In 1962, a film starring Jeff Chandler brought a new hero into the American pantheon: Brgadier General (later MG) Frank D. Merrill, leader of the eponymous Merrill’s Marauders. Theater-goers watched Chandler and a cast of TV actors defeat the Japs heroically in the low-budget movie, and then Chandler’s character, beloved by his men, collapses of a heart attack. The movie was a huge success, in part because it was Chandler’s last — the 42-year-old wasn’t faking pain on the set, he was acting with an injured back, and then he had the sour luck to die during what should have been routine back surgery after the film wrapped.
As often is the case with movies, the connection with reality is a bit thin. Merill’s Marauders did do some amazing things, as a long-range penetration unit modeled on Orde Wingate’s Chindits; but Merrill’s own connection with the unit was tenuous and intermittent, despite his being the nominal commander.
The guy who trained the volunteers? It wasn’t Merrill.
The guy who led the unit in combat, through its bleakest days? That wasn’t him either.
Merrill wasn’t a Stolen Valor case, exactly; he wasn’t absent for dishonorable reasons, but because he was, in the first place, appointed late as commander, and then, he had persistent heart trouble that took him off the line.
Stilwell, Hunter (the real commander of the 5307th) and Merrill (the sickly, rear-area figurehead). US Army photo.
But Merrill could have done the honorable thing, and said a few good words about the man who actually did all the stuff that Jeff Chandler portrayed Merrill as doing, Lt. Col. Charles N. Hunter. Instead, he seldom missed a chance to run down the man, despite (or because of?) Merrill’s legend being based on Hunter’s deeds.
As it is, Merrill has a Jeff Chandler movie and a famous unit named after him; he’s part of the history every Ranger memorizes; one of the three Camps that Ranger students have all attended since 1950 is Camp Frank D. Merrill. Merrill is famous beyond his deeds, and scarcely anybody has ever heard the name of Charles N. Hunter, who was never a general, and who lived and died in complete obscurity. There isn’t even a good photo of Hunter in the field, just one at the end of operations, with Stilwell and Merrill, as usual, hogging the camera.
Insignia of the 5307th was unofficial, but would later form the regimental crest of the Rangers.
The actual Marauders were never so named officially. The idea was for a provisional unit for a misison in Burma. In Army terms, “provisional” units are formed for a given period of time or a given task, and always intended to be disbanded on mission completion. For example, when the Army Reserve lost its combat units, some members of the former Army Reserve SF units were clustered together in a “D Company, Provisional” to each National Guard SF battalion. At the end of one year, there was sort of a tournament in which the three companies with the highest readiness figures survived and the fourth was disbanded (its members could join any other Guard SF unit if they were so inclined, and a few did, leading to men who traveled 1000 miles for weekend drills). The provisional need in Burma in 1942 was not an administrative need to absorb a political reduction in force, but instead, a need to form an infantry unit for a long-range penetration modeled on Wingate’s Chindits, and originally intended to be under Wingate’s command, along with parallel British units.
Several commands were asked for jungle-trained volunteers — some came from the combat zone of the South Pacific, but most came from the Caribbean Defense Command (including the Panama Canal Zone) and the Zone of the Interior (i.e., the Continental USA). The volunteers were formed into serials of the 1688th Casual Detachment and began to train and to travel to India. (The destination, the mission, and the unit’s Army codename — “Galahad” — was known only to select officers. The men were kept in the dark). The request was for battle-trained and, in the South Pacific and South-West Pacific, “battle-tested”, volunteers for a “hazardous and dangerous” mission.
“How the hell can it be hazardous, and not dangerous?” Lieutenant Charlton Ogburn, Jr., a Harvard grad who had been a newspaperman, thought. Bored with garrison life, he signed up. So did a number of other adventure-seekers. But not all the volunteers fit that mold. Some commanders, notably Douglas MacArthur, were not having their own units stripped of the bold and adventurous, not to mention the combat-experienced. MacArthur told the Army they’d get who he sent, and he sent some pretty questionable guys. He wasn’t the only commander (and certainly, top sergeant) who saw the call for volunteers as a way to dispose of discipline cases and problem children. Ogburn, who became a signals officer in the unit, thought he was with a blend of “idealists and murderers.” But the initial commander, Hunter, was able to forge these disparate materials into an effective unit. The employment scheme for the unit was a single, long-range penetration, that would last for three months, then be followed by R&R.
