Over the Hills and Far Away
The MARS Task Force, the Ultimate Model for
Long Range Penetration Warfare
MARS Task Force Patch
Merrill’s Marauders Patch
The China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) is almost forgotten in WWII history. However, the Theater—especially operations in Burma—is still very relevant for ARSOF. The several special operations legacy units that served there provided lessons that remain current. Because of the difficult operating environment all U.S. ground combat forces slated for Burma were uniquely organized and specifically mission-oriented. Two of these units, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Detachment 101 and the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders, have received considerable recognition for their accomplishments. However, another Army special operations legacy unit, the 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), known as the MARS Task Force, has not. This article “introduces” that unit to Veritas readers with a brief overview of its organizational structure, subordinate units, and campaign history. But, why were Long Range Penetration Groups (LRPG) needed in Burma?
A Unique Mission
From the outset, Burma presented a challenge for the United States Army. The British were in charge of operations in the country because it was their former colony. In north Burma, the U.S.-led Northern Combat Area Command (NCAC) had a small force of mostly Chinese troops. These were nominally under American control. Burma was one of the most difficult geographical environments in WWII and a lack of resources plagued operations. NCAC had to clear the area so that it could build a bypass—the Ledo Road—from Ledo, India to the portion of the Burma Road not controlled by the Japanese. Otherwise, all supplies into China had to arrive by air. Secondly, the Allies wanted to keep the bulk of the Japanese ground forces engaged in mainland Asia because the main advance against Tokyo was across the Pacific islands. To keep the bulk of the Japanese Army fixed, the Nationalist Chinese Army had to have desperately needed supplies to constitute a viable threat.
Although the effort was insufficient, the air bridge from India to Kunming, China supplied vital resources until the Ledo Road was complete. Japanese fighter aircraft based at Myitkyina, Burma were a major threat for Allied cargo planes flying the “Hump” route. This forced the unarmed aircraft to fly a longer and more dangerous course. Clearing higher passes in the Himalayas and the additional distance meant that aircraft carried less cargo. To secure the trace of the Ledo Road and make the Hump flights more effective, Myitkyina had to be taken from the Japanese. It was for this reason that the U.S. Army formed the GALAHAD Force [nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders after their commander Brigadier General (BG) Franklin D. Merrill], the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).
The 3,000-man Marauders started their penetration campaign in February 1944 and by late May, secured Myitkyina’s airfield. Three grueling months in the Burmese jungle, numerous sharp engagements, and disease—typhus, malaria, and dysentery—considerably reduced the strength of the LRPG. They were not strong enough to capture the city of Myitkyina by themselves and the attached Chinese units did not help. Even though the Marauders were already spent, they remained Lieutenant General (LTG) Joseph W. Stilwell’s only American ground combat force in NCAC. Politically, he could not withdraw the unit to rest and refit. As American replacements arrived in theater, LTG Stilwell committed them, and others hastily scraped together from in-theater personnel to the siege of Myitkyina.
Replacements, often poorly trained for the mission, were derisively dubbed “New GALAHAD” by the dwindling veterans, even as they changed the image of the Marauders. But, they kept an American presence on the battlefield. The new arrivals quickly became combat veterans as the Allied noose was tightened around Myitkyina. Even so, by the time the city fell in early August, the Marauders (old and new GALAHAD) were combat-ineffective. The remainder, still fit, became the core for the newly activated 475th Infantry Regiment (Long Range Penetration, Special). NCAC created the 3,100-man unit on 5 August 1944 at Myitkyina and relocated it to nearby Camp Robert W. Landis for combat training on the banks of the Irrawaddy River ten miles north of Myitkyina.1 Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) William L. Osborne, a former Marauder and veteran of the 1941-42 Philippines campaign, took command of the regiment, a part of the lineage of the 75th Ranger Regiment.2 The 475th Infantry was just one of the major components that made up the second LRPG created specifically for service in Burma, the MARS Task Force.
1 Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI (Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1999), 94.
2 COL Osborne fell ill after his campaigning with the Marauders and was replaced by COL Ernest F. Easterbrook. He later returned to the MARS Task Force in early January 1945 to replace COL Thomas J. Heavey as commander of the 124th Cavalry.
