Merrill’s Marauders behind enemy lines in 1944. (Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps)
By George Morris
Dr. Melvin Schudmak was an Army doctor stationed stateside when he was called in to the Adjutant General’s Office in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1943.
“They said, ‘We’d like for you to volunteer for hazardous duty in a foreign country,'” said Schudmak, who later became a Baton Rouge physician. “I said, ‘Well, I have a 3-year-old child and I won’t volunteer, but I won’t mind going if you order me. They said, ‘You have until tomorrow morning to volunteer.'”
The next morning, he again declined to volunteer. So they ordered him to Camp Stonemason in San Francisco to join an outfit with an uninspiring title — the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). Names, it turned out, were deceptive.
The 5307th would do something previously unknown in American military history. It would be sent behind Japanese lines in the remote mountainous jungles of Burma (now Myanmar). It would bring most of its supplies in on the backs of mules. It would wage guerrilla warfare while having no direct link to friendly forces.
“I thought, ‘I’m not coming back from this,'” Schudmak said. “In fact, the War Department had planned that this outfit was expendable. I didn’t know that until later on.”
He’d learn a lot before it was over.
Schudmak had become part of an operation code named Galahad, and the 5307th became better known at Merrill’s Marauders. Their job was to reclaim territory the Japanese had taken early in the war. The nearly 3,000-man unit would be the first U.S. ground forces to fight on the Asian mainland in World War II.
The idea had been developed by British Gen. Orde Wingate, who had led a small Ethiopian force to help free much of that country from its Italian invaders. Always behind enemy lines, he relied on radio contacts and air drops to supply his troops. The 5307th would do the same.
American Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell named Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill commander. Merrill’s Marauders fought three missions in Burma over three months beginning in February 1944. They were cut off from supply except by air. By radio, they sent their locations to pilots, who would search for them in the jungle and drop supplies to them.
“Sometimes we had to sacrifice food for ammunition, things like that,” Schudmak said. “We got in trouble, but it worked very well … They supplied us in the most impossible weather that you wouldn’t believe. They were great, great, great, great pilots.”
Supplying brave, brave, brave, brave soldiers.
The conditions were extraordinarily difficult. From India, they marched through mountain passes and over hills so steep many of their pack animals fell to their deaths. They hiked narrow foot trails through dense jungles, in foliage so thick they often could not see more than a few feet to either side. There was the constant threat of ambush.
“You don’t want to do anything to disgrace yourself, but I’ll tell you the truth, you stay scared the whole damn time you’re in there,”Schudmak said. “There isn’t any joke about that, particularly when artillery shells begin to fall. Those things are terrifying. There were a lot of terrifying things.”
Twice, they outflanked Japanese forces and cut off a major supply road, trapping the enemy as Chinese forces pushed down the road. In their first raid, they killed about 800 enemy soldiers and forced the Japanese to withdraw. Only eight Marauders were killed and 37 wounded.
Their second mission was similar, only farther down the same road. This time, though, they divided their forces and the results were mixed. One battalion got cut off from the others and was attacked relentlessly for nine days. Fifty Marauders were killed and 314 wounded before the rest of the 5307th broke up the attack.
“They lost their water hole and had all these dead animals stinking like hell in there — millions of flies,” Schudmak said. “Men were sick. They had men that they couldn’t do anything for that were wounded. That was really a desperate situation.”
Schudmak was not with that battalion, but he had another problem. Merrill suffered a heart attack. Schudmak treated him and had him evacuated. Col. Charles Hunter took command. At this point, they had been fighting for two months. The soldiers lost a tremendous amount of weight from inadequate rations. Yet, the toughest task remained.
Allied leaders wanted to recapture the Burma Road as a route to supply China for its ground war with Japan, so the city of Myitkyina and its air base had to be taken. The 5307th, accompanied by three Chinese divisions, made the 90-mile trek over even tougher terrain than they had traversed before, and they did so after monsoons had arrived.
“There were a lot of hardships — leeches, rain,” Schudmak said.”God, I never saw such rain in my life. In those days, they didn’t even have zippers; they had ponchos with snap buttons on them. You’d go to sleep on the ground and the rain would come and all of the damn rain would come in the ponchos. So, you’d be wet and miserable. Then,in the daytime the sun would come out and it would be so hot you could die.”
By this time, disease and exhaustion were bigger enemies than the Japanese. By the end of their missions, 424 Marauders had been killed, wounded or were missing, and 1,908 withdrawn because of sickness, according to Hunter’s book, “Galahad.” Dysentery and tsutsugamushi ravaged their ranks.
The airfield fell in mid-May, but the city held out for three more months. The Marauders, who had been told they would be replaced after taking the airfield, were kept there. When the Japanese reinforced Myitkyina, Marauders were pulled out of rear echelon hospitals and sent to the front. This put Schudmak, the 5307th’s ranking medical officer, in the middle.
“Men that were ill and not really fit for duty were made to fight,” Schudmak said. “We’d tag men and send them back and they’d go to the hospital, and somebody would come along and drag them out of the hospital and put them on the airplane and send them back. We, in turn, would tag them again and send them back. These men were really unfit for duty.”
Schudmak’s actions did not go unnoticed. After Myitkyina fell, he reported to the commanding officer after return from a rest leave.
“I was greeted with the salutation: ‘Hello. We didn’t miss you a bit,'” Schudmak said. “I was sort of persona non grata at the time, and so were so many of the other officers who had sent these men back against the wishes of the rear echelon.”
But Merrill’s Marauders had accomplished their mission — and Schudmak had accomplished his. He came back.
Frank Merrill, left, with Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell (U.S. Army Signal Corps photo)