U.S. Army Brigadier General Frank Dow Merrill assumed command of the 5307th in January 1944 and led Merrill’s Marauders, as the outfit became known.
In October 1943, Merrill became operations chief for Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell and organized the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) in India, modeled after British Brigadier General Orde C. Wingate’s Chindits. This regiment-sized infantry formation of nearly 3,000 men was designed for long-range penetration operations and relied entirely on air drops for supplies; it was the first U. S. ground unit to fight on the Asian mainland since the Boxer Uprising of 1900.
Named Galahad, the 5307th took part in operations in north Burma during late February 1944, first in conjunction with two Chinese divisions and later with British Chindits.
Its mission was adjusted to support Chinese forces under General Joseph Stilwell advancing into northern Burma during March-August 1944. The plan was readjusted on the fly, and fortuitously ran into the ill-conceived Japanese Imphal offensive. The operation penetrated to the airfield at Myitkyina on May 17, 1944, and took the town on August 3. The Chindits and GALAHAD were both light infantry forces that were handled badly and suffered grievous losses during the second Burma campaign (1943-1945).
5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). A 3,000 man, all-volunteer special forces unit of the U. S. Army that fought in Burma. It engaged the Japanese following joint training with the Chindits, then known as the “Long Range Penetration Force,” on which the unit was closely modeled. It was commanded by Brigadier General Frank Merrill, an inexperienced career staff officer with a bad heart. The 5307th employed Japanese American interpreters and interrogators and Sioux and other Native American scouts. Its major action came at Myitkyina from May to August, 1944. That campaign so debilitated its ranks with battle casualties and disease that the exhausted unit was thereafter broken up. It was later given a Presidential Unit Citation.
Siege of Myitkyina, (May-August 1944)
The key military objective of the 1944 Allied Northern Burma Campaign in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations. U. S. Lieutenant General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell had command of Allied forces in the battle and subsequent “siege.” The action began in late April 1944 with attacks in the Mogaung Valley by predominantly Chinese troops, followed by a general Allied effort against the airfield and railroad center of Myitkyina. The aim of the campaign was to reduce Japanese pressure on the air resupply route from India to China over the Himalayas (“the Hump”) and to clear a vital road link along the ground line of communications under construction from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China (the Ledo Road, later known as the Stilwell Road). British, Chinese, Burmese, and U. S. troops (Merrill’s Marauders, the 5307th Composite Unit [Provisional]) captured the airfield on 17 May, but they could not eliminate stubborn resistance by elements of the Japanese 18th and 56th Divisions in the Myitkyina area until 3 August.
The Allied operation, code-named END-RUN, was conducted by three separate combat brigade-sized elements organized around the battalions of Merrill’s Marauders (codenamed GALAHAD). H Force, consisting of the 1st Battalion, the 150th Regiment of the 50th Chinese Division, and a battery of the 22nd Chinese Division artillery moved south on 30 April. M Force, the 2nd Battalion with attached Burmese Kachins, began its operations on the southernmost axis on 7 May. K Force consisting of the 3rd Battalion of GALAHAD and the 88th Regiment of the 30th Chinese Division began the advance to Myitkyina on 28 April. These three formations were accompanied by U. S. and Chinese support troops, including mobile hospitals, engineers, and animal transport units.
The 17 May attack completely surprised the 700 to 800 Japanese troops defending Myitkyina Airfield. Colonel Charles Hunter’s H Force spearheaded the attack and secured the field and supporting facilities. A U. S. engineer unit, a Chinese infantry battalion, and a British antiaircraft unit were quickly airlifted into the field. Allied reinforcements also arrived in preparation for the difficult task of taking the town and supporting defensive positions. Initial attempts by Chinese forces to take the town were unsuccessful, and a stalemate ensued. Both sides sent in reinforcements and built strong points that were difficult to overrun.
British forces under General Sir William Slim, fully engaged against the Japanese in the west around the Imphal and Kohima area near the Burma-India border, were unable to provide major combat formations for the Northern Burma Campaign. Major General Orde C. Wingate died in a plane crash on 25 March; his Special Forces, or “Chindits,” were placed under the command of Major General W. D. A. Lentaigne. Elements of this force were put under Stilwell’s direct command and fought their way north to support the effort around Myitkyina. Unable to quickly consolidate initial gains against stubborn Japanese resistance, Stilwell ordered the exhausted Marauders to continue the fight. He also brought in U. S. combat engineers working on the Ledo Road to serve as infantry, and he called for additional Chinese reinforcements.
Over the next two months, both sides conducted small-scale attacks, with no significant change in the military situation on the ground. By late July, however, continued Allied efforts, supported by increased air sorties and added artillery, began to take their toll on the Japanese defenders. Determined and often bitter small-unit actions wore down the Japanese, and during the last three days of July, Allied forces made significant advances. On 3 August, Myitkyina was declared secure. The key U. S. formation, Merrill’s Marauders, fought on doggedly and remained in the field until victory, despite being decimated by combat casualties and losses from sickness and disease. The unit ceased to exist as a viable combat formation and was eventually replaced by the Mars Force under the command of Lieutenant General Daniel Sultan. However, it was the Chinese units, which had shown that they could stand with veteran Japanese formations, that were the key to the eventual Allied victory in northern Burma.
