Legislation passed last week honoring veterans of a top-secret U.S. Army unit that fought behind enemy lines in the jungles of Burma in World War II, including Hamilton resident Gilbert Howland. The legislation, Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act, was passed on Sept. 22.
This legislation ultimately awards the eight surviving members of the unit, who are all in their 90s, with a Congressional Gold Medal. The members include Robert E. Passanisi, 96, (Long Island, N.Y.); Gilbert Howland, 97, (Hamilton); James Collins, 96, (Tampa, Florida); Rocco DeLuca, 98, (Norwich, Connecticut); Russell Hamler, 96, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania); Gabriel Kinney, 99, (Daphne, Alabama); Raleigh Nayes, 98, (Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin); and James Richardson, 99, (Jacksboro, Tennessee).
Commanded by Army Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, the almost-3,000 volunteers were a commando jungle warfare unit that served in Burma in 1944. In its six-month operation, the Marauders’ three battalions fought five major battles and more than 30 other engagements against the much larger, elite Japanese 18th Division. Its success opened a critical land route so the United States could continue to supply its Chinese allies and help support them as a fighting force.
By the time it was deactivated in August 1944, Merrill’s Marauders had lost hundreds of soldiers to both fatal or incapacitating combat injuries, starvation and disease. The unit was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 44 Silver Stars, and a Bronze Star for every member. Thirty have been inducted into the prestigious Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Three—including Howland—have the extremely rare distinction of being triple Combat Infantry Badge recipients.
A native of Waltham, Massachusetts, Howland enlisted in the Army shortly after his 18th birthday. He fought in World War II, Korea and did two combat tours in Vietnam. He is one of three men from the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, Merrill’s Marauders official designation, to be triple CIBs. He is in the Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
“It is a great honor for me and our unit,” Howland said of the new legistlation. “It recognizes how important our special operations mission was in Burma. I cannot believe it finally happened! I feel like I hit a home run! I am thrilled and cannot wait to go down to Washington for the ceremony.”
“For me this has always been the forgotten war,” he said. “We were the only American ground troops fighting on the Asian continent. The men in this unit all volunteered. We sacrificed a lot. I lost men in my machine gun section and our unit had an 85% casualty rate. The CGM will now shine a light on that forgotten theater in the Pacific that was so crucial in defeating the Japanese. Why did we do it? Because our country needed us.”