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Bill Honoring Merrill’s Marauders Gains Support

Photo by: 
AUSA
Friday, February 07, 2020

Two surviving Merrill’s Marauders traveled to Capitol Hill Feb. 5 to meet with lawmakers in support of a bill that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the famed World War II unit.

“All of the Marauders and their descendants are very proud of what they accomplished and endured and feel that the award of the Congressional Gold Medal would be recognition by our country and its citizens what was accomplished by this small group of volunteers,” said former Staff Sgt. Robert Passanisi, a 94-year-old Marauder.

In 1943, about 3,000 soldiers answered the call for a “dangerous and hazardous” mission without knowing where they’d go or what their mission would entail.

The mission of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)—which became known as Merrill’s Marauders after its commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill—was to disrupt Japanese supply lines and communications in Burma, now known as Myanmar, and capture the Japanese-held airfield in Myitkyina.

“The volunteers were considered expendable and not expected to survive their mission in the China-Burma-India Theater, today called the ‘forgotten theater’ of World War II,” retired Gen. Carter Ham, the Association of the U.S. Army’s president and CEO, wrote in a Dec. 6 letter to the co-chairmen of the House Army Caucus.

After a 30-day trip from California to India, the unit began training in the Himalayan Mountains before combat operations began in February 1944.

In just five months, the Marauders marched more than 1,000 miles through mountains and thick Burmese jungle, fought in five major battles and 32 minor engagements, and secured victory for the U.S.—all despite being largely outnumbered by Japanese forces.

Just over 100 Marauders were left in fighting shape—and only two uninjured or ill—by the time the unit disbanded in 1944, according to The Associated Press. The unit had lost more than 1,000 soldiers to injuries and disease.

While every member was awarded a Bronze Star—and some received additional honors—supporters are hoping to do more.

H.R. 906, known as the Congressional Gold Medal Act, aims to bestow the honor on the Marauders for their actions more than seven decades ago.

“The Association of the United States Army gives our full support to H.R. 906 … in recognition of their extraordinary efforts and sacrifices during World War II,” Ham wrote.

The bill, introduced in January 2019, is pending before the House Financial Services and Administration committees and had 81 co-sponsors as of Feb. 6. Sponsors are seeking help from House leaders to speed action on the measure.

“I feel like it’s going to happen. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later,” said Jonnie Clasen, daughter of the late Merrill’s Marauder Master Sgt. Vincent Melillo. “They deserve this. They were one of the most unrewarded units.”

Passanisi and retired Master Sgt. Gilbert Howland, 96, were on Capitol Hill Feb. 5 for a full day of events and meetings that was capped off with a reception in their honor.

Passanisi, now the Merrill’s Marauders Association’s historian, joined the Army in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the only volunteer among 250 soldiers of the company he initially served with when the secret mission was announced. 

Howland joined the Army in April 1941 and served in Panama before volunteering for 5307th. He went on to serve in the Korean War and Vietnam War.

Both soldiers are in the Army’s Ranger Hall of Fame.

“You have an honor to your men, to your troops,” said Howland, a triple Combat Infantryman Badge recipient. The reason he joined the fight more than 70 years ago, he said, was because of his motto: “Duty, honor, country.”

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Left to right, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.; Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La.; retired Master Sgt. Gilbert Howland; former Staff Sgt. Robert Passanisi; and Rep. Fred Keller, R-Penn.
(Credit: AUSA)