The MARS Task Force
NCAC activated the 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), the MARS Task Force, on 26 July 1944 under the command of BG Thomas A. Arms.3 After a motor vehicle accident, he was replaced by BG John P. Willey on 31 October 1944.4 The second component for the 5332nd, the 124th Cavalry Regiment (Special), a federalized Texas National Guard unit of 2,700 men, arrived at Ramgarh, India in late August 1944. As one of the last horse cavalry units, the 124th was formed in 1929 and saw extensive service patrolling the Texas-Mexico Border and maintaining order in the Texas oilfields. After Executive Order No. 8594 federalized the unit on 18 November 1940, it moved to Fort Bliss, TX.
3 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 90.
4 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 95.
The 124th continued to patrol the Mexican Border until April 1944 (Mexico did not declare war on the Axis Powers until May 1942). The U.S. Army sent the unit to Fort Riley, KS, and ordered it to dismount. Mules replaced horses because only they had the mobility needed for Burma.5 Despite being cavalry without horses, the unit retained “squadrons” instead of battalions and “troops” instead of companies. After the fall of Myitkyina, the unit moved to Camp Landis, Burma to join elements of the 475th Infantry.6
5 John Randolph, Marsmen in Burma (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, Columbia, 1990), 5, 11-15.
6 Robert W. Landis was the first member of Merrill’s Marauders to be killed in action.
The 1st Chinese Regiment (Separate), commanded by Colonel Lin Kuan-hsiang, was to be the third combat component of the MARS Task Force. Like the 124th Cavalry, it had been schooled in LRPG tactics at the Ramgarh Training Center.7 Although assigned on paper to the MARS Task Force, in reality, it was the NCAC reserve and never fought with the 5332nd.8 Thus, the MARS Task Force organized as a brigade with two combat teams. However, unlike the 5307th, the 5332nd was made self-sufficient with attached supporting units. The largest of these were two mule pack field artillery battalions (FAB) of approximately 460 men each; the 612th and 613th FAB (Pack). They were a natural choice for MARS and among the few artillery formations designed from the start to be part of an Army Special Operations unit.
7 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 90.
8 LTC Ralph E. Baird, “Narrative History – 5332d Brigade (Prov),” copies provided by the USAJFKSWCS Archives and the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
Activated at Camp Gruber, OK, on 17 December 1943 and filled by personnel from nine different U.S. Army posts, the 612th Field Artillery (Pack) trained at Camp Carson, CO, before it shipped out for Bombay, India.9 There, on 26 August 1944, one of the artillerymen commented on the crowded waterfront and wrote, “If all of India is like this I know I am not going to like it.”10 He did not have much time to find out. Elements of the 612th reached Camp Landis on 19 September, but the rest trickled in through early November. On 12 November LTC Severn T. Wallis assumed command and the 612th was attached to the 475th Infantry Regiment shortly afterwards.11
9 MARS Task Force Artillery Association, “History of the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (PK), Copy in the USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. It was filled out with officers and enlisted men from Camp Carson, CO, Fort Sill, OK, Camp Butner, NC, Fort Bragg, NC, Fort Meade, MD, Camp Shelby, MS, Fort Sheridan, IL, Fort Riley, KS, and Camp Roberts, CA.