Unique among the unit’s men were 14 nisei (second-generation American) interpreters, selected at the language school at Camp Savage, Minnesota. Some were volunteers, but others were not: they were picked because of the strength of their Japanese language skills, which not all nisei had in equal measure (they were second-generation Americans and grew up speaking English, after all). They were not told they were headed for “hazardous and dangerous” duty, but being bright fellows they figured it out. The Japanese-American terps had been heaped with indignities by an ungrateful nation — even their bank deposits had been seized, because they were “enemy aliens,” and they had initially been forbidden to enlist under the “4C, enemy” draft status — but they’d prove their loyalty over and over.
When the unit arrived in India, Hunter enforced what a later generation of soldiers would call “big boy rules”: he treated his volunteers as adult men, and expected high standards. He began to build a unit that would work hard, and play hard. Two visitors to camp were a representative of CBI theater deputy commander Joseph Stilwell, a desk officer named Col. Francis Brink, and the man for whose command the unit was raised, Orde Wingate, who inspired, bemused, and puzzled the Americans. The eccentric Wingate was, if nothing else, never visibly in doubt, whether he was right or obviously wrong.
Wingate also warned the Americans about their own general, Stilwell. Wingate had a reputation for being callous with the lives of his men, but Stilwell’s indifference to the resupply and, really, to the survival of their own forces had shocked the English innovator. “If you fall under Stilwell’s command, he’ll never pull you out at three months,” Wingate warned.
But Stilwell was already scheming to pull the 1688th Detachment out from under the compact, messianic Briton. Stilwell’s representative, Brink, forced a reorganization on the unit, breaking up the nascent squads, platoons and companies in support of his theories of organizational balance. This also had the effect of breaking up buddy teams that had volunteered together. (Like all of Stilwell’s staff officers, Brink was selected for his willingness to toady to Stilwell, and lack of any experience or knowledge that might show up the insecure and vain general). Brink did organize good training, modeled on that of the Chindits, and the unit, still the 1688th, trained with the Chindits themselves.
Toady, and toad: Merrill and Stilwell.
The actual commander of the theater, Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, was everything Stilwell loathed: competent, self-assured, English, a leader by birthright. Their relations were tense and difficult, but Stilwell spent his time importuning Mountbatten for command of the 1688th, backstabbing Wingate, whom he condemned for abandoning his wounded to the Japanese on the first Chindit long-range penetration. Mountbatten finally yielded to Stilwell and gave him full control of the 1688th. Stilwell renamed it the 5307th Composite Regiment and put another of his toadies, Merrill, in command, promoting Merrill to Brigadier General. Some bright spark noted that colonels command regiments, prompting a hasty set of orders renaming the Regiment a “Unit,” a generic term that could be commanded by anybody.
Stilwell, insecure and cowardly, couldn’t even nerve himself up to tell Wingate he’d lost the command of the 1688th and would have to do his next Chindit operation with British and Chinese elements alone. He sent Brink and Hunter to do it. “You tell Stilwell he can take his Americans and stick ‘em up his ass!” the pint-sized Englishman exploded. They didn’t bother passing that detail of the message on, for obvious reasons.
Merrill commanded the unit during its movement to contact in January and February 1944 and at the time of its first contact with Japanese patrols on 25 Feb 44. Then he had his first heart attack on 28 Mar 44, and was flown back to the rear, where, after a recovery, he returned to duty as a Stilwell horse-holder. He appeared once, on the airfield at Myitkyina, his nose firmly pressed to Stilwell’s rear area as usual, to steal the victory Hunter had won with an exhausted unit
Along with the Marauders, unsung Chinese units also were part of the offensive — and also were allowed to collapse from starvation and sickness.
