Monday, May 18, 2015

5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) I

The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as "Merrill's Marauders," had become so weakened in seizing the airfield at Myitkyina that Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell had to call on the 209th and 236th Engineer Combat battalions to take the nearby town.

Wingate’s exploits so impressed Winston Churchill that the British Prime Minister summoned this “man of genius and audacity” to the Quebec Conference in August 1943. At Quebec, the Allies finally agreed to launch an offensive into Burma in early 1944. While the Chinese Y Force advanced from Yunnan into eastern Burma and the British IV Corps drove east into Burma from Manipur State, Stilwell’s Chinese-American force would attack southeast from the Shingbwiyang area toward Myitkyina. Capture of that key North Burma city and its airfield would remove the threat of enemy fighter planes to transports flying the Hump and also enable the Allies to connect the advancing Ledo Road into the transportation network of North Burma. A new Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) under British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten would provide overall control to the offensive. After listening to Wingate’s impassioned arguments on the benefits of Chindit-style long-range penetration groups, the Allied leaders also agreed to expand the number of such groups to support the advance, and the Americans agreed to supply their own long-range penetration force.

The American force which emerged, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) known as GALAHAD, proved a far cry from the elite unit which the Army’s leaders had envisioned. In the South and Southwest Pacific, the Caribbean, and the United States, the call for jungle-tested volunteers for a hazardous mission produced a collection of adventurers, small-town Midwesterners, southern farm boys, a few Native and Japanese-Americans, and a number of disciplinary cases that commanders were only too happy to unload. As the volunteers assembled in San Francisco, one officer remarked, “We’ve got the misfits of half the divisions in the country.” After arriving in Bombay, India, on 31 October, GALAHAD trained in long-range penetration tactics under Wingate’s supervision and soon earned a reputation as an unruly outfit. A British officer, who had been invited to GALAHAD’S camp for a quiet Christmas evening, noted men wildly firing their guns into the air in celebration and remarked, “I can’t help wondering what it’s like when you are not having a quiet occasion.” Although GALAHAD presented some disciplinary problems, Stilwell and his staff were overjoyed to obtain some American combat troops, and Stilwell managed to wrest control of the unit from the angry Wingate. To command GALAHAD, he selected one of his intimates, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, leading correspondents to dub the unit “Merrill’s Marauders.”

By the time GALAHAD reached the front in February 1944, Stilwell had already started his Chinese divisions into Burma. He had received word of Chiang’s decision to cancel the offensive into eastern Burma but was determined to continue regardless of Y Force’s plans. Taking command in the field on 21 December, he sent his Chinese troops southeast into the Hukawng Valley of northern Burma. The Chinese received a major boost in morale when a battalion of their 114th Regiment, with artillery support, drove the Japanese from a series of pillboxes and relieved a pocket of trapped troops at Yupbang Ga. Although a small victory, it made the Chinese believe that they could meet the enemy on equal terms. Despite this new confidence, the advance proceeded slowly, due to heavy seasonal rains and Chiang’s tendency to bypass Stilwell and direct his officers not to risk their men unduly. Using wide envelopments to outflank the Japanese defenses, the Chinese pushed to the line of the Tanai Hka, about sixty miles into the Hukawng Valley, by late February.

With GALAHAD’S arrival on the scene, Stilwell continued to press the advance. He ordered his two Chinese divisions to keep pressure on the Japanese front and sent the Marauders on a wide march around the Japanese right to cut the enemy’s communications. Once again, the Chinese advanced at a snail’s pace, heeding Chiang’s orders to conserve strength. Noting the glacial pace of the Chinese, Lt. Gen. Shinichi Tanaka, commander of the Japanese 18th Division, decided to leave a force to block the Chinese and destroy the threat to his rear.

The Marauders were living up to their image in Stilwell’s headquarters as a modern-day version of Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry. To reach the Japanese lines of communications, they needed to make their way through jungle-choked terrain cut by frequent streams and crossed by only a few trails. When the advance began on 24 February, the intelligence and reconnaissance platoons of GALAHAD’S three battalions took the lead, carefully probing ahead in single file on the narrow footpaths through the dense foliage, examining footprints, stopping frequently to watch and listen, cautiously approaching each bend in the trail. Occasionally, they clashed with Japanese patrols. Near the village of Lanem Ga, a burst of fire from a Japanese machine gun claimed the life of Pvt. Robert W. Landis, the lead scout of the 2d Battalion’s intelligence and reconnaissance platoon and the first Marauder to die in combat. On 3 March the Marauders reached the Japanese line of retreat and established a pair of roadblocks, the 3d Battalion at the little Kachin village of Walawbum, the 2d farther northwest near Kumnyan Ga, and the 1st in reserve. Digging in, they waited for the enemy’s response.

