Russell Hamler, Last of World War II’s Merrill’s Marauders, Dies at 99

Russell Hamler, Last of World War II’s Merrill’s Marauders, Dies at 99

The troopers’ mission was as harmful because it was audacious: a trek of greater than 500 miles via mountainous jungle in northern Burma to grab a Japanese-held airfield in World War II.

The threats had been fixed: fierce assaults by superior numbers of enemy troops, monsoon rains, tropical illnesses and malnutrition.

When the airfield was lastly taken three months later, solely 130 able-bodied troopers remained of the two,600 who had crossed into Burma in 1944 with Merrill’s Marauders, a fabled unit that was one of many forerunners of the Army’s Special Operations elite, the seventy fifth Ranger Regiment.

On Dec. 29, Russell Hamler, the final survivor of Merrill’s Marauders, died at a veterans’ hospital in Pittsburgh. He was 99.

The dying was confirmed by his son Jeffrey.

Mr. Hamler left highschool to enlist within the Army on his 18th birthday in June 1942. Originally despatched to Puerto Rico, he volunteered, like the entire males in Merrill’s Marauders, for a secretive mission with anticipated casualties of as much as 85 p.c.

“In essence, they didn’t suppose any of us would pull via,” Mr. Hamler recalled a number of years in the past.

Mr. Hamler, a personal firstclass, was not a pacesetter of the unit. But he skilled the complete brunt of jungle fight behind enemy traces as a lot as any member. He fought in three of its 5 main battles, in addition to in lots of lesser engagements, armed with a Thompson submachine gun.

“The jungles had been stuffed with Japanese,” he recalled. “We did quite a lot of capturing as a result of they stored coming.”

After Pearl Harbor, Japan’s armed forces overran Southeast Asia, capturing Hong Kong, Singapore and Indochina. An American common, Joseph Stilwell, was compelled right into a humiliating retreat from Burma (now Myanmar). Allied leaders agreed in 1943 to ship a drive again into Burma, into what Winston Churchill referred to as the “most forbidding combating nation possible.” It could be a long-range penetration unit, difficult Japanese management of the northern half of the nation. The males would have solely the weapons and provides they may stick with it mules or on their backs, with further provides dropped sometimes by parachute from planes.

General Stilwell named Gen. Frank Merrill to command the unit, formally the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).

The dense bamboo, tangled vines and banyan timber of the jungle, the place males marched single-file in stifling tropical warmth and humidity, was as a lot an enemy because the Japanese. Dysentery and malaria had been endemic and rendered many males unfit for fight.

Mr. Hamler trekked till he wore holes in his boots, then walked on naked ft earlier than receiving new footwear in one of many parachute drops, he recalled in an interview printed in 2022 with Carole Ortenzo, a retired Army colonel and a member of Mr. Hamler’s prolonged household. Leeches sucked blood from his limbs and bugs “bored into your arms,” he recalled.

The Army equipped largely Okay-rations, offering simply 2,830 energy a day to males who had been burning much more power. Famished troopers, Mr. Hamler recounted, dropped grenades into rivers, skimmed the dead fish and cooked them of their helmets.

“There needed to be absolute silence at evening within the jungle as a result of any noise invited shelling from the Japanese,” Mr. Hamler mentioned. Pairs of males dug foxholes close by so one may sleep whereas his buddy stood sentry. When it was time to change roles, the sentry tugged a rope connected to the sleeping man to wake him with out uttering a sound.

In one of many Marauders’ fiercest battles, Mr. Hamler’s Second Battalion was dug right into a ridge-top village named Nhpum Ga, which was surrounded and below siege for 10 days.

The Japanese fired mortars and huge artillery forward of banzai fees by fearless troopers prepared to run into the Americans’ Browning machine weapons. The Japanese superior shut sufficient to taunt the batallion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. George McGee, by identify, in line with a 2013 historical past, “Merrill’s Marauders” by Gavin Mortimer. A Japanese American interpreter with the Marauders, Roy Matsumoto, crept shut sufficient to enemy traces to overhear speak of a deliberate daybreak assault, then alerted his comrades.

Mules killed within the assault putrefied and attracted swarms of maggots. Dysentery sickened many troopers. As they ran out of ingesting water, they suffered dehydration and delirium, and tried chopping aside bamboo to suck water from the joints.

Early within the combating at Nhpum Ga, Mr. Hamler was hit within the hip by a mortar fragment and lay immobilized in his foxhole for greater than 10 days, till Americans from the Third Batallion broke via to the village — by that time christened “Maggot Hill” by the Americans — and the Japanese retreated. The Marauders counted 400 enemy corpses. The Marauders misplaced 57 males, with 302 wounded. General Merrill himself suffered a coronary heart assault simply earlier than the siege and was evacuated.

Command of the Marauders handed to Col. Charles N. Hunter, who later wrote a essential report accusing General Stilwell of sending males nonetheless recovering from jungle sicknesses again into fight, which drew a Congressional investigation.

A 1962 film, “Merrill’s Marauders,” directed by Samuel Fuller, made General Merrill the hero, however it appalled many veterans of the unit, together with some who thought-about Colonel Hunter their true chief, in line with Mr. Mortimer’s guide.

In May 1944, three months after the Marauders entered Burma, the airstrip within the city of Myitkyina, the mission’s key goal, fell to the Americans and Chinese troops who had bolstered them. In August, the closely fortified city itself was captured. The Marauders had been disbanded one week later. All told, the unit suffered 93 fight fatalities in Burma and 30 deaths from illness. Another 293 males had been wounded and eight had been lacking. Most startling, an extra 1,970 males at one level had been hospitalized with sicknesses, together with 72 with what was described as “psychoneurosis.”

Mr. Hamler had been evacuated after the battle of Nhpum Ga in April to northern India, the place he spent 5 weeks recuperating in a hospital. He was transferred again dwelling to Pennsylvania and served as a army policeman till he was discharged in December 1945. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

In 2022, Merrill’s Marauders had been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Mr. Hamler was introduced together with his medal at a ceremony close to his dwelling.Credit…by way of Hamler Family

He turned a mechanic for Trans World Airlines, retiring in 1985.

Russell Hamler was born on June 24, 1924, in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. His father, Robert Hamler, was half proprietor of a bus firm; his mom was Margaret (Schweig) Hamler. Mr. Hamler attended Mt. Lebanon High School.

Besides his son Jeffrey, Mr. Hamler is survived by one other son, James Hamler. His spouse of 71 years, Imelda Hamler, often called Jean, died in 2018.

In 2022, Merrill’s Marauders had been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, after a lobbying drive by the handful of surviving veterans and members of the family.

Mr. Hamler was introduced together with his medal at a ceremony close to his dwelling. He mentioned that “those that haven’t been round killing” don’t notice the horror of struggle. Speaking of kids dying in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he mentioned, “I want to see them outlaw wars.”

He proposed a physique of worldwide leaders to unravel the world’s issues. “This group would get collectively and iron it out in phrases as a substitute of bullets,” he mentioned. “I want to see a peaceable world.”



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