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Robert Passanisi shaves with a bayonet while serving with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during World War II in this undated photo. Lawmakers on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Marauders, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor to the famed Army unit.

Robert Passanisi shaves with a bayonet while serving with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during World War II in this undated photo. Lawmakers on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Marauders, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor to the famed Army unit. (Bob Passanisi Jr.)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Merrill’s Marauders, bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor to the famed Army unit from World War II.

In a virtual ceremony, Congress honored the soldiers of the 5307th Composite Unit, as the Marauders were formally known, who fought deep behind enemy lines in the jungles of Japanese-controlled Burma. Only two veterans from the unit, named after its leader Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, are alive today.

“Merrill’s Marauders stand among the great heroes of our history,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Their extraordinary hard-won success helped turn the tide in the Pacific theater and propelled the Allies to victory in the Second World War.”

The Marauders were tasked with disrupting enemy communications and supply lines and capturing the Myitkyina airfield in northern Burma to open a critical supply route between India and China.

The daring mission was fraught with hardship.

Soldiers trekked 1,000 miles over the steep Himalayan foothills, walking farther than any other American WWII fighting force. They engaged in more than 30 battles with Japanese troops that outmanned and outgunned them and suffered from months of disease, hunger, thirst, monsoons, scorching heat and exhaustion.

By the time the unit seized the airfield on May 17, 1944, its ranks had dwindled from 3,000 men to 200.

“All these years later, we remain every bit inspired, every big grateful and forever humbled by the example of these brave Americans,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Today, freedom and democracy are once again in danger around the world, and we look to the sacrifices of those who came before us for strength, inspiration and wisdom.”

Russell Hamler, 97, one of the surviving Marauders, spoke of his wish for peace last month when he received his individual medal.

“I would like to see them outlaw wars,” he said at a ceremony in Baldwin, Pa. “I would like to see a group that would get together and iron out [issues] with words instead of bullets because I listen to the news, with Russians killing little kids, and it’s so awful. I would like to see a peaceful world.”

Gabriel Kinney, an Alabama resident who celebrated his 101st birthday in February, is the only other remaining member of the unit. Three Marauders — Gilbert Howland, 99, Robert E. Passanisi, 99, and Raleigh Nayes, 99, — have died since April.

Every Marauder has earned a Bronze Star Medal, an “extremely rare” distinction among combat units, said former Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. The group included Japanese-Americans who served as intelligence translators and proved vital to the unit’s success, he noted.

King helped lead the yearslong legislative effort to recognize the men with the Congressional Gold Medal, which was approved in 2020. Pelosi said the medal will be placed in the Smithsonian, where future generations can be reminded of the Marauders’ “fight