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Merrill’s Marauders — the book correcting the record of their history making mission

31 December 2013

Merrill’s Marauders — the book correcting the record of their history making mission

Merrill’s Marauders: the untold story of Unit Galahad and the toughest Special Forces mission of World War II, Gavin Mortimer, 9780760344323, 240 pp.

Merrill's Marauders: the untold story of Unit Galahad and the toughest Special Forces mission of World War II by Gavin Mortimer and cover design by Jason Gabbert

Merrill’s Marauders: the untold story of Unit Galahad and the toughest Special Forces mission of World War II by Gavin Mortimer with cover design by Jason Gabbert

Gavin Mortimer thankfully goes well beyond the usual factoids regarding Merrill’s Marauders and their historic special forces mission into the jungles and mountains of Burma (known today as Myanmar). This story will make the reader proud of the soldiers of Unit Galahad as well as angry at high level command staff. Mortimer corrects the record and shows the reader how incredible their success was, as well as how important completion of the mission was to the war effort. He places the overriding reasons for their achievement where they belong — and they are not with Stilwell or Merrill as is usually related. This book truly is the untold story of Unit Galahad and not the public relations version.

“Merrill’s Marauders” were Unit Galahad,  officially the 5307th Composite Regiment (Provisional), and tasked with a unique mission to place a strong force of combatants into play against a numerically superior force of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) for three months. Taking place in the northern Burmese (presently named, Myanmar) jungles and mountains where the terrain and conditions were inhospitable beyond belief. Seemingly always in mud, hiking extremely steep trails, dealing not only with the usual diseases which occur when people live closely in unsanitary conditions but with tropical diseases such as malaria as well as scrub typhus — men of this unit became severely underweight and many, if not most, were fevered at any given time. One heroic tale is recollected of a soldier rescuing his buddy from no man’s land during a firefight in spite of a 104º+ F fever (40º+ C). Most of us are bedridden well below that temperature but these men continued on unless running a fever in excess of 102º F for days at a time. Indeed, only two would complete the mission without becoming ill and the unit experienced an extraordinarily high mission casualty rate with the majority of the figure due to sickness, not combat casualty. Infantrymen were not evacuated unless wounded or ran a fever in excess of 102º F for more than three days. It seems that aerial resupply only extended their suffering, as if in one of Dante’s circles of Hell — yet they drove on.

The mission extended for a far longer term than three months. Instead, Unit Galahad remained and fought behind enemy lines for six months and came to believe that they had become “Stilwell’s expendables.” Wounded were most often flown out of the combat area by medevac with small liaison aircraft — a rare positive morale effect for the unit.

Air resupply missions as well as fighter on ground attack missions were possible due to the temporary air superiority gained whenever needed by the Allied aircraft. Mortimer also does well describing the procedure used to receive these supplies descending under parachute canopy — even noting which color parachute for which type of provision. He also emphasizes the flying of the C-47 pilots who would lower the noises of their aircraft to enhance the “kickers” ability to heave the cargo out of their aircraft — at risk of stalling their aircraft less than 400 feet (~120m) above ground level. Mortimer catches details others often miss.

Ultimately, though Unit Galahad felt abandoned by Generals Stilwell and Merrill, the mission was completed with the capture of the strategic Myitkyina airfield and, a few days later, the town of Myitkyina proper.

Mortimer excels especially in explaining how these infantrymen kept up their combat activity for so long though severely underweight and diseased. Col. Charles Hunter is the commander who made the mission the success it came to be and Mortimer splendidly recounts why this man should be remembered as well as credited — yet became a scapegoat due to General Stilwell and especially the campaigning of one of his “yes men”, General Merrill. Anger is hardly the word and Mortimer proves his case with quotations, citations, research and interviews.

This is the book to read to better understand the forgotten Chinese-Burma-India theater of Operations (CBI) during World War II and, especially, to realize the success as well as historical nature of the unique special forces mission accomplished by Unit Galahad.


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press provided a copy of this book for an objective review.

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