By Jonnie Melillo Clasen, Merrill’s Marauders liaison officer Daughter, Merrill’s Marauder Vincent Melillo /
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Seventy-three years after their top-secret mission in the China Burma India Theater, two of the 18 surviving Merrill’s Marauders will honor their World War II commanders by placing wreaths on their grave sites Aug. 4 at West Point.
Merrill’s Marauders, Robert “Bob” Passanisi, 93, from New York, and Gilbert “Gil” Howland, 94, from Pennsylvania, both Army Ranger Hall of Fame members, will honor Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill and Lt. Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell following a brief 11 a.m. welcome reception at the West Point Old Cadet Chapel. More than 50 family members and friends of the elite jungle fighters will also be in attendance.
Holding the memorial service at West Point was decided in Philadelphia during the 2016 Merrill’s Marauder reunion, the last formal reunion because of diminishing attendance. There were 28 Merrill’s Marauders still living on Veteran’s Day last year.
“In the past, our reunions have been held over at least a three-day period,” said Passanisi, Marauder historian and former long-time editor of the Burman News. “This year our informal gathering is for only one day. There aren’t many Merrill’s Marauders left, and at this age it’s very special when any of us are able to get together.”
Passanisi and Howland visited Fort Benning in June for the Ranger Rendezvous which was also attended by Merrill’s Marauders, Dominic Baracani, 95, from Illinois and James Richardson, 96, from Tennessee.
Howland, a World War II, Korea and a two-tour Vietnam veteran, was inducted June 28 into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. He is one of about 325 WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans whose names are displayed at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga., for being triple Combat Infantryman Badge recipients.
Passanisi and Howland are part of what’s left from the almost 3,000 men who answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1943 call and volunteered for a “dangerous and hazardous” mission that none were expected to survive.
Officially, the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, Merrill’s Marauders, were born out of the 1943 Quebec Conference when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to create a secret American volunteer long-range penetration unit that would be assigned to the British.
Serving under Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia Command, the volunteers trained under Brig. Gen. Orde Windgate’s Chindits until being transferred to the American CBI Theater, commanded by Stillwell.
Merrill then became commander of the unit, replacing Col. Charles N. Hunter, the units first and later last commander. All three men were West Point Military Academy graduates.
Merrill’s Marauders were the first American ground troops to fight the Japanese in Asia and the first Americans to fight there since the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Denied an American flag and set of colors to carry into battle, they adopted the tiny P-38 can opener that came with C-rations as their unit insignia.
Yet “magnificent” is how some writers have described them. Gen. George C. Marshall, then Army chief of staff, said their mission against “large numbers of the enemy with few resources was unmatched in any theater.” A member of the press nicknamed them after their commander.
Supply drops from C-47 aircraft kept them alive. Small stripped down Piper Cubs evacuated the wounded from rough jungle clearings. Carrying only what they could pack on their backs or mules, they defeated Japan’s much larger and better equipped 18th Division in five major battles and 30 minor engagements.
Their capture of north Burma’s Myitkyina airstrip enabled supplies to be flown in so the Ledo and Burma roads could be connected and a crucial land route forged into China, a critical allied country.
No other World War II American combat force, except the 1st Marine Division which took and held Guadalcanal for four months, had as much uninterrupted jungle fighting as Merrill’s Marauders.
Their legacy continues to be honored today by members of the 75th Ranger Regiment who wear the unauthorized Merrill’s Marauder patch as their crest.
The hardiness of the “expendable” volunteers has enabled the survivors to live active, productive lives into their senior years with one Merrill’s Marauder living to 102 years old, two reaching 101 and two more living to 100.
Efforts are underway to obtain the Congressional Gold Medal for the unit, which requires two-thirds support of both the House of Representatives and Senate before it can become official.