In May 1944, six of the Marauders’ three months were up, and they were almost all sick. Stilwell had strangled the unit of supplies, expecting them to die gloriously to advance his legend and not wanting to waste resources on them. “Pleas for at least a cupful of rice per man in the food drops summarily rejected,” platoon leader Phil Weld wrote in his journal. (Combat casualties were a small fraction of the losses the unit took; they died of dysentery, in the end, only two men in the entire regimental-sized unit were not sick). The medicine then used as a dysentery preventative, halazone, was later found to be useless for that purpose). Despite this they had seized Myitkyina Airfield. Stilwell was dissatisfied and ordered them to seize the city, too, and he and Merrill ordered their sick and starving men out of hospital and into the field, condemning them as cowards. Merrill was giving interviews to the press at South East Asia Command headquarters, and intended to fly in with his press retinue once the victory was secure, but was too ill with his heart disease to do it. Meanwhile, the reporters built Merrill up as a great jungle fighter, with Stilwell’s approval.
Ghostly, sick scarecrows.
The 5307th, reduced to a band of ghostly, sick scarecrows in tattered shreds of uniform cloth, smeared with the product of amoebic dysentery, took Myitkina in the first week of August, 1944, nine months into a three-month mission. Stilwell was delighted: he was promoted to four stars. He promptly sacked LTC Charles N. Hunter by way of celebration, having learned that Hunter was furious with Stilwell’s abuse of the 5307th and its men.
In the end, the unit was disbanded and some of its convalescents were rolled into a new unit, the 475th Infantry. Hunter was ordered home, and Stilwell specifically ordered him home by ship to silence him (that mode of transport guaranteed Hunter would be a month or more at sea, inaccessible to reporters).
It didn’t work, as a Hunter letter got to the press and was instrumental in tainting Stilwell’s reputation. “A small man in a big job” was Ogburn’s opinion of him at the time.
Stilwell ordered an investigation, and was shocked — remember, this is a guy who surrounded himself with yes-men — when it told the truth about the unit and the command’s abuse thereof, and shocked again when it leaked to the press. (Stilwell, abusive even to the subordinates most loyal to him, considered the leak the greatest betrayal since Judas).
Merrill was sent on a press tour with Stilwell’s blessing. The press tour was essentially a large exercise in stolen valor, seeking to arrogate to Merrill the achievements of Hunter, while Merrill had been mostly hospitalized or resting comfortably in Assam. And of course, to praise Stilwell, Merrill’s sugar daddy.
Live Marauders, dead Japanese. Small thanks to Merrill.
Stilwell’s position would survive that, but it would crimp his prospects for further command assignments, and he soon would be fired (in October, 1944) — not because of his callous waste of American lives, but because Chiang Kai-Shek would not put up with his racism and hatred of the Chinese any longer, and would cheerfully allow an American to command Chinese troops — any American but Stilwell.
Through the 475th, the 5307th’s legacy and lineage led through a sinuous course to the 75th Infantry, today’s Rangers. (At times, parts of the lineage were borrowed, as it were, by SF while no Ranger units existed. We were glad to release them to our Ranger brothers). The 5307th earned a Presidential Unit Citation (upgraded from a Distinguished Unit Citation in 1966), and six members at least won the equivalent individual valor award, the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1959, Charlton Ogburn Jr., a once-embittered former 2nd Lieutenant in the 5307th did what he swore he never would do, and wrote the history of his old unit. He even tried to say a few good worlds about Stilwell and Merrill, both of whom were hated by the men of the unit. He took pains to be fair to all, which meant pointing out the unsung excellence of forgotten Hunter. But the main result of his The Marauders, sadly, was the Jeff Chandler film, in which all characters portrayed are fictional, except for three who are fictionalized: Chandler’s phony Merrill, an unrecognizable Stilwell, and surgeon Lewis Kolodny.
Jeff Chandler (r.), sweating as Merrill seldom did, on location.
Or to put it another way, Ogburn’s well-meaning attempt to restore to Hunter the valor Merrill and Stilwell stole from him further advanced the bogus Merrill legend.
And that’s the rest of the story.