Russell Hamler, thought to be the last of WWII Merrill’s Marauders jungle-fighting unit, dies at 99

Dec 27, 2023, 2:11 PM | Updated: 3:40 pm

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The reputed last member of the famed American jungle fighting unit in World War II nicknamed the 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 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in January.

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 (1,610 kilometers) 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 into Japanese-occupied Burma, now Myanmar. Seasoned infantrymen and newly enlisted soldiers alike volunteered for the mission, deemed so secret they weren’t told where they were going.

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.

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.

Marauders spent most days cutting their way through dense jungle, with only mules to help carry equipment and provisions. They slept on the ground and rarely changed clothes. Supplies dropped from planes were their only means of replenishing rations and ammunition. Malnutrition and the wet climate left the soldiers vulnerable to malaria, dysentery and other diseases.

The Marauders eventually captured the Myitkyina airfield, the only all-weather strip in northern Burma, their key objective, according to the U.S. 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 it in 1985, the department said.

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Russell Hamler, thought to be the last of WWII Merrill’s Marauders jungle-fighting unit, dies at 99