At Liberty Bell, WWII 'Merrill's Marauders' soldiers gather one last time

Marvin Boyenga, 90, second from right, talks with Quentin Waite, 95, at right, in front of the Liberty Bell. They are the last living members of Merrill’s Marauders, a unit famous for its behind-the-lines exploits during World War II. Four members from the group tour Philadelphia, PA on August 26, 2016. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

It was a simple gesture of kindness from one veteran to another.

David Morales, 28, stuck his hand out to Bob Passanisi, 92, as the two stood within feet of the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall on Friday.

"Hey, from one veteran to another I just want to say thank you for your service," said Morales, a National Guard Staff Sgt. from Delaware City, Del. Morales said he served "outside the wire" as a military police officer in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The two looked each other in the eyes, smiled, shook hands and then parted ways.

Passanisi hurried to catch up with the rest of his tour group, a gathering of World War II soldiers on a tour of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

The retired engineer was in Philadelphia to celebrate the 70th annual reunion of "Merrill's Marauders," a group of originally 2,750 officers and men of the 5307th Composite Unit who marched into the harsh Burmese jungle in February 1944 on a secret mission they were not expected to survive. They are named after their commanding officer, Brig. Gen Frank Merrill.

Plans for their exit from Burma never existed on paper.

"They were expendable," said Marvin Boyenga, 90,who joined the Marauders as a replacement months after the initial mission. The Army "didn't think they would come back."

Boyenga, of Mason City, Iowa,  and Passanisi,  of Lindenhurst, N.Y., two of about 26 members still living, were joined in Philadelphia this week by Quentin Waite, 95, of Union City, Mich., Edward Brown, 92, of Pasca, Wash.; Marcos Barelas 93, of Houston, Tex., and Gilbert Howland, 93, of Langhorne.

"This is going to be the last official reunion," said Bob Menta, of Cherry Hill, president of the Proud Descendants of Merrill's Marauders.

 

The Marauders, whose unit was originally code-named Galahad, responded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s plea for volunteers for a “dangerous and hazardous mission.” They trained secretly in the jungles of central India in late 1943, and in early 1944 headed into the dense jungles of Burma.

The Marauders fought five major battles and 30 minor engagements as they walked about 1,000 miles — farther than any other WWII fighting force — with only what they could carry on their backs or pack on mules, according to an article on the Army website.

“Their mission was to wreak havoc on Japanese lines of supply and communication with the ultimate objective of capturing” a Japanese airfield and the town of Myitkyina, nearly eight hundred miles away, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Often outnumbered by the Japanese, the Marauders had no tanks or heavy artillery support. They walked and fought through torrential rains and extreme heat, and struggled with mosquitoes and disease.

After six months — with only 200 men able to continue — replacements known as the Mars Task Force were added. The rest of the original unit had been killed or wounded in combat, or felled by malaria, typhus, or dysentery, Passanisi said.

“I’m one of the originals,” said Passanisi, of Lindenhurst, N.Y. He wore a baseball cap decorated with an embroidered Marauders patch and Army Ranger pins.

Still spry, Passanisi, the group’s historian, is quick with a smile. He was also quick to recount the terror of the campaign.

It was during the siege of Myitkyina, when the Japanese shot off six artillery shells in about a two-minute period, that Passanisi thought he was going to die. The shells fell all around him, destroying his bedding and everything he owned, he said.

“I died a lot of deaths with each of those rounds,” said Passanisi. “How I managed to survive, I don’t know.”

The Marauders captured the Myitkyina airstrip on May 17, 1944. Two months later, the unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, which was renamed the Presidential Unit Citation in 1966. The Marauders also have the rare distinction that every member of the unit received a Bronze Star.

By August 1944, when the unit disbanded in Burma, slightly more than 100 of the soldiers remained.

Through the years, the survivors have proudly pointed out that every wounded Marauder was evacuated from the jungle. On the Marauders’ website, www.marauder.org, the soldiers describe how they carried each wounded man on a bamboo stretcher to landing strips they hacked from the jungle so that small airplanes could land and rescue them one by one.

Howland, who retired from the Army after 30 years, opened his wallet - a copy of the Ranger tab was visible in the ID window - and pulled out a laminated badge identifying him as an original member of Merrill's Marauders. The Marauders were later grandfathered into the Army's elite Ranger company, he said.

Next year, a few of the group hope to meet again at West Point for a more casual reunion, Howland said.

"Merrill is buried there," he said, before boarding a bus for lunch.

mschaefer@phillynews.com

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@MariSchaefer