Merrill’s Marauders, one of the precursors to modern special operations units, fought during World War II across the unforgiving terrain of Northern Burma.
They didn’t have trucks or tanks, relying instead on horses and mules to carry ammunition and supplies as they climbed high mountains, marched through steaming jungles and waded through leech and parasite infested swamps as they battled much more heavily armed Japanese forces.
But the unit’s story — part of World War II’s often overlooked China-Burma-India theater — isn’t well known outside of the military’s special operations community and the most committed military history enthusiasts.
Even less known is the story of the “Marauder Samurai,” a 15-man team of Japanese Americans assigned to the unit, officially called the 5307th Composite Unit, who gathered intelligence and fought with the Marauders as their “eyes and ears” in the jungle.
Two Hawaii-born soldiers, now deceased, assembled that team and helped lead it. Their accounts were recorded in diaries, letters and interviews, which Civil Beat relied on to tell this story.
Last month the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act. Lawmakers sent the bill to the White House where it awaits President Donald Trump’s approval.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor the legislative branch can bestow and will honor the Marauders’ eight surviving members.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor elicited an immediate backlash against Japanese Americans and it wasn’t long before President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.
But many officials in both the military and intelligence agencies believed that the backlash was misplaced and that internment was counterproductive.
They saw the Nisei — the American born children of Japanese immigrants — as an untapped resource in the fight against Japan.
Col. Kai Rasmussen, a Danish immigrant who believed the U.S. military needed to invest more in its language and cultural competencies, set up a Japanese language program at Camp Savage, Minnesota.
He began aggressively recruiting already serving Japanese American soldiers and pulling fresh recruits from internment camps to train them as interpreters and interrogators.
One was Herbert Miyasaki from Paauilo, who grew up on the Big Island but attended college in Japan before returning to Hawaii and enlisting in the Army. Another was Edward Mitsukado, a former court recorder from Honolulu.
In Burma, modern day Myanmar, the war was going badly for the Allies. Invading Japanese forces drove out British forces and Chinese troops that had come to reinforce them.
Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek allowed U.S. Army Gen. Joe Stilwell to lead Chinese troops in Burma. Upon emerging from the jungle to regroup in India in the spring of 1942, a defeated Stilwell bluntly told the press “we got a hell of a beating.”
In 1943, controversial British officer Orde Wingate organized a special operations group called the Chindits and began launching raids into Japanese occupied Burma, attacking supply lines.
After hearing of their success, American commanders decided they wanted their own version of the Chindits.
The U.S. Army formed the 5307th Composite Unit and Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, an officer who was already on assignment in Burma before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was selected to lead it. For its work behind enemy lines, the unit was an ideal fit for Nisei linguists.
At Camp Savage, Rasmussen called Miyasaki and Mitsukado, who had just graduated from his program, into his office to tell them they had been selected for a special mission. He told them to select a team of fellow Nisei from the school for their assignment.
During the 1980s both men gave interviews to Densho, an organization dedicated to preserving the World War II history of Japanese Americans.
They ended up recruiting five from Hawaii and seven from the mainland. After selecting their team the 14 Nisei were put under the leadership of 1st Lt. William Laffin, the son of a Canadian businessman and Japanese woman.
Laffin was an executive for Ford Motors in Japan before the war and was initially trapped there until the U.S. and Japan agreed to exchange nationals. Some on the team had mixed feelings about Laffin, who spoke Japanese but couldn’t read or write the language.
Miyasaki would later say that Laffin only became an officer and was appointed leader of the team because his ancestry on his father’s side allowed him to pass for white, but that “because of our skin, none of us were commissioned.”
However, while they faced racism in the ranks on their way to Burma, in combat the Nisei quickly forged close bonds with their fellow soldiers regardless of race.
They accompanied fellow troops on patrols and at night would get close enough to enemy lines to listen in on conversations.
“We operated behind enemy lines, we served as the eyes and the ears of the troops,” Howard Furumoto, a member of the team from Hilo, later told interviewers.
They didn’t always avoid detection, sometimes leading to fierce firefights and narrow escapes. “They saved my life many times,” Miyasaki said of his white comrades.
The Marauder Samurai translated documents and maps taken from Japanese troops they had killed, listened in on radio chatter and interrogated prisoners whenever they could.
It was rare to take Japanese troops, who were taught surrender was the ultimate dishonor, alive. Most that they captured were wounded in battle and rescued by medics.
Many of the Japanese soldiers were shocked to see fellow Japanese in American uniforms. The captives often called the Nisei traitors and some told them that they’d be tortured when the Japanese Army finally found them.
