22 Feb 19
East Bay Times
The call came in late summer of 1943 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking for 3,000 volunteers to take on a “hazardous and dangerous” mission that likely would result in heavy casualties. It was shrouded in so much secrecy that the World War II soldiers would not even be told where.
Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had decided at the 1943 Quebec Conference to form a secret American commando unit to penetrate deep behind enemy lines in Japanese-held Myanmar (then Burma). The Americans would be greatly outnumbered and face monsoons, mosquitoes, miles of mud and jungle maladies.
Knowing about the dangers mattered little to Gilbert Howland, a Boston native who enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 18 and had been training in jungle warfare in Trinidad and Panama since then. Although Howland, then 20, was about to begin a much-anticipated leave, he rallied to the cause.
“You did your duty,” Howland said. “I wanted to go with my buddies from Panama, so a bunch of us signed up — 124 out of 500 soldiers who were there.”
Today, 75 years later, the 95-year-old New Jersey retiree wants everyone to remember the service of the 5307th Composite Unit 16 (code name ‘‘Galahad’’). The unit, which fought in the jungles of north Burma, would later be known as ‘‘Merrill’s Marauders,’’ named by a war correspondent after their leader, Brigadier Gen. Frank Merrill.
On Feb. 27, Howland will return to where it all began, Pittsburg’s Camp Stoneman, once a major Pacific Coast staging area for troops. During his visit, the former Marauder will present a plaque to the Pittsburg Historical Society and lay a wreath at the museum’s Camp Stoneman sign in honor of his comrades. Before shipping out, 2,000 of the Marauders were housed at the camp — other fighters would come from New Caledonia.
To recognize the Marauders’ achievements behind enemy lines, Congressman Peter T. King, R-New York, in January also introduced a bill, H.R. 906, that would award them the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. A similar bill is being reintroduced in the Senate.
Jonnie Clasen, Merrill’s Marauders liaison, whose late father Vincent Melillo was a Marauder from Georgia, is helping to promote the award.
“We’d love to have the men awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during the 75th anniversary year of their 1944 ‘expendable’ combat mission in Burma,” she wrote in an email. “There were 28 Merrill’s Marauders still alive when the bill was (first) introduced in the 114th Congressional session. Now … there are only 13 living.”
Bob Howland, Gilbert’s son, agrees.
“We need to make a push while these guys are still alive,” Bob Howland said. “We designed the plaque to commemorate the soldiers and we’re bringing it to Camp Stoneman because that is where it started — that’s where it all came together.”
None of the volunteers knew the objective of their classified mission, but while at Camp Stoneman, they were taught how to identify Japanese planes and boats, the elder Howland recalled.
“While we were waiting to ship out, we stayed fit by doing PT (physical training),” Howland said. “I remember playing a lot of poker and dice and being entertained by bandleader Louis Prima.”
Marauder Robert “Bob” Passanisi, 94, of New York, recalled the scene as their ship was preparing to leave San Francisco.
Merrill’s Marauders cross Burma’s Tanai River on March 18, 1944, before the siege of Nphum Ga, called Maggot Hill. (Courtesy of Bob Passanisi)
“As we approached the gangplank for the Lurline, a couple of officers we hadn’t seen before stopped each man to ask what their MOS was. Up until that time, no one knew what our specialties were.”
Just days after the Lurline sailed out of San Francisco Sept. 21, 1943, the ship’s captain assigned 19-year-old Passanisi, who had a radio communications MOS, the responsibility of broadcasting the ship’s nightly music request show.
“I had accidentally learned our ‘secret destination’ but could not share that information with the men,” Passanisi said. “So, I selected the theme song for the nightly music show as the ‘Song of India’ to give them a hint.”
Shortly after the volunteers arrived on Oct. 29, 1943, in Bombay, India, their mission became clear. They were soon sent to the Burma border for what would be two months of intense jungle training with the British, who previously controlled the area. By February, they would be the first American troops in the war to engage the Japanese on land in Asia.
Howland recalled getting his first dose of combat reality early on in the four-month mission to oust the Japanese when his platoon was fired upon inside a bamboo grove.
“They got wind of us and came in the night,” he said. “The next morning they hit us. I heard the enemy firing at the bamboo. I heard the pop, pop, pop just like ‘Cops and Robbers,’ except this was real. That’s when I realized I was in a shooting war, and all hell broke loose after that.”
Positioned well on the edge of the stream, the unit only lost one soldier to enemy fire that day — “Smiling Jack, the gunner,” Howland noted.
A Merrill’s Marauder patrol returns from a scouting mission in March 1944. Small patrols like this were constantly necessary to keep tabs on the enemy and protect the main body from surprise attack. (Courtesy Merrill’s Marauders Proud Descendants)
“We didn’t stay there too long — you can run out of ammunition quickly,” he said, noting the soldiers or mules had to carry everything, with only parachute drops for food rations and new supplies.
“We were on the move a lot, and we were always lucky,” Howland said. “We hit the Japanese and they didn’t even know we were there.”
The soldiers used ponchos to fashion “half a tent,” but often woke up with leeches around their ankles, necks and belts, he said.
“I didn’t get much sleep at night — you slept on your feet walking,” Howland joked. The best sleep was when they found some elephant grass as a “mattress,” he said.
A corporal in charge of two eight-member machine gun units, Howland always made sure someone was alert by tying a rope around the gunner’s ankle and yanking it in the night to keep him awake.
While most of their mission was “hit and run” — they clocked 1,000 miles during their four-month tour — his 2nd Battalion “Green Team” at one point held the ground at Nphum Ga, a mountaintop village with two trails. It was there during heavy fighting that Howland would be wounded in the shoulder and four of his men would be overrun and bayoneted by the enemy.
Howland was only hospitalized for a few weeks when he was called to rejoin his battalion, this time to secure Burma’s critical Myitkyina all-weather airfield. Near the mission’s end, with most of the troops killed, wounded or, in most cases, struck down by malaria or other jungle diseases, the “walking wounded” were called upon to complete the last task.
“I got malaria so bad, but I went back in,” Howland said. “If your temperature was 103 or less, they said you were OK.”
Even so, Howland said he was happy to be back with his troops.
“They did their job because that’s what they did,” said Howland, who later re-enlisted, serving in Korea and Vietnam and retiring after 30 years under his belt as a Master sergeant E8.
“That’s what makes this group so special,” he said.
In 1962, the movie “Merrill’s Marauders,” based on the exploits of the jungle warfare unit of the same name, was filmed on location in the Philippines directed by Sam Fuller and starring Jeff Handler.
In the end, the original Marauders numbered only about 100 able-bodied men, with 93 killed in combat, 30 dead from disease, hundreds wounded or missing, and more than 1,900 struck down with jungle illnesses. They had traversed a thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and bush, and won five battles and 30 skirmishes against the elite Japanese 18th Division.
“I think we did a good job for FDR,” said Howland, a triple Combat Infantryman Badge recipient. “He was a good president. I wish we had him now. I would give him some money to get him here — he was a crackerjack.”
If you go
What: Laying of wreath honoring Merrill’s Marauders
When: 3:30 p.m. Feb. 27
Where: Pittsburg Museum, 515 Railroad Ave.; 925-439-7501