10 Hiram Vance Boone, “S.S. Cyrus W. Field,” copy provided by Mr. Randall Colvin, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
11 Randy Colvin, “The Saga of Two GIs,” copy provided to the USASOC History Office, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
The 613th FA had also been activated at Camp Gruber, OK on the same date, under the command of LTC James F. Donovan.12 With personnel from Fort Bragg, NC, and Camp Carson, CO, the 613th trained at Camp Carson before following its sister unit across the Pacific. It arrived in India on 23 November and six days later was engaged in jungle training at Camp Landis, Burma and attached to the 124th Cavalry.13
12 “Some Highlights in the Unit History of the 613th FA Bn,” copy provided by Mr. Randall Colvin, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
13 “From the Official Log of the 613th F.A. Battalion (PACK),” copy provided by Mr. Randall Colvin, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
The organization of the 612th and 613th FABs was identical. Each battalion had four batteries; A, B, C, and Headquarters and Service (H/S). The firing batteries, A, B, and C, had four 75 mm pack howitzers each. A single firing battery supported a battalion in the 475th or a squadron in the 124th. The firing batteries had a Detail and Service Section and four Gun Sections, led by a Sergeant. Corporals served as gunners and there were five Private First Class cannoneers in each howitzer crew. Cannoneers had specific jobs: the #1 man assisted the Gunner with elevation and fired the howitzer (pulled the lanyard); #2 man loaded and unloaded the gun, #3 and #4 men set the fuse and proper charge for range, and #5 man adjusted the direction of fire by moving the trail of the howitzer to the correct compass azimuth. Ten other privates served as mule drivers that packed/unloaded the guns and ammunition.14 Muleskinner Corporal Phillip Sparn, C Battery, 613th FAB, recalled that “we took care of that mule better than we did ourselves.”15
14 Randy Colvin, “Mountain Artillery Assn 612th & 613th Field Artillery Battalion (PK), September 1998, copy provided to the USASOC History Office, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
15 Phillip Sparn, interview by Dr. Troy J. Sacquety, 3 September 2009, Washington D.C, notes, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
In addition to artillery, a host of smaller units were attached. Critical to the 5332nd were the Army Quartermaster Mule Teams. By providing additional pack support beyond those mules supporting each regiment and FAB, the Quartermaster units increased the quantity of supplies that the MARS Task Force carried, allowing it to conduct independent operations longer. Initially, mules were a novelty to many of the soldiers, although that quickly changed. One muleskinner, SGT Ernie Mutch, said “When it comes to eatin’ and sleeping with ‘em, I lose my affection damn fast.”16 Despite some dissatisfaction associated with the mules, they proved invaluable in Burma. The MARS brigade-wide standard of one mule leader per animal meant that the mule trains moved very efficiently, if a bit unwieldy and slowly. The 3,000 mules in the 5332th—all shipped from the United States—made the Task Force largely self-sufficient.17
16 SGT John McDowell, “Mules, Vets of Burma, China Bound,” CBI Roundup, 9 August 1945, copy provided to the USASOC History Office by Mr. Randy Colvin, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
17 Baird, “Narrative History – 5332d Brigade (Prov).”
Smaller units had specific functions. Each regiment had a section of “war dogs.” Twenty enlisted men and nineteen dogs were attached to the 124th and sixteen men and dogs to the 475th.18 Each regiment had a mobile medical facility assigned to take care of the sick and wounded while deep in Japanese territory. The Task Force headquarters controlled veterinary and other medical units, as well as photographers and Nisei translators. Civil Affairs tasks, such as paying cash for war damaged crops, were handled by Captain Terrance Carroll, a British officer from NCAC headquarters.19 The only outside support came from the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) 10th Air Force.
18 Randolph, Marsmen in Burma, 37.
19 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 214.
Since the Japanese lost air superiority over Burma after Myitkyina, this enabled the MARS Task Force to exploit its LRPG capabilities to the utmost. NCAC supplied the MARSmen by air dropping food and ammunition by parachute every three days.20 In addition to aerial resupply, the USAAF also evacuated the sick and wounded of MARS. The unit would not simply leave their casualties behind as the British had in their 1943 Chindit operation. Light liaison aircraft like the Stinson L-1 Vigilant and the Stinson L-5 Sentinel performed medical evacuations. Although small and limited to one or two wounded at a time, their ability to take off and land on short improvised runways made them ideal. Sick and injured had only to stay in the field until a suitable landing site was found. A critical support element for MARS came from the indigenous population.
20 George W. Patrick, interview by Dr. Troy J. Sacquety, 23 April 2008, Fort Bragg, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. For more on air resupply in Burma, see “Wings Over Burma: Air Support in the Burma Campaign,”Veritas: Journal of Army Special Operations History 4 (2): 16-29 (2008).
Although not assigned or attached, three platoons of OSS Detachment 101-led Kachin tribesmen acted as intelligence and reconnaissance scouts for each regiment. Originally created for intelligence collection and sabotage in Japanese-controlled Burma, Detachment 101 expanded its capability to conduct guerrilla warfare. With recruits primarily from the Kachin tribes of north Burma, the OSS had a distinct advantage over the Japanese and ambushes were invariably deadly. In addition, the unit supplied tactical intelligence to the USAAF for bombing missions. The Kachins scouted at least a day ahead of the MARS main body. In doing so, they located Japanese troop concentrations, drop zones, and medical evacuation strips.
