On Sept. 21, 1943, Gilbert Howland, along with 2,000 other American soldiers, set sail on the SS Lurline from San Francisco to Bombay for what President Franklin Roosevelt at the time described as a “hazardous and dangerous” secret mission.
The now-Hamilton resident and his unit were to penetrate Japanese-held Burma, part of the effort to defeat Japan in World War II. No one, including Howland, was sure what they had volunteered for. But, even now, it doesn’t seem to bother Howland, 96.
“I was in Panama at Fort Clayton when Pearl Harbor was hit by Japan,” he said. “The guys I fought with were my buddies. We were like brothers. Our country was attacked. When we were asked to volunteer, we just did it.”
When the troops arrived in Burma, conditions were treacherous. Besides being outnumbered by the Japanese, the American soldiers would also wind up facing tropical sickness, monsoons and mosquitoes, all in the near-impenetrable jungles of Burma. To Howland, who had enlisted in the army in 1941 from his native South Boston after turning 18, it was just something that came with the job.
Sent to the Panama Canal for basic training, his regiment took part in the defense of the canal after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, later moving to Trinidad for more training and island defense. It was there that he volunteered for what was to become known as Merrill’s Marauders, named after the commander of the operation, Army General Frank Merrill. Many believed no one would survive the secret mission.
Howland was assigned to the Green Combat Team, setting up ambushes and blocking actions to cut Japanese supply lines along the Kamaing Road in Burma.
Howland became a corporal in charge of two eight-member machine gun units. He remembers seeing some of the worst of the fighting in Nhpum Ga: “I remember not sleeping at night and being behind Japanese lines for four continuous months. You had to be always be alert, because the Japs could hit us at any time. Being in charge of two machine guns and 16 men, I had to make sure my men stayed up at night, so I would tie a rope around the leg of the man on each gun. Every 20 minutes, I would pull on those ropes to keep them awake.”
“We were surrounded for 12 days by the Japanese, and I was moving from one machine gun position to another,” he continues, “when an artillery shell burst in the trees above me, hitting me with shrapnel. It threw me into the air and flipped me on my back. That night the Japanese got into one of my machine gun positions and killed all three men on that gun. I felt bad, because I was not there to keep them awake. I might have saved them.”
Towards the end of the mission, most of the troops were either dead, wounded, or struck with jungle disease. Howland, too, had contracted malaria, but went back to fight anyway.
“If your temperature was 103 degrees or less, they said you were OK,” he said.
Allied forces eventually captured the Myitkyina Airfield in Northern Burma, leading Merrill’s Marauders unit to be dissolved on Aug. 10, 1944. They had been enormously successful on their mission. In five major and 30 minor engagements, they defeated the veteran soldiers of the Japanese 18th Division, disrupting enemy supply and communication lines and ending with the capture of Myitkyina.
In fact, no other American force had marched as far, fought as continuously or had displayed such fortitude as Merrill’s Marauders. During the five-month operation, the Marauders (which was technically the 5307th Comp Unit Provisional) had advanced 750 miles, battling not only the Japanese but hunger, fever and a number of tropical illnesses. They would be remembered for traversing more jungle terrain on long-range missions than any other U.S. Army formation during World War ll.
Looking back over that time, Howland now says, “Almost every day, I think about our unit in Burma. It was hard fighting. There were some bad times, but good times, too, like walking the 110 miles down the Ledo Road from India into Burma and seeing the Himalayas off in the distance, with snow-capped mountains. It was beautiful.”
Howland, who devoted his career to the military, also fought in Korea and did two tours in Vietnam. His memories of Korea are difficult: “Only Pork Chop Hill in Korea came close to what I experienced in Burma. I had to do daily casual reports. We were losing almost whole companies of men while the armistice talks went on. Then after the ceasefire, we had to go up there and find the dead. It was horrible.”
Nevertheless, Howland remained committed to the United States Army.
“I will never forget the end of Gen. MacArthur’s speech to Congress in 1951,” Howland said. “He said, ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ That’s how I feel about. I loved being in the military.”
These days, Howland, a vibrant 96, gets in at least two golf games a week, and still drives a car. This past February, he took part in a ceremony honoring the 75th anniversary of Merrill’s Marauders at the Pittsburg Historical Society Museum in California, laying a wreath in honor of his unit at the spot that was once the entrance to Camp Stoneman, where the 2,0000 soldiers were staged and trained for deployment. At the museum, Howland also was bestowed a plaque and a certificate honoring his 30 years of military service which included World War ll, Korea and Vietnam. To date, his military accolades also include a Purple Heart for the Battle of Nhpum Ga, three Combat Infantry Badges, four Bronze Stars, and, in 2017, induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame in Fort Benning, Georgia. In fact, Marauders have the extremely rare distinction of having every member of the unit receive the Bronze Star. Additionally, all received the Distinguished Unit Citation in July 1944, which was renamed the Presidential Unit Citation in 1966, awarded by the President in the name of Congress.
As a result of his military career, Howland spent much time at Fort Dix, and lived in Hamilton from 1963 to 1973. He moved to Langhorne, Pennsylvania, in 1974 with his second wife, who passed away in 2014. Last year, he moved to the Homestead, an assisted-living facility in Hamilton with his cat, Yvette, to be close to his son and daughters. He spends his time playing golf and enjoying his eight great-grandchildren, four grandchildren, three children and friends.
Yet, when he looks over his years at war, despite all the dangers, he still maintains, “The idea of duty, honor, country, is important to me. It should not be forgotten.”