Last of Merrill's Marauders Dies

Russell Hamler, member of famed WWII unit, was 99
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 28, 2023 4:19 AM CST
Last Member of Famed WWII Unit Dies
This Aug. 2, 1944 photo, courtesy of the US Army Signal Corps, shows members of the famed WWII Army unit Merrill's Marauders less than 75 yards from enemy positions.   (U.S. Army Signal Corps via AP, File)

The reputed last member of the famed American jungle fighting unit in World War II nicknamed Merrill's Marauders has died. Russell Hamler, 99, died on Tuesday, his son Jeffrey said. He did not give a cause of death. Hamler was the last living Marauder, according to a biography published by the US Department of Veterans Affairs in January, when it named him "Veteran of the Day." Hamler had been living in the Pittsburgh area, where he was born in 1924, and enlisted in the Army at 18, according to the department's biography. In 2022, the Marauders received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest honor.

The Marauders inspired a 1962 movie called Merrill's Marauders, and dozens of Marauders were awarded individual decorations after the war, from the Distinguished Service Cross to the Silver Star. The Army also awarded the Bronze Star to every soldier in the unit. The soldiers spent months behind enemy lines, marching hundreds of miles through the tangled jungles and steep mountains of Burma to capture a Japanese-held airfield and open an Allied supply route between India and China. They battled hunger and disease between firefights with Japanese forces during their secret mission, a grueling journey of roughly 1,000 miles on foot that killed almost all of them.

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to have the Army assemble a ground unit, the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, for a long-range mission behind enemy lines. Seasoned infantrymen and newly enlisted soldiers alike volunteered for the mission, deemed so secret they weren't told where they were going, the AP reports. Merrill's Marauders— nicknamed for the unit's commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill—were tasked with cutting off Japanese communications and supply lines along their long march to the airfield at the occupied town of Myitkyina. Often outnumbered, they successfully fought Japanese troops in five major engagements, plus 30 minor ones, between February and August 1944, according to the department.

story continues below

Starting with 3,000 soldiers, the Marauders completed their mission five months later with barely 200 men still in the fight. Hamler was wounded in the hip by a mortar fragment during the battle known as Nhpum Ga, the department's biography said. The injury immobilized Hamler in his foxhole for more than 10 days until rescuers arrived and evacuated him to a hospital in India. The Marauders eventually captured the Myitkyina airfield, the only all-weather strip in northern Burma, their key objective, according to the US Army Center of Military History. The unit was disbanded afterward. Hamler was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He became an aircraft mechanic for Trans World Airlines and retired from the company in 1985, the department said.

(More World War II stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.