From the Burmese “chinthe” or leogryph, the unit insignia. Officially known as “Long-Range Penetration” groups, and later as “Special Force,” Chindit units were organized by British General Orde Wingate to fight behind Japanese lines in Burma. They relied on aircraft resupply to achieve mobility and surprise and to survive deep jungle harassment operations. The first Chindit raid was mounted in February 1943. It was a failure that lost over 850 men out of a starting force of 3,000. Many survivors were too sickened to fight again for many months. They had spent weeks marching over 1,000 miles through heavy jungle, had unhealed jungle sores and tropical diseases, and suffered from malnutrition and low morale. Some never recovered. That did not prevent the British government and press from portraying the first Chindit raid as a signal victory. With enthusiastic backing by Winston Churchill, Wingate put together a second Chindit unit-an operation by “Special Force.” Plans for a much larger “deep penetration” raid by 20,000 British, Gurkha, and West African troops were subsumed under the larger GALAHAD operation commanded by General Joseph Stilwell. When Wingate was killed in a plane crash, the resulting operation turned into a disaster in which light infantry Chindits were wrongly used as regulars, poorly supplied, left unrelieved for far too long, and suffered terrible casualties as a result. The major effect of Chindit raids was to encourage the Japanese to undertake a comparably bad plan for a deep jungle operation: the Imphal offensive in 1944.
On 5 March 1944, the second Chindit operation (Operation THURSDAY) began. One brigade having already begun to move by foot into the area of operations the previous month, two additional brigades, preceded by glider-borne pathfinder teams, were flown into strongholds deep inside Burma. The remaining brigades were held in reserve. Once again, there were some successes. The railway line was again interrupted, the town of Mogaung was briefly captured, and the Japanese response appeared generally confused. Unfortunately, Wingate was killed in a plane crash on 24 March. Without his inspired, if unorthodox, leadership, the operation slowly began to lose momentum. Eventually, it would collapse from both exhaustion and outside intervention.
In early April, the Chindits were put under Stilwell’s operational control. Stilwell distrusted the Chindit concept (and the British), and despite their specialized training, the Chindits were turned into regular infantry formations. In August, they were withdrawn from combat and at the beginning of 1945 disbanded.
In concrete terms, the achievements of the Chindits seemed small and their cost-effectiveness questionable. However, Japanese Fifteenth Army commander General Mutaguchi Renya would write after the war that Chindit operations, especially Operation THURSDAY, were an important reason why his forces were unable to invade India. In any case, the Chindits served as a morale booster at a critical time and were a pioneering concept for special operations brought to fruition by a determined and imaginative Wingate in the face of significant opposition.
ORDE WINGATE, (1903-1944)
British army general who raised an unconventional force known as the Chindits in World War II. Born in India on 26 February 1903, Orde Wingate was educated at Charterhouse School and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from which he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1923. In 1927, he was posted to Khartoum, where he served with the Sudan Defence Force until 1933.
In 1936, Wingate was sent to Palestine, then in the throes of the Arab Revolt. Despite his Arabist training and the pro- Arab sentiment of Palestine’s British rulers, he became a fanatical Zionist and by 1938 had secured official permission to organize the Special Night Squads, joint Anglo-Jewish units that conducted small-unit operations against Arab terrorist hideouts. However, in 1939, his extreme views led to his transfer back to England.
The following year, Wingate went to the Sudan to help organize the effort to drive the Italians from Ethiopia and restore Haile Selassie to his throne. The troops he raised, the Gideon Force, ultimately played a key role in achieving success in ousting the Italians and restoring Haile Selassie, and he and the emperor entered Addis Ababa on 4 May 1941. But Wingate’s outspokenness severely angered his superiors. Exhausted, ill with malaria, and probably suffering from clinical depression, Wingate attempted suicide in June 1941.
In early 1942, Sir Archibald Wavell, who had high regard for Wingate’s abilities, requested his transfer to the Far East. In India, Wingate raised the “Chindits,” an irregular force designed for operations in the enemy rear in Burma. The first Chindit operation, from February to April 1943, was conducted by a brigade-sized force. It achieved limited success but raised morale in a theater that had seen only Japanese victories to that point. Wingate, now a major general, secured the personal support of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill for further operations. The second Chindit operation, conducted by three brigades and supported by an American air contingent ran from March to July 1944, but its results were also mixed, in part because of Wingate’s untimely death in a plane crash on 24 March 1944 near Imphal in India.
Despite his extreme opinions, eccentricity, and disdain for the conventional, Wingate was a soldier of great self-confidence, determination, and mental and physical toughness. His innovations in irregular warfare cannot be denied.