisei Japanese interpreters,” wrote John M. Jones, an infantry officer with the 5307th. “Once, an interpreter caused the Japanese to attack into a trap by shouting orders to them.
Japanese attempts to break through the 5307th were defeated by accurate rifle fire and air support. By March 7, the Chinese were able to move into positions near Walawbum. The 5307th resupplied with airdrops. The Japanese 18th Division had been dealt a painful defeat and withdrew. The 5307th learned, Jones wrote, “The Japanese is no suicide soldier – he will run and retreat if surrounded, and once you get him on the run he is not nearly so effective.”
The 5307th’s Advance
On March 8, the Japanese launched their long-awaited offensive from Burma into India. This meant that the 5307th could rely on only intermittent air support, as resupply, reconnaissance, and close air support sorties were allocated to these decisive battles. At the same time, Wingate launched his Chindit offensive, in which the 5307th had been intended to participate. The Chindits operated against Japanese supply lines, but battle and disease resulted in heavy casualties, including Wingate himself, who was killed in an air crash.
Starting on March 12, the 5307th advanced over the Jambu Bum Ridge into the Mogaung Valley, which led to the great Irrawaddy River that flowed past Myitkyina. The 5307th marched through increasingly rough terrain. One battalion crossed the ridge, spearheading a Chinese force, and blocked the Kamaing Road, the main Japanese supply line, near the village of Shaduzup, which they took after a battle on March 28. The OSS-led Kachins, operating independently, helped defeat Japanese patrols. The other two battalions of the 5307th, after a lengthy enveloping march, set up their blocking positions near the village on Inkangahtawng. The Japanese launched frontal attacks, trying desperately to break through. The 5307th, supported by airstrikes, held the line, though ammunition ran low.
The Fight for Nhpum Ga
Stilwell and his staff were impressed by the 5307th’s defeat of numerically superior Japanese forces (the jungle terrain had prevented them from bringing their greater numbers into combat). With no U.S. Army infantry regiments or divisions within thousands of miles, they committed the 5307th to sustained infantry combat.
The 5307th was ordered to withdraw on March 25 to block a Japanese counterattack aimed at the Chinese forces. The 5307th’s 2nd Battalion, ordered to defend the village of Nhpuhm Ga, narrowly out-marched the Japanese to get there first. The attacks on the 5307th’s hastily prepared perimeter defenses started in earnest on March 29.
The siege of Nhpum Ga lasted until mid-April. The defenders – with two pack howitzers flown in from India – were aided by the rest of the 5307th attacking Japanese supply lines and hitting the besiegers from their rear. The Japanese withdrew on April 9; Nhpum Ga was held.
“The 5307th – all three battalions, just about to a man – was beginning to wear out”, Lt. Carlton Ogburn, a communications officer with the 5307th, wrote. After Nhpum Ga, the 5307th was never the same. Casualties from disease outnumbered those from combat; it was now down to 1,600 men. Airdrops provided resupply, but there was rarely enough to eat, even of the unpalatable K-ration packs. Casualties, including Merrill, who had suffered a heart attack, were evacuated by U.S. light aircraft. Hunter re-assumed command.
Myitkyina: Key to Northern Burma
Stilwell wanted each one of the 5307th’s three battalions to spearhead Chinese or Kachin forces in an overland attack on Myitkyina before the monsoon rains curtailed air operations. This would require crossing the 6,500-foot Naura Hkyet pass, marching across the Kumon Mountains while, further south, the Chindits, put under Stilwell’s command, would block Japanese communications. Stilwell promised the 5307th’s officers that, once Myitkyina was captured, they would be flown back to India. Merrill, though not recovered, returned to help plan the operation.
Starting on April 28, the 5307th marched on Myitkyina, guided by Kachins over mountain trails that did not appear on Japanese maps. Pack mules that stumbled plummeted to their deaths. It required great exertion from soldiers already weakened through lack of food and, increasingly, wracked with dysentery. Despite this, Hunter and the first of the three columns arrived within striking distance of Myitkyina on May 16. Patrols confirmed that the Japanese were unprepared; they had not thought infantry could cross the mountains. Hunter decided to attack while he had the element of surprise.