The Japanese did not take long to act. At Walawbum, the 56th Regiment struck the positions of the Orange Combat Team of the 3d Battalion on 4 March and 6 March. The emphasis on marksmanship in GALAHAD’S training now paid dividends as the Americans, aided by heavy mortars firing from their rear and by two heavy machine guns, littered the fields with Japanese dead. On the day of the 6th, the Japanese launched a banzai attack, but the frenzied enthusiasm of the assault again proved no match for American firepower. To the north the 2d Battalion came under severe pressure, repulsing six attacks in one day, before Merrill withdrew them. In all, the Marauders killed about 800 enemy soldiers at a cost of 200 of their own men. As pleased as they were with such a performance, Stilwell and Merrill were anxious to keep down GALAHAD’S losses, particularly given its status as the only available American combat unit. They relieved the Marauders with a Chinese regiment on 7 March. By that time, Tanaka had decided to withdraw south along a hastily built bypass of the American roadblocks to a strong position on the Jambu Bum, a range of low hills at the southern end of the Hukawng Valley.

In his plan for the campaign, Stilwell had hoped to reach the Jambu Bum before monsoon rains forced suspension of active operations. His divisions were practically the only Allied force making progress in the campaign. Not only had Chiang postponed Y Force’s advance, but the British, far from moving into Burma, were trying to hold against a major Japanese offensive into India. This Japanese advance, which began on 8 March, threatened both the British Army in Assam and Stilwell’s supply line to India. For the moment Stilwell could still proceed, but he would have to keep a close watch on developments to the southwest. He accordingly laid plans for the Chinese to continue their advance on the 18th Division’s front, while GALAHAD would split into two parts, again envelop the Japanese right flank, and cut Japanese communications in two different places.

In this flanking movement, GALAHAD had to march through some of the most difficult terrain of the campaign. The Marauders needed to climb out of the Hukawng Valley onto the hills to the east and then move south through territory in which only the extremely steep, narrow valley of the Tanai offered an avenue of approach. Fortunately, the Marauders in their march unexpectedly encountered the Kachin guerrillas, who served as guides, screened the advance, and even provided elephants as cargo bearers. On the right the 1st Battalion hacked a path through twenty miles of bamboo forests and streams, crossing one river fifty-six times. Early on the morning of 28 March the battalion surprised an enemy camp at Shaduzup and established a roadblock. To the south Col. Charles N. Hunter, Merrill’s second in command, led the 2d and 3d Battalions up the Tanai and through ridge lines to take up a position near Inkawngatawng. They had hardly arrived when they received orders to retrace their steps and take up blocking positions. A captured enemy sketch told Stilwell that a strong Japanese force was advancing on the Allied left to outflank the attackers. To head off the Japanese, the 3d Battalion occupied Janpan and the 2d Battalion took up positions at Nhpum Ga.

At Nhpum Ga the 2d Battalion withstood eleven days of shelling and heavy attacks from three Japanese battalions which surrounded the position. The 2d’s perimeter, 400 by 250 yards on top of a 2,800 foot saddle of high ground, dominated the surrounding terrain, but it offered few amenities to battalion members. The Japanese captured the only water hole, necessitating airdrops of water into the position. The stench from rotting mule carcasses and unburied excrement, according to one soldier, “would have been utterly unbearable if there had been any alternative to bearing it.” Yet, somehow, the 2d managed to hold. Its Japanese-American soldiers frequently crept into no-man’s-land at night, eavesdropping on Japanese conversations to discover the enemy’s intentions. Meanwhile, the rest of GALAHAD rushed to the rescue. The 1st Battalion, leaving its position at Shaduzup to the Chinese, hastened to the aid of the 2d, and Merrill, though evacuated with a heart attack, arranged the drop of a pair of pack howitzers to the relief forces. Aided by this artillery fire, the 1st and 3d Battalions finally broke through and relieved the 2d on 9 April.

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