With these elements assigned and attached, the MARS Task Force was combat-ready after a relatively short training period. The 475th Infantry began moving south into Japanese-controlled Burma in late November 1944. The 124th Cavalry followed them out of Camp Landis in mid-December. On these early marches soldiers shed excess equipment and learned to carry only what was needed to live in the field, though special things were occasionally hidden in a mule load. The MARS Task Force campaign consisted of three phases: first, the march from Camp Landis to the first combat at Tonkwa; second, the mission to cut the Burma Road; and third, the movement to serve as instructors in the Chinese Combat Command.
MARS Enters the Field
The march south from Camp Landis on 17 November ended at Tonkwa for the 475th, supported by the 612th FAB. They had been ordered by NCAC to help the Chinese envelop Tonkwa. From 12 to 24 December, the 612th FAB assisted the 475th by firing approximately 2500 shells on enemy positions.21 The 475th was first “bloodied” at Tonkwa. Private First Class Richard W. Hale, who experienced a banzai charge, said, “The [Japanese] made a mistake by preceding their attack with a ten-minute artillery barrage, so we were more than ready for them . . . The charging Japanese ran into a firestorm of .30 caliber bullets. I do not know how many of the 220 Japanese dead at Tonkwa we killed that night, but they broke off that action and never tried it again against our portion of the perimeter.”22 After helping to weaken the Japanese hold on Tonkwa, the Chinese 50th Division managed to occupy the town during the British drive in Central Burma. This forced the enemy to retreat south, ceding the area to the Allies.23 After Tonkwa, the MARS Task Force was ordered to intercept retreating Japanese forces by cutting the Burma Road near Nampakka, Burma, close to where the Ledo Road intersected it. It was also the site of a large enemy ammunition dump. For Phase Two, the 475th joined the 124th, which had left Camp Landis on 16 December 1944 headed for Nampakka.
21 “Combat History of the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) North and Central Burma Campaigns 18 November, 1944-18 April, 1945,” [May 1945], copy in the USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
22 Richard W. Hale, “The MARS Task Force in Burma: A Personal Memoir,” link, accessed 27 October 2009.
23 Baird, “Narrative History – 5332d Brigade (Prov).”
Cutting the Burma Road deep in enemy-held territory was critical for several reasons. First, it hindered Japanese lines of communication to their forces north of the block, forcing the enemy to retreat, freeing all convoys traveling the now completed Ledo Road from Japanese interference. Second, NCAC hoped to goad reluctant Chinese forces into action by placing an American force deep inside Japanese territory—an attempt to embarrass them into resuming the offensive. Third, securing the area lessened the Japanese threat to the rear of British forces in the west who were driving south into Central Burma. During the Second Phase, the MARS Task Force validated its mission as a long range penetration unit.
All resupply came by air because the route of march traversed some of the most difficult terrain in the world. The official U.S. Army history stated, “The men would peer ahead and look out across the valleys to where lay row on row of hills, like the waves of a frozen sea.”24 Marching up the steep mountains and back down into the valleys was so exhausting that at times one or two minutes of climbing was followed by five minutes of rest. One particularly hard day the Task Force only managed to march three and a half miles.25 Trails were so narrow and precipitous that fully-loaded mules occasionally toppled over the side. When that occurred, MARSmen climbed down to collect the lost supplies, and bring the mule back to the column if it was alive, or to shoot it on the spot if it was too injured to do so. Fortunately, few mules were lost. The intermittent rain plagued the 124th and its attached units because they were following the 475th column. Trails became mud slides. At the Shweli River, the trail down was so steep and muddy that it was nicknamed the “Shweli Slide” because once you started down it “there was no stopping until we hit the bottom,” recalled John Randolph, who chronicled the campaign in MARSmen in Burma.26
24 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 187.
25 Baird, “Narrative History – 5332d Brigade (Prov).”
26 Randolph, Marsmen in Burma, 120.
“We crossed some of the roughest country in the world, and after seventeen days of marching, we arrived at the Burma Road,” wrote one 612th FAB soldier in his diary.27 Still, they managed to surprise the Japanese 4th Regiment on 17 January 1945. Then, in a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War some eighty years before, both sides rushed to secure the high ground. Unbeknownst to the MARS Task Force, the Japanese had nearly 11,500 men in the area (the entire 56th Division, the 168th and 4th Regiments, and the regimental-sized Yamakazi Detachment).28 Outside combat assistance for MARS came from American airpower. Fortunately, the Japanese were intent on withdrawing their forces south to fight the British at Mandalay. Putting a noose on the Burma Road was a serious problem.
