Merrill’s Marauders attend documentary premiere

Published 3:00 pm Thursday, March 17, 2022

BY JONNIE MELILLO CLASEN

Tears ran down the faces of combat veterans March 3, as they watched the WW II PBS documentary premiere of “They Volunteered for this: Merrill’s Marauders” in Dahlonega, Georgia.

Narrated by Tom Brokaw, former NBC news anchor and author of “The Greatest Generation,” the documentary was hosted by the University of North Georgia located near Camp Frank D. Merrill, named after the unit’s commander.

The documentary will be aired nationally on PBS and American Public Television stations in May to commemorate Memorial Day. Merrill’s Marauders’ official designation is the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional.

A highlight of the premiere was having three of only five still-living Merrill’s Marauders in the audience of about 500, which included family members of 26 deceased men who volunteered in 1943 for a mission few were expected to survive in the China Burma India Theater, called the “forgotten theater of WW II.”

The oldest Marauder attending was Gabriel “Gabe” Kinney, 101, from Alabama, who is currently the oldest living Army Ranger. Gilbert “Gil” Howland, 98, from New Jersey is a veteran of WW II, Korea and two combat tours in Vietnam. Bob Passanisi, 97, from New York, is the Marauder spokesperson, historian and creator of the award-winning Merrill’s Marauder website.

Gold Star Widow Eleanor Stark, 97, from Georgia attended to honor her husband, Luther “Buck” Bagley, who was killed in action July 25, 1944, in Burma and is still missing in action.

Award-winning filmmaker Tim Gray, whose WW II Foundation produced the documentary, said, “The premiere at the University of North Georgia was the culmination of an idea born about 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until the ‘expendable’ Merrill’s Marauder unit was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2020 that we began to make it a reality.

“We started production during the height of COVID when 10 were alive. Now there are five. We are beyond grateful that three of those five not only attended the premiere but made it an event to remember by answering questions from guests, signing books, programs and anything available to write on as well as having their photos taken with an endless stream of well-wishers. Their energy at ages 97, 98 and 101 seemed boundless.”

The five remaining Merrill’s Marauders are all that’s left after 78 years from almost 3,000 volunteers who defeated the much larger and better-equipped Japanese 18th Division in five major battles and 30 minor engagements. The Japanese thought they were fighting a force numbering as high as 15,000 men.

“We are honored that the University of North Georgia was selected to host the premiere,” said retired Army COL Billy Wells, the university’s vice president of leadership and global engagement. “Our proximity to Camp Merrill, where the mountain phase of Ranger training is conducted, made us a perfect place for the premiere.”

“We are unique in that one of our graduates, CPT Mike Rose, currently with Ft. Benning’s 3rd Ranger Battalion, is the only person to have won the grueling, annual Best Ranger Competition three times.”

Wells said that in 2023, “North Georgia will commission more Army officers than any other institution in the United States outside of West Point. For the last three years North Georgia has won the national ROTC Ranger Challenge endurance and military skills competition, which is the ROTC version of the Best Ranger Competition.”

Family members traveled from Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey and throughout Georgia to honor their father’s 1944 mission that world leaders thought was impossible.

Winston Churchill, British prime minister at the time, described Burma as “the most forbidding fighting country imaginable.” GEN George C. Marshall, then Army chief of staff, said the Burma mission “was one of the most difficult of the war.” Marshall also said that mission against “large numbers of the enemy with few resources was unmatched in any theater.”

With only what they could carry on their backs or mules, the Marauders made military history by walking farther than any other American WW II fighting force — almost 1,000 miles — to complete their mission of seizing northern Burma’s Myitkyina airstrip May 17, 1944. That freed airspace so supplies could be flown “over the hump” to complete a critical land route into China, an Allied country.

Only about 200 skeletal-looking Marauders were deemed combat capable when they reached the airstrip since along with the enemy, their numbers had been ravaged by malaria, mite typhus, dysentery, monsoons, hunger, the steep Kumon Mountains and AOE – an “accumulation of everything.”

The late Marauder and retired LTG Sam Wilson, who helped create Delta Force, said slightly more than 100 Marauders remained in Burma when the unit dissolved Aug. 10, 1944, without even a formation.

Ft. Benning’s 75th Ranger Regiment, whose crest is the Marauder patch, continues to honor their legacy and keep the memory of those “expendable” volunteers alive.