WWII jungle fighting unit approved for congressional medal
The soldiers spent months behind enemy lines, marching hundreds of kilometers through the tangled jungles and steep mountains of Burma as they fought hunger and disease during their secret mission between firefights with Japanese forces.
In February 1944, the American jungle combat unit, nicknamed Merrill's Marauders, set out to capture a Japanese-held airfield and open an allied supply route between India and China. Starting with 3,000 soldiers, the Marauders ended their mission five months later with just under 200 men still in combat.
The journey of about 1,610 kilometers on foot was so grueling that fighting "was the easy part," said Robert Passanisi, who, at 96 years old, is one of the nine known marauders known to be still alive.
Now the Marauders, officially designated by the Army as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), have been approved by Congress for their highest award: the Congressional Gold Medal.
Passanisi hired his survivors and the families of many of the deceased to begin lobbying for the honor four years ago. A final bill approved in September was sent to the White House on October 6, where it is awaiting President Donald Trump's signature.
"After many years, all sacrifice and suffering are finally recognized," said Passanisi of Lindenhurst, New York. "It makes you feel like it was all worth it."
In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that the army should assemble a ground unit for a long-range mission behind enemy lines into Japanese-occupied Burma, now Myanmar. Seasoned infantrymen and newly hired soldiers alike volunteered for the mission and were considered so secret that they weren't told where they were going.
Merrill's Marauder - nickname for the unit's commander, Brig. General Frank Merrill - was hired to cut Japanese communications and utility lines on their long march to the airfield in the occupied city of Myitkyina. They were often outnumbered and fought successfully against Japanese troops in five major and 30 minor battles between February and August 1944.
Most of the days the marauders spent making their way through the thick jungle. Only mules helped transport equipment and provisions. They slept on the floor and seldom changed. Supplies dropped from airplanes were the only means of replenishing rations and ammunition. Malnutrition and the humid climate made the soldiers susceptible to malaria, dysentery and other diseases.
"These people ate one K ration per man per day," said Christopher Goodrow, weapons curator for the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia. "You're talking about a can of tuna, a couple of crackers, a candy bar and cigarettes."
In neighboring Fort Benning, the elite fighters of the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment consider themselves proud descendants of Merrill's Marauders, revered for their general tenacity.
"They're in a class of their own when it comes to the things they endured," Goodrow said.
The Marauders join more than 160 war heroes, military units, and civilians who have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for Excellence in the American Revolution. A single medal honoring the Marauders as a unit will be made and given to the Smithsonian Institution.
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