‘Merrill’s Marauders,’ Nisei helped shorten World War II (part 5) by COL Renita Foster
"As for the Nisei group, I couldn’t have gotten along without them. Probably few realized that these boys did everything that an infantryman normally does plus the extra work of translating, interrogating, etc. Also, they were in a most unenviable position for identification, almost everyone from the Japanese to the Chinese shot first and identified later."
Maj. General Frank Merrill — "Merrill’s Marauders"
The mission was deemed "dangerous and hazardous" from the start. The predicted casualty rate a whopping 85 percent. Yet, nearly 3,000 volunteers eagerly began the quest on Feb. 21, 1944 that would take them over 700 miles of savage terrain through the jungles of Burma. A land cursed with blistering heat, poisonous snakes and spiders. Worst of all, a deadly, highly experienced, and well equipped enemy force was waiting.
Accepting the challenge was the newly designated 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). Better known as Merrill’s Marauders for their commanding officer, then Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, the task demanded the defeat of the Japanese 18th Division and capturing the town of Myitkyina, a strategic location with an all weather airfield and land route to China. Success meant World War II in the South Pacific was one step closer to victory.
The march began after extensive training operations in the jungles of Central India.
The unit had no tanks or heavy artillery; they would only fight with what they could carry on their backs and pack mules.
But the unit possessed a secret weapon that would make a huge difference.
Carefully chosen from 200 applicants were 14 Nisei (second generation Japanese American) Soldiers.
Called the "Marauder Samurai," they served in both the infantry and intelligence, and provided the crucial edge in discerning enemy activities and tactics.
Tech Sgt. Grant Hirabayashi was one such Soldier. He had lived and attended school in Japan but he had volunteered because he was an American.
"Some of us had come from internment camps. Others had been in the service, but were removed from duty because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," said Hirabayashi. "Though we never spoke a lot about the situation, it was painful and confusing. I was confused because I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school which ends in ‘with liberty and justice for all’ and yet, my parent’s farm was confiscated and my parents and siblings were interned behind barbed wire without due process of law."
A chipped elbow from his first training maneuver and the discovery that he was allergic to field rations almost disqualified Hirabayashi from the Marauder operation. But he refused to quit.
"I had come too far and worked too hard to turn back now," said Hirabayashi. "Every day it was a struggle to survive, so I ate what rations I could like crackers and anything else I found along the way."
The battle of Shadazup was one incident that brought Hirabayashi an excellent meal.
The young Nisei had been summoned to provide assistance in tapping enemy telephone lines. He escaped sniper fire while crossing the Irrawaddy River only to discover the telephone line dead.
However, a wonderful breakfast had been left by the retreating Japanese.
"I feasted on rice and a can of sardines that I can still taste today," laughed Hirabayashi.
After the first battle of Walabum, he discovered a small bag with Japanese characters called Shinshu Miso.
Shinshu is the ancient name for the Nagano Prefecture, the home of Hirabayashi’s parents and where he attended school.
It reminded him of the possibility he might encounter relatives or friends from Japan. He prayed each night that he would be spared confronting cousins and classmates.
Cutting through elephant grass while they marched gave Hirabayashi a harrowing experience with insects. Leeches were rampant in the grass and one morning, Hirabayashi suddenly noticed his team leader covered in blood.
"I quickly woke him and we burned the leeches off with cigarette butts," said Hirabayashi.
Just before the battle of Nhpum-Ga, Hirabayashi’s nourishment problem finally caught up with him. He had eaten rations sparingly, supplementing them with whatever he could scrounge.
But now he was very weak, suffering from amoebic dysentery and could no longer carry his pack. A supply horse was used until it was injured and had to be put down. A mule was pressed into service next, but also had to be destroyed. When a second mule collapsed, Hirabayashi felt it was the end of him as well.
"Fortunately, the mule skinner somehow got the animal back up and we continued on," said Hirabayashi. "It’s important to understand that even if you stopped, just to answer "nature’s call," everyone else kept moving. And you had to hurry to catch up. When you’re starving or have a condition like dysentery, that’s hard to do. But getting the animal going again saved my life."
Soon afterwards, a high fever and amoebic dysentery forced Hirabayashi to a hospital. Determined to complete the mission, he returned a month later.