The Nisei had to coax out the information they needed. “Without feeling, you can’t interrogate,” said Miyasaki. “You have to be with him, for him, at the same time you’re trying to extricate certain information.”
One way of gaining trust during interrogation was to give imperial officers back their swords. “Many of the swords were family heirlooms. You can’t buy those,” said Miyasaki. “To that officer who owned that sword, his ancestors are all with him together to go into combat in spirit.”
The Marauders made their way through the jungle with the help of local Kachin tribal scouts who taught them how to move through the jungle and live off the land. As they pushed into Burma they fought alongside other allied troops.
The Marauders worked most closely with Chinese troops. After their defeat in Burma, Stilwell reorganized a portion of Chinese forces into the “X Force,” a formation of troops with American-style training and weapons.
Miyasaki, who spoke some Mandarin, would regularly eat and talk with Chinese troops whenever he got a chance, particularly their cooks. “They would climb up the mountain, and they set up the kitchen,” he recalled.
However, while they admired their allies, the brutal methods some of them employed disturbed some of the Marauders.
“I’d rather not go into that detail, it’s gory. How they tried to get the information out of these people by force, they’re slashing their back just to get them to talk,” Miyasaki recalled, noting that he and his comrades never treated prisoners that way.
Miyasaki became Merrill’s “personal interpreter.” Merrill was actually a fluent Japanese speaker after spending several years in Japan as a military attache. Miyasaki remembered that “he used to hum the Japanese military songs.”
Miyasaki said that Merrill used him more as an adviser to help analyze Japanese documents and explain Japanese concepts to fellow officers.
After the war Merrill would write “as for the Nisei group, I couldn’t have gotten along without them. Probably few realized that these boys did everything that an infantryman normally does plus the extra work of translating, interrogating.”
The Marauders took high casualties, as much from the unforgiving jungle as from combat, enduring disease as well as bites from venomous snakes, leeches and insects. As the campaign went on their resupply drops were infrequent and troops were almost always exhausted, sick and malnourished.
Some came to resent senior Allied commanders. Stilwell in particular was criticized for ignoring their dire health and using the Marauders, which were lightly equipped for raids and reconnaissance, in frontal assaults against much more heavily armed Japanese forces.
In their final battle, Stilwell sent the Marauders and the Chindits to support the X Force in an attack on the city of Myitkyina in hopes of controlling a strategic airstrip nearby. The battle began in May 1944 and Stilwell hoped the victory would be swift.
Fighting took place at the height of monsoon season and it soon became a protracted siege that lasted months.
During the battle, Japanese troops killed Laffin during a recon mission. After Laffin’s death, Mitsukado wrote a letter to Rasmussen back in Minnesota.
“Fighting out here is heavy and goes on day and night. You can hear the machine guns, rifles, and big guns all through the hours. You go to sleep hearing them and wake up with the din still in your ears,” Mistukado wrote. “At nights the firing, the tracers, flares, and the fires make one think of a big New Year’s celebration in Chinatown.”
Chinese troops and the Marauders eventually took the city in August, but at a steep cost. Of the nearly 3,000 Marauders who had entered Burma at the beginning of the campaign less than 200 were present for the victory. All their horses were dead and only a handful of their mules remained.
Merrill himself suffered two heart attacks and contracted severe malaria over the course of the campaign. Only two of the remaining soldiers didn’t require hospitalization.
The Army disbanded the 5307th Composite Unit after Myitkinia. A report written by officers in the unit criticizing Stilwell’s handling of medical problems would later lead to an Army Inspector General investigation and congressional hearings.
Though the unit disbanded, the war wasn’t over for the Marauders. The surviving infantrymen were absorbed into the MARS Task Force, a newly formed unit of U.S. and Chinese troops with a fresh batch of Nisei linguists.
The original Nisei team was broken up and its members reassigned. Several volunteered for duty with the OSS — the forerunner to the CIA.
Mitsukado and Robert Honda of Wahiawa volunteered to continue fighting in Burma with OSS Detachment 101, going deeper into the jungles working alongside Kachin tribesman. Others got assignments in China.
One of their fellow Marauders, soldier turned author Charlton Ogburn, praised the Nisei in his memoir The Marauders, noting they always volunteered for the most dangerous missions even though “many had close relatives living in Japan, all had acquaintances, if not relatives held in the concentration camps.”
Ogburn’s book was eventually turned into a now largely forgotten film, but it didn’t include the Marauder Samurai. Today the Nisei team’s memories live on in their diaries, letters and interviews, all have passed on.
Only eight members of the 5307th Composite Unit are alive. But Miyasaki, who died in 1988 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, made his own commitment to honoring the unit’s legacy, naming his son Merrill Miyasaki after their commander.
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