Acting troupe is on a mission to help Merrill's Marauders get the Congressional Gold Medal

In a March 18, 1944, men from the 2nd Battalion cross the Tanai River on a bamboo bridge built by Kachin tribesmen, working with the Office of Strategic Services, near the village of Ning Awng, Burma.


By JEFF HORVATH | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. | Published: August 14, 2019

SCRANTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Battling through the dense Burmese jungle during World War II, members of the all-volunteer Army special operations unit known as Merrill’s Marauders engaged the enemy Japanese behind their lines — dealing blows to the Imperial Army and suffering high casualties in the process.

Under the command of Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, the collective gallantry of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) in 1944 earned the unit a Presidential Unit Citation and every marauder, including several from Scranton, a Bronze Star. Of the roughly 2,750 fighting men who began the 1,000-mile trek into Burma intent on disrupting Japanese supply and communication lines, only about 130 remained fit for duty when the mission ended.

Now, more than six decades later, the minds behind the Dunmore Cemetery Tour are on a mission for the marauders, including those from the area who are buried in the valley. For the past several weeks, members of the Dearly Departed Players acting troupe have donned period garb and circulated petitions supporting federal legislation to award the unit a Congressional Gold Medal.

The Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate earlier this year.

Soldiers’ local roots

While researching for an early cemetery tour in the late 1990s, tour Director Julie Esty noticed the words “Merrill’s Marauders” emblazoned on late Army Pfc. Robert F. Nicholson’s headstone at Dunmore Cemetery.

The inscription on the West Scranton native’s stone stuck with Esty, who several years ago reached out to the Georgia-based Merrill’s Marauders Association to confirm Nicholson served with the unit. Esty checked in with the group periodically, and learned of the legislative effort to honor the marauders around Memorial Day this year.

At the time Esty believed there were three members of the unit with local ties, but further research found at least six she could confirm. In addition to Nicholson, the other five include:

  • Cpl. Arthur J. Richards.
  • Cpl. Michael Sevensky.
  • Pfc. Robert Evans.
  • Staff Sgt. Ivor Morgan.
  • Sgt. Joseph M. Magnotta.

All six hailed from Scranton. Magnotta, Nicholson, Sevensky, Evans and Richards were all from West Side, according to newspaper articles from the time.

“It’s rare to find six people that would have done something like this (together), so of course it’s going to stand out,” Esty said. “These guys are from Scranton and they ended up a world away together. They’re waiting for food drops. They’re hauling their wounded with them. ... What these guys experienced together makes them noteworthy.”

Among other examples of their bravery, an Oct. 19, 1944, Scranton Tribune article described how the five West Side soldiers were part of a “lost battalion” that spent sleepless days and nights surrounded by Japanese forces that attacked repeatedly in the deep jungle near Nhpum Ga. The battalion was surrounded for nearly two weeks, subsisting on air-dropped rations, but all five men survived.

Gold medal campaign

Hoping to honor the local veterans and other marauders, including the roughly 11 members of the unit still alive today, Esty and the Dearly Departed Players launched the petition-signing campaign with a goal of garnering 3,000 signatures supporting the Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act.

Armed with donated pens and some 3,000 petitions printed by local Korean War veteran James Mack, the troupe has collected signatures at the Abington Senior Center, American Legion Post 665 in Dickson City and at a picnic hosted by St. Stanislaus Polish National Catholic Church in Scranton, where Sevensky was a member.

The troupe gathered between 500 and 600 signatures thus far and plans to keep doing its part for the marauders, who battled monsoons, malnutrition, malaria, typhus and other tropical diseases in addition to the Japanese.

Esty sees the effort as an opportunity to help the 11 living marauders across the country earn the congressional award before they pass away.

“If we work together, we can really accomplish something,” she said. “And maybe these guys will never get their medal, but the fact will be that we tried to help these boys from the past who stepped up and volunteered for us.”

She also wants others to recognize the service and sacrifice of the fighting men from Scranton.

“They are all a thread in the fabric that makes up this valley,” Esty said. “Marching through Burma in World War II was no easy task. They did it together and they are from this town, and we need to remember them.”

American Legion Post 665 Commander Jerry Taylor agreed, noting the troupe’s mission to honor the marauders is in keeping with the goals and values of his organization. Taylor hopes the effort draws more attention to the marauder’s gallantry, especially among modern-day Americans who may be unaware of their service.

“These are the forgotten veterans, people that have been through the most horrific combat,” Taylor said. “The average American just forgets why they have their freedoms. They have them because of these gentlemen who laid their lives on the line.”

Next steps

The Dearly Departed Players plan to eventually deliver their petitions to local federal lawmakers, but are looking for organizations, especially veterans groups, to host petition-signing events in the meantime.

The troupe is also interested in connecting with descendents of Merrill’s Marauders members, including the six Scranton soldiers and any others who might have hailed from Scranton, Lackawanna County or Northeast Pennsylvania.


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