To avoid detection by the Japanese, the Marauders simply went around them and through the jungle. Cutting through the bamboo and vegetation was exhausting work, and at times it required ten hours just to go one mile.
"It’s amazing how much the human body can take," said Hirabayashi. "But we were young then."
Hirabayashi’s duties included interrogating prisoners of war (POWs). One Japanese officer called him a traitor and refused to answer any questions. Stung by the POW’s accusation, Hirabayshi offered a resourceful reply.
"If we were to cut our veins open, I guess the same blood would flow," he said calmly. "You’re fighting for your country and I for mine. So we do have our differences, but I’m the interrogator and you’re the POW."
Hirabayashi then had the officer, who was wounded after an escape attempt, placed in the center of the stockade with enlisted soldiers.
A short while later, Hirabayashi felt the Japanese officer pulling on his pant leg as he walked by. Begging for a weapon to kill himself, Hirabayashi explained that bullets couldn’t be wasted like that. However, there was a sword if he wished to demonstrate the Japanese method of doing away with oneself. The prisoner declined. Within a few hours he asked to be moved and eventually talked.
"Because he was an officer, he had some valid and useful information," said Hirabayashi.
After the capture of the Myitkyina airport, Hirabayashi was tasked to interview some women found behind barbed wire.
He was horrified at what turned out to be Korean "comfort women" for the Japanese soldiers.
Their plight reminded him of what was going on in America.
"I thought of the internment camp where my parents and siblings were behind barbed wire and living in tarpaper houses. These women were frightened and shaking very hard. We assured them as soon as transportation was available, they would return to India and, hopefully, Korea," he said.
Eighty- six days later the Marauders completed their mission. The predicted survival rate proved accurate as only an estimated 200 of 3,000 could be counted fit to carry on for another couple of days or weeks.
Their ranks had been depleted by disease, physical and mental fatigue, and casualties. However, all 14 of the Nisei survived.
Thanks to the Marauder Samurai’s brilliant execution of intercepting and interpreting Japanese communications, captured documents, and plain old eavesdropping, potential disasters became successful operations.
Examples include a platoon changing its position in the direction of an enemy ambush and a Japanese ammunition dump located and destroyed by aircraft.
One radio interception saved an entire battalion that had fought for 36 hours and was without food and very little ammunition from a surprise enemy attack.
One Nisei bravely crawled out beyond his perimeter and overheard orders for an enemy attack at dawn. Thanks to the information, his platoon leader withdrew his men from their positions and "booby trapped" their foxholes.
Surprised to find the American Soldiers gone the next morning, the Japanese charged forward only to be met by a barrage of automatic weapons. The second enemy wave stopped their advance when they realized what had happened. Fearing they would retreat, the same Nisei boldly stood up in his foxhole and gave the command to "Charge!" in Japanese. Following what they thought was their officer’s order; the second set of enemy soldiers suffered the same fate as the first.
Some months later while questioning a Japanese scientist, Hirabayashi was astonished to learn Japan was developing an atomic bomb.
While it was difficult understanding the technical language, Hirabayashi learned the weapon could destroy an entire city.
"I felt sure this was something my superior officers would be interested in but they dismissed the report," said Hirabayashi.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, both Hirabayashi and the scientist were stunned. The POW even guessed using the weapon meant the war was over. Hirabayashi said no, but he felt sure the atomic bomb would be instrumental in bringing the hostilities to a close.
Hirabayashi was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga. on July 8, 2004. The 87-year-old Nisei is only one of three Japanese Americans selected for his distinguished service as a military intelligence specialist with Merrill’s Marauders.
"All of the Marauders took the duty upon their own shoulders and fought magnificently and we prevailed. If others hadn’t done their part, I wouldn’t be here," said Hirabayashi. "I was deeply humbled and honored, and I accepted it on behalf of my fellow Merrill’s Marauders."
Hirabayashi was also thankful for the chance to exercise his rights and duty as a citizen to serve his country and fight for freedom and equality.
"We fought side by side, shoulder to shoulder, alongside fellow Americans of many cultures and proved that being an American has nothing to do with your ancestry or color of your skin, but everything to do with spirit and conviction and love of freedom."
Winner of the MG Keith L. Ware Journalism award. Category I: Story Series.
Civilian Winner: Renita Foster, IMCOM–NERO, The Monmouth Message, Fort Monmouth Public Affairs