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Congressional Gold Medal for famed Merrill’s Marauders awaits president’s approval

Members of Merrill's Marauders, gaunt from disease and malnutrition, cross a bridge over Tanai River, Burma, March 18, 1944.

U.S. ARMY

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 23, 2020

House lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the famed Merrill’s Marauders of World War II.

The Senate passed a version of the bill late last year, and supporters say they expect President Donald Trump will sign the legislation.

The Marauders were named for Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, who led the Army unit as it fought behind Japanese lines in Burma during the war.

The Congressional Gold Medal would recognize the extraordinary service of the nearly 3,000 men of the 5307th Composite Unit, as the Marauders were formally known.

The unit was tasked with capturing the Myitkyina airfield in northern Burma, which they did on May 17, 1944, after a 1,000-mile trek over the Himalayan foothills, through jungles and enemy resistance. Disease, exhaustion, malnutrition and the enemy winnowed them down to a handful by the time they seized the airfield.

“I feel like I’m floating on air,” Robert Passanisi, a 96-year-old Marauder veteran, said in a statement after the bill passed Tuesday evening.

“It has been a long journey, and we’ve had to struggle through three congressional sessions to obtain this great honor,” said Passanisi, who emerged as the Marauder’s spokesman and historian as the years have passed.

“My one regret is that only eight of us are alive to enjoy this historic honor,” he said.

The House passed the bill one day after the 77th anniversary of 2,000 volunteers from the Caribbean and United States boarding the SS Lurline on Sept. 21, 1943, in San Francisco to ship out to New Caledonia. There, another 1,000 veterans from South Pacific battles joined them to head to a mission in Burma that not even they fully understood.

Some individual members of the Marauders have in the past received the Congressional Gold Medal. Second-generation Japanese-American soldiers, known as Nisei — some of whom worked as translators with the Marauders — were presented the medal in 2011. Members of the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, were given the medal in 2018. OSS members were among the Marauders.

But as an overall unit, Merrill’s Marauders had been overlooked for what is perhaps the most prestigious award bestowed to civilians.

Jonnie Melillo Clasen, daughter of Vincent Melillo, a Marauder who died in 2015 at age 97, has spearheaded the effort for congressional recognition of the Marauders’ role in the war, which was tantamount to a suicide mission given what they faced.

She has served as an informal liaison to the still-living Marauders and their families after the group of surviving veterans grew too old and too few to maintain an association and plan reunions.

It was her father who first sparked the idea of seeking the Congressional Gold Medal for the 5307th.

After reading a newsletter about Roy Matsumoto, a friend of his who was among the Nisei awarded the gold medal in 2011, Melillo said to his daughter, “Why can’t we get this for the rest of the guys?” Clasen told Stars and Stripes Wednesday.

“And I thought, well, why not?” she said.

Passanisi and fellow Marauder veteran Gilbert Howland, 96, visited Congress three times during the current session to seek support from lawmakers of both chambers.

“It is a great honor for me and our unit,” Howland said in the statement. “We all volunteered and came together as a team to complete our mission. I wish all those men were alive today to receive this honor.

“I fought in WWII, in Korea in the Pork Chop Hill sector and did two combat tours in Vietnam. But the worse fighting I experienced was in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders.”

With so few Marauders alive, supporters of the medal legislation have pressed ahead with a sense of urgency.

Twenty-eight were alive in 2016 when the first bill was introduced in the House; only eight now remain.

Marauder veteran Lester Hollenback, of Deltona, Fla., was the most recent loss, dying in July at age 97.

Noting that the Nisei medals were not presented until a year after they were approved, Clasen said she hoped for a faster timeline.

“We’ve already lost one, and we’re just hoping we don’t lose any more,” she said.

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson