Merrill’s Marauders capture Japanese Airfield in Burma

American troops of Merrill's Marauders and the Chinese march side by side down the Ledo Road. February 1944
American troops of Merrill’s Marauders and the Chinese march side by side down the Ledo Road. February 1944

In February 1944 the 2,750 men of the U.S. 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) marched into the Burmese jungle. They were also known as ‘Galahad Unit’ and are better known today as Merrill’s Marauders, after their commanding officer. They were a deep penetration force travelling across country, like the Chindits they were dependent on air drops for resupply.

After their 1000 mile long trek over the outskirts of the Himalayas and the Chinese Kumon mountain range, the Marauders were in bad shape. The standard K ration had insufficient calories to sustain them on the prolonged, arduous march.

Captain Fred O. Lyons described the condition they were in when they came across Japanese in the jungle during the march:

By now my dysentery was so violent I was draining blood. Every one of the men was sick from one cause or another. My shoulders were worn raw from the pack straps, and I left the pack behind… The boys with me weren’t in much better shape… A scout moving ahead suddenly held his rifle high in the air.

Enemy sighted… Then at last we saw them, coming down the railroad four abreast… The gunner crouched low over his tommy-gun and tightened down. Then the gun spoke. Down flopped a half-dozen Japs, then another half dozen. The [Japanese] column spewed from their marching formation into the bush.

We grabbed up the gun and slid back into the jungle. Sometimes staggering, sometimes running, sometimes dragging, I made it back to camp. I was so sick I didn’t care whether the Japs broke through or not; so sick I didn’t worry any more about letting the colonel down. All I wanted was unconsciousness.

Interview with Paul Wilder quoted on Wikipedia.

In a surprise attack the remainder of the Force captured the former British airfield at Myitkyina on the 17th May. The Marauders sent the message “Merchant of Venice” – the airfield was secured, engineers were not needed to repair the runway and the resupply planes could land.

The 879th Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion were despatched anyway. The men on the ground were not pleased, they desperately needed resupply, including ammunition.

The Engineers describe their day:

17 May 44

Company “A” started on their airborne mission. The first glider towed by (Troop Carrier commander) General Olds’ plane landed at Myitkyina at 1630 hours on 17 May 1944, followed at five minute intervals by the other nine gliders. The first glider landed from South to North on the strip utilizing the entire runway. The other gliders landed from West to East (cross-field).

All of them crashed into revetments, other gliders, or brush at the edge of the field. Two of the gliders landed in Japanese territory; but the men and equipment were brought back safely to the airstrip. The gliders landed at speeds ranging from 80 to 110 miles per hour. Personnel participating in the glider operation included two officers, one Medic, and 27 enlisted men, all volunteers.

Equipment carried on gliders included two Clark tractors, two Case tractors, one jeep, one trailer, two carryalls, two mine detectors, one carpenter chest, rations, gas and oil, and drinking water. Four enlisted men were injured in landing, none seriously.

Upon landing all men started unloading gliders and towed the gliders off the field so that planes could land. More men came in by C-47 so that within twenty-four hours of the start of the air operation, four officers and fifty-two enlisted men, exclusive of injured, of Company “A”, were on the field.

As soon as gliders had been unloaded and cleared from the runway, men started unloading C-47’s. Crawler type Clark tractors were unloaded with regular plane ramps without being reinforced, under blackout conditions. Company CP was set up in a wrecked glider on the west side of the field.

See Burma Star

The men of Company A were to make themselves useful. The airfield was about to come under counter-attack. It would not be until August that the town of Myitkyina was captured.

See Life Magazine images and story.

The exploits of the Marauders gained public attention from the 1962 Warner Brothers film.
The exploits of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) gained public attention from the 1962 Warner Brothers film.

2 thoughts on “Merrill’s Marauders capture Japanese Airfield in Burma”

  1. “The Best from Yank the Army Weekly” published by E. P. Dutton & Co, Inc. in 1945 contains an article on page 91 titled “The Dead End Kids” by Sgt. Dave Richardson. It is the story of a battle on Nambyu River between units of the Japanese 18th Division and Merrill’s Marauders. If you can locate the book, it is an interesting story.

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