Topic & Content
Published in 1956, this is the author’s firsthand account of his time with the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders (and more clandestinely as Unit Galahad). The book covers the history of the unit from its original inception at the First Quebec Conference in August 1943, and its operations during the Burma Campaign, all the way to its disbandment on 10 August 1944. It’s organized into nine chapters.
Ogburn’s thesis, based on his personal experiences with the unit, is that the activities of Merrill’s Marauders stand as a testament to human endurance in extreme conditions.
Charlton Ogburn, Jr. was born in 1911 and graduated from Harvard University, after which he joined the U.S. Army in 1941. Upon assignment to the 5307th, he was put in command of a communications platoon where he eventually rose to the rank of captain by the end of his time with the unit. After the war, he worked for the State Department, specializing in South-East Asian Affairs. After writing a story titled Merrill’s Marauders for Harper’s Magazine in 1957, he left government work to write full-time. He passed away in 1998.
The writing in this book is very straightforward and clear. Ogburn starts off describing how the Marauders came to be modeled off of the British and Indian Chindits Long Range Penetration Groups. Following the recruitment of men with jungle training from the continental U.S., the Caribbean Defense Command, and veterans of the Solomons campaigns, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) was organized into three battalions under the command of Brigadier General Frank Merrill and shipped off to train in India where they received their equipment, pack animals, and additional training for operations in Burma against the Imperial Japanese Army’s 18th Division under Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka. Among their many questions was, “where are the other 5,306 composite units?”
Ogburn details the five months of combat the Marauders participated in over some of the harshest jungle terrain imaginable. Picture steep mountain slopes, thick walls of bamboo, oppressive heat and humidity, poisonous animals, monsoon rains, knee-deep mud, and tropical diseases. He spends much of the book describing the jungle, the various personalities in the unit, and the quick and vicious engagements with the Japanese. He also takes care to point out the valuable efforts of the Japanese-American MIS interpreters with the unit.
Broadly, the book covers the three missions the Marauders conducted in northern Burma in the mountainous terrain around the Kachin hills and the Ledo Road (later called the Stilwell Road after General Joseph Stilwell) from the border of India to Myitkyina near the Chinese border. By the time the town of Myitkyina was seized, only about 200 of the original 3,000 men were left (about 93 were KIA in total). Almost all of the remaining men had become malnourished, wounded, or ill. The 5307th was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and would eventually be folded into the 475th Infantry Regiment which would be deactivated just before the end of the war and then reactivated in 1954 as the 75th Infantry. It would serve as part of the lineage of units that comprise the current U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment (the unit insignia and beret flash are based on the Marauder’s designs).
Ogburn has obviously done research on the unit after the fact given that he discusses events that he wasn’t privy to. Unusually for a war memoir, he includes endnotes that demonstrate his attention to detail. That said, there aren’t that many notes for each chapter, and this book was published only twelve years after the end of the war, so his resources were probably limited. Despite those limitations, it’s refreshing to see a personal account with citations.
One final thing that struck me about this book is the verbiage that Ogburn uses. At first glance, he’s awfully eloquent for your average officer, but then you have to remember that this guy graduated from Harvard University (back when an Ivy League education really counted for something) and was the communications officer. In true Army fashion, he started out in the Signal Corps as a photographer, but the Army never gave him a camera. Upon assignment to the Marauders, he was put in charge of communications for which he had no training in how to use radios. According to him, the biggest technical achievement he demonstrated during his time in the field was helping to fix a handheld radio by taking the batteries out and putting them back in the correct way.
I don’t have many negatives to say about this book, but to be honest, I just didn’t think it was a terribly impressive read. It’s by no means bad, and it’s slightly better than most war memoirs I’ve read. (To be clear, I distinguish between military histories, written by historians as secondary sources, and war memoirs, which are firsthand accounts of the events. This book is the latter.) As I’ve mentioned in other posts on this blog, most firsthand accounts aren’t exactly Shakespeare, but Ogburn’s writing saves it from sheer mediocrity (perhaps his Harvard education had something to do with that).
While the reader definitely gets the sense that these men had to endure brutal jungle conditions, in many ways, it just reads like any other memoir about life in the infantry. There are lots of colorful personalities and the usual infantry gripes, but after a while, it felt like I was just reading about a bunch of guys climbing up and down mountains in the Burmese jungle. Ogburn doesn’t delve much into the specifics of infantry tactics or jungle survival, probably because he was a communications officer and not leading an infantry platoon. Thus, anyone looking for an account involving lots of shooting and explosions might be a bit disappointed by this book. Also, since Ogburn doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the nature of the Japanese enemy, the conflict of the war becomes somewhat abstract. In a way, it almost felt like I was reading another Vietnam War memoir.
Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)
All in all, this isn’t your standard account of infantry special operations because it’s told from the perspective of a communications officer. While the descriptions of the unit’s operations and the harsh environment of the Burmese landscape are clear and easy to follow, there isn’t much detail about the combat from a tactical perspective. As a result, the combat in the book feels a bit abstract. That being said, Ogburn certainly lays bare the sheer fortitude these men displayed and the deprivations they had to endure. While Ogburn’s writing is much more eloquent than your average memoir, it still ends up feeling fairly generic.
3 out of 5 (above average)