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Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Brigadier Gen. Frank P. Merrill
Gen. Frank Merrill (lt) with American Gen. “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell in Burma.
Hayden Boatner
Merrill’s Marauders Badge
Movie poster starring Jeff Chandler as Merrill.

    THIS WEEK, 70 years ago, “Merrill’s Marauders,” an American long range penetration group modeled after the British “Chindits,” under the command of General Frank Merrill, captured the airfield at Myitkyina. The city is located 920 miles north of Rangoon and 488 miles from Mandalay, in Burma. The word in Burmese means, “near the big river,” and it lies on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River.  Myitkyina is the northern most river port and railway terminus in Burma, and today, has a population of 150,000. It is the capital of the State of Kachin, and had been captured by the Japanese on May 8, 1942, when they drove the British out of Burma.
    The American commander in the area, and Chief-of-Staff to Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, was General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell. After the Japanese pushed the Allies out of Burma, he, and his staff, had walked through the jungle from Mandalay, Burma to Imphal, India - a distance of 240 miles, as the crow flies. Upon arriving at Imphal, the General said, “We took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell.  I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”
    Beginning in December of 1942, “Vinegar” Joe did just that, urging the Allies, at a conference in Delhi, to mount an offensive to recapture Myitkyina. By May of 1943, at the TRIDENT Conference in Washington, General George C. Marshall and Admiral Ernest King were on board with Vinegar Joe. By October 1943, the plan was coming into focus. Finally, FDR was persuaded to back Stillwell’s campaign in North Burma. The presence of the air strip at Myitkyina tipped the scales for the President. Still, Vinegar Joe’s nominal superior, British Admiral - and second cousin to King George VI - Lord Louis Mountbatten, was opposed to any attack on Myitkyina.
    This area of Burma was defended by units of the recently created 33rd Imperial Japanese Army, commanded by Masaki Honda.
    After Churchill had taken Chindits’ organizer and leader, Orde Wingate, to the First Québec Conference, with the two of them spinning yarns about the behind enemy lines’ exploits of the Commonwealth’s Long Range Penetration Group, the Americans decided they must have one as well. So the call went forth. For some, it was literally, the key to the stockade. Eventually, a unit of 3000 was formed.
    After three months of traversing 1000 miles of the jungles and mountains of Burma, all the while fighting the enemy, disease, snakes, insects and other wild animals, the “Marauders,” who by now were at half-strength, set out for Myitkyina on April 28 in the driving rains of monsoon season, under orders from “Vinegar” Joe. With them, was a Chinese division of 4000 and 600 Kachin Rangers, all under Merrill’s command.
    On May 14, General Merrill signaled General Stilwell that his force was 48 hours from the city.
    The Allied force launched its assault on the airstrip on May 17, at 10:00 A.M. Surprise was complete. The Japanese never expected an assault in monsoon season. It was over in 50 minutes. “Vinegar” Joe, who had been fighting his own battles with the British, was overjoyed, and arrived the next day, with 12 reporters in tow. Fully expecting the town, defended by only 700, to fall at any time, Stilwell left thinking he was a genius.
    Capturing the airfield had taken a superhuman effort by the sickly, emaciated “Marauders,” but for the Allies, it was only the first step in the operation. The city still had to be taken, but it would have to be taken without the “Marauders,” for they were spent. All were headed to the hospital due to malnourishment, scrub typhus, jungle rot, malaria, and/or dysentery, in addition to wounds and injuries. All were underweight. So Merrill sent two of the Chinese battalions to take the town - but instead of fighting the Japanese, they fought each other! When the same thing occurred the next day, Merrill had his second heart attack in as many months. He was replaced by Hayden Boatner, Stilwell’s chief-of-staff.
    Meanwhile, reinforcements were arriving to the Japanese garrison at Myitkyina. Their numbers increased to 3000 within a week. Another 1500 arrived shortly thereafter. The town would not fall for another ten weeks. After the high of the surprise (even to his British allies and his commanding officer, Admiral Lord Mountbatten) capture of the airfield, Stilwell had to suffer the humiliation of the inability to capture the adjacent town.
    Finally, on August 3, 1944, out of food and ammunition, their commander having committed suicide, the Japanese abandoned Myitkyina.
    During the battle, the following losses were sustained: 272 Marauders died, 955 were wounded and 980 invalided; 972 Chinese died, with 3,184 wounded; 790 Japanese dead and 1,180 wounded. The Marauders - down to 130 effectives - were disbanded. Each Marauder was awarded the Bronze Star.
    Two movies were made of the action - Objective Burma, starring Errol Flynn in 1945 and Merrill’s Marauders, released in 1962, with Jeff Chandler as General Merrill.

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own.  Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at
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