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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

Letter to the Editor: WWII Merrill’s Marauders to meet for 65th reunion

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Merrill’s Marauders, the tough Infantrymen who were the first American troops to fight the Japanese on land in Asia during World War II, will gather Thursday to Sunday with other veterans of the China-Burma-India theater of operations for their 65th annual reunion in Canton, Ohio.

Today’s U.S. Army Rangers honor these courageous men by wearing the Marauder patch as their crest. Like the Rangers, the Marauders volunteered for their unit. In 1943, almost 3,000 answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for a dangerous and hazardous mission and volunteered without knowing where they were going or what they would be doing.

Formally organized Jan. 1, 1944, the Marauders made military history during the short eight months of their existence by marching farther than any other American fighting force during World War II. They were officially known as the 5307 Composite Unit Provisional, and called themselves the “Fifty-Three-O-Seven” until they were “dubbed” Merrill’s Marauders after their commander, Gen. Frank D. Merrill.

Now in their 80s and 90s, these men marched almost 1,000 miles behind enemy lines with only what they could carry on their backs or on pack mules. They trudged up the Ledo Road, through the Himalayan mountains and jungles of Burma to capture the Japanese-held, all-weather airstrip at Myitkyina, Burma, and open up supply lines into Asia.

Retired Master Sgt. Vincent Melillo, 93, from Columbus, is thought to be the only Marauder left in Georgia. After joining the Army in 1940 and serving three years with the old 33rd Infantry in Panama and Trinidad, he volunteered for the mission “with his buddies” in Puerto Rico. Melillo, also a Korean War 5th Regimental Combat Team veteran, was the last person to finish the 75th Ranger Regiment’s one-mile Run for the Fallen at Watson Field. He walked for the late Pfc. Eric Hario.

Malaria, dysentery, mite typhus, other jungle maladies and the Japanese severely diminished their numbers. Suffering from disease, malnourished and exhausted, less than 300 of the remaining 1,310 Marauders were considered well enough to fight for the Myitkyina airstrip.

The Marauders were considered “expendable” since a plan existed to get them into Burma but no plan existed to get them out, according to Marauder, lecturer and retired Lt. Gen. Samuel V. Wilson, whose many accomplishments range from serving as president of Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College to helping create Delta Force, the U.S. Army’s premier counterterrorism unit.

The keynote speaker at this year’s reunion in Canton is retired Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Luczynski, who served in numerous command positions with the Ohio National Guard before retirement. As a deputy commander, he was responsible for overall readiness of all Ohio elements comprising the 38th Infantry Division. During active duty from 1968 to 1974, his assignments included serving as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger battalion and as a Ranger instructor at Fort Benning.

Approximately 100 people including family and guests are expected to attend the reunion, which is being hosted by the Merrill’s Marauders Proud Descendants comprised of sons, daughters and other relatives of the World War II veterans.

The stamina and fighting spirit of this World War II jungle unit inspired production of a 1962 war movie, “Merrill’s Marauders,” starring Jeff Chandler in his final role.

For their accomplishments in five major and 30 minor engagements in Burma, the Marauders were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. They also have the extremely rare distinction of every member of the unit receiving the Bronze Star.

Some have called the Marauders, who weren’t officially a regiment, a ragtag group of Soldiers. The unit of volunteers who landed in Bombay, India, came from the jungles of Panama and Trinidad, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Georgia and the United States. They had several months of intensive training before setting out on their long-range objective to capture the only all-weather air strip in Burma. The Marauders were disbanded Aug. 10, 1944.

Persons wanting information about the 2011 Merrill’s Marauders reunion in Canton, Ohio, should contact MMPD treasurer Jerrie Daly at jerriedaly@gmail.com or 651 204-5002.

— Jonnie Melillo Clasen, Columbus

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