They formed a unit of American soldiers that fought against Japan. Nine of them are still alive and will receive the Gold Medal.
Soldiers spent months behind enemy lines, traversing hundreds of miles through the lush jungles and steep mountains of Burma (now Myanmar), as they battled hunger and disease between gunfights with Japanese forces during their secret mission in the Second World War.
In February 1944, the American jungle combat unit nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders set out to capture an airfield held by the Japanese and open an Allied supply route between India and China. Starting with 3,000 soldiers, the Marauders completed their mission five months later with just 200 men still in combat.
The trip of about 1,600 kilometers on foot was so strenuous that the combat “was the easy part,” recalled Robert Passanisi, who at 96 is one of the nine Marauders who, as far as we know, are the only ones who are alive.
Now the Marauders, officially designated by the Army as the 5307th Composite (Provisional) Unit, have received approval from the US Congress to receive their highest decoration: the Congressional Gold Medal.
Passanisi summoned the surviving Maradeurs and the families of many who have died to begin lobbying for the award four years ago. The final bill approved in September was sent to the White House on October 6, where it is awaiting the signature of President Donald Trump.
“After many years, all the sacrifices and suffering are now finally recognized,” said Passanisi, of Lindenhurst, New York. “It makes us feel like it was all worth it.”
In 1943, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that the Army would organize a ground unit for a long-range mission behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma, present-day Myanmar. Experienced infantry and newly recruited soldiers volunteered to the mission, considered so secret that they were not told where they were going.
The Merrill’s Marauders – who were nicknamed after the unit’s commander, Brigadier General Frank Merrill – were tasked with cutting off communications and Japanese supply lines along their extensive march to the airfield of the occupied city of Myitkyina. Often outnumbered, they successfully fought Japanese troops in five major and more than thirty minor encounters between February and August 1944.
Marauders spent most of their days fighting their way through dense jungle, using only mules to help them carry equipment and supplies. They slept on the floor and rarely changed their clothes. The supplies thrown at them from planes were the only way they could replenish rations and ammunition. Poor diet and humid weather made soldiers vulnerable to malaria, dysentery and other diseases.
“These guys were subsisting on a daily ration per man,” said Christopher Goodrow, weapons curator at the National Museum of the Infantry in Columbus, Georgia. “We talked about a can of tuna, some cookies, a chocolate bar and cigarettes.”
In neighboring Fort Benning, the elite fighters of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment consider themselves proud descendants of the Merrill’s Marauders, who are revered for their strength.
“They’re in a class that only they belong to because of the things they endured,” Goodrow said.
The Marauders join more than 160 war heroes, military and civilian units who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for outstanding feats dating back to the American Revolution. A single medal will be created honoring the Marauders as a unit and presented to the Smithsonian Institution.
The medals are designed individually for each group of winners and may take more than a year to be ready to be awarded.
Time is not on the side of the Marauders. Twenty of the unit members who were alive when they began petitioning Congress for the medal in 2016 have since died, Jonnie Milillo Clasen said. His father, Vincent Melillo, was part of the unit and died in 2015.
Dozens of Marauders received individual decorations after the war, from the Outstanding Service Cross to the Silver Star. The Army awarded the Bronze Star to all soldiers in the unit and Hollywood honored them in 1962 with the movie “Merrill’s Marauders.”.