The attack on Myitkyina airfield on the morning of May 17 was a complete success. Hunter radioed for reinforcements. The soldiers were ready to fly back to India: Mission accomplished. But when Hunter committed Chinese forces to take the town of Myitkyina, the Japanese defenders stopped them cold, and there was no U.S. or British infantry that could be flown in to exploit success. The first airlifts brought in U.S. engineers and British air defense gunners to consolidate Myitkyina airfield. But these had to be committed, alongside the 5307th and the Chinese, to fight a desperate defensive battle as the Japanese, now reinforced, launched a counterattack to recapture the airfield.
The battle to hold the airfield continued through May 21-31. Merrill collapsed again, returning Hunter to command. The 5307th was attrited away through intense defensive fighting. Sick soldiers were taken from their hospital beds in India and flown to the defense of Myitkyina airfield, gaining time for the arrival of Chinese reinforcements, including artillery, and another improvised unit of U.S. infantry replacements, designated the New Galahad Force.
By the end of May, of the 1,310 men of the 5307th that had marched over the mountains to Myitkyina airfield, more than half had been evacuated. The remainder were collapsing from exhaustion and disease and were, according to James E.T. Hopkins, one of their medical officers, “Disgusted by the failure of Generals Merrill and Stilwell to meet them in small groups or as a unit to express some gratitude to them and their dead or seriously wounded or sick comrades.”
After weeks of close combat and trench warfare, Myitkyina town was finally taken in August. Hunter had only some 200 men of the 5307th left with him on the ground. These were used as a cadre for U.S. replacements and New Galahad, becoming the 475th Infantry Regiment, which continued offensive operations in northern Burma. The new Ledo Road to China was completed. U.S. transport aircraft staged through Myitkyina. China was kept in the war, despite a powerful Japanese offensive in 1945.
By the time the 5307th was officially disbanded in August, it had suffered more than 80 percent casualties, mainly from disease. Hunter was relieved and sent home by slow boat. Charlton Ogden, a lieutenant in the 5307th, wrote that what he remembered of its victories was, “The hunger, the exhaustion, the drenchings, the disease, the sores, the denial of every comfort and amenity.” Its volunteer soldiers, poorly supplied, went as far as they could – Myitkyina airfield – carried by their motivation to fight and devotion to not letting their buddies down.
A Legacy for SOF
The legacy of the 5307th became a battle in itself. For decades, however much they admired the taking of Myitkyina, what the Army’s leadership remembered was the unit’s eventual exhaustion. The Army decided to disband its wartime special operations units. Rebuilding this capability was slow, starting in the 1950s with Special Forces, built on the model of OSS Detachment 101. The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) companies, redesignated in 1969, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, formed in the 1980s, were perceptive in taking their heritage from the 5307th, along with the Army’s wartime Ranger battalions.
The 75th Ranger Regiment number was itself an homage to the unit that the 5307th became. The 5307th’s personnel were retroactively awarded the coveted Ranger tabs, earned in battle. The six color-coded combat teams of the 5307th are commemorated by the stripes in the 75th Regiment’s heraldry. Like the Rangers, the 5307th did indeed “lead the way,” spearheading the advance of larger but less capable and motivated Chinese units.
Today’s Rangers are well trained and equipped professionals. The 5307th were hastily trained volunteers, three months of training in India inadequate preparation to turn them into a cohesive unit. Yet they carried out demanding sustained offensive operations, able to use their ability to maneuver to gain the element of surprise. The 5307th’s taking of Myitkyina airfield was a forerunner of today’s Rangers’ missions to seize high-value objectives.
Communications problems, shortage of in-theater resources, lack of shared understanding between the 5307th and Stilwell and his staff: these all contributed to unrealistic expectations and the ultimate failure to provide logistical and medical support commensurate required for their extended mission. The 5307th responded by doing all they could – winning battles all the way to Myitkyina airfield – until they could do