27 John R. Delong, “C BTRY 612th,” Copy provided by Randall Colvin, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
28 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 190.
The MARS Task Force secured elevated positions looking down on the Burma Road, but, the Japanese managed to keep the Americans from cutting the roadbed. The Americans could only block the road temporarily with artillery fire and occasional ambushes. Fierce Japanese opposition limited maneuver. It became a knockdown fight for control of the heights overlooking the road, with the MARS Task Force also forced to protect the rear area drop and evacuation zones.
On 17 January, the 475th had captured its first positions. This permitted the 612th Field Artillery to interdict enemy traffic with its pack howitzers, forcing the Japanese units to use the road only at night. By the next day, the Japanese had recovered. From positions overlooking the Americans, observers called in larger caliber artillery to reach the drop zones. It took several days before pack howitzers firing at maximum range and the USAAF reduced the threat. Blockage of the Burma Road was having an effect.
On 21 January, MARS Task Force patrols encountered the Chinese 114th Regiment, which had begun to push south. For the next week, the MARS Task Force patrolled on the west side of the road and tried to interdict Japanese traffic with artillery fire. With their forces in full retreat along the Burma Road and adjacent trails, the Japanese goal became to prevent the Task Force and nearby Chinese from cutting off their escape. Both regiments of the 5332nd were hard pressed. The 2nd Battalion, 475th Infantry struggled to seize Loi-Kang hill and the village on top. It took two battalions to push the enemy off the hill. The 124th Cavalry faced similar obstacles.
The Japanese hold was finally broken on 9 February. One MARSman later said, “They really gave us the works, but we were better.”35 The MARS Task Force lost 115 killed in action and 938 wounded, but the unit had validated LRPG operations.36 Unfortunately, this battle was to be its last.
35 Delong, “C BTRY 612th.”
36 Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Time Runs Out in the CBI, 213.
Events in north Burma rapidly turned in NCAC’s favor. With the upper reaches of the Burma Road in Allied hands, the Japanese could no longer hold north of Lashio. The rapid advance of NCAC’s Chinese divisions after the British breakthrough forced the Japanese to withdraw even further south. Isolated Japanese elements concentrated in the eastern Shan States. NCAC tasked OSS Detachment 101 to harass these forces and prevent them from escaping to reinforce enemy units in Thailand.37 With no combat mission remaining for the MARS Task Force in Burma, the unit was ordered to China to advise and train the Nationalist Chinese Army; its third phase of activity.
37 OSS Detachment 101 received a Presidential Unit Citation for its role in this final campaign.
From March to May 1945, elements of the MARS Task Force were flown to China, but the mules were transported overland in seven groups. In two of the groups, the mules caught surra, an insect-born parasitic blood disease. They, and those in another group that ran out of water during the trip, were destroyed. Some 2,000 mules were turned over to the Chinese Army pack artillery units and 1,000 were lost en route.38
38 Randall Colvin, “The Move of Mules from Burma to China, 1945,” Copy provided by Mr. Randall Colvin, the Mr. Randy Colvin collection, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; SGT John McDowell, “Mules, Vets of Burma, China Bound,” India-Burma Theater Roundup, 9 August 1945.
In China, most troops served as training cadre in the Chinese Combat Command. Each component had specific training responsibilities, for instance the Field Artillery soldiers trained the Chinese on 75 mm and 105 mm howitzers. It was a mission for which they had not trained, but fortunately, it did not last long. On 11 June 1945 the MARS Task Force was disbanded, and on 1 July 1945 both the 475th Infantry and 124th Cavalry and their attached units followed suit.
Although technically not a Ranger unit, the MARS Task Force is part of the lineage of the U.S. Army Ranger Regiment, validating several operational concepts.39 The MARS model of an LRPG in Burma, proved how vital attached artillery and indigenous units were. It also reinforced the Marauder and OSS proven use of air evacuation for wounded and sick soldiers and that mules still had a role in an age of mechanized combat. With these central concepts the MARS Task Force had the combat power to drive deep into enemy-occupied territory to break the Japanese hold on the northern stretches of the Burma Road. Yet, the MARS Task Force remains somewhat forgotten. This article is a primer on the organization and service of that LRPG. Future articles will explore the special training and combat operations of the MARS Task Force in depth.
39 “Special Troops Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment Lineage,” link, accessed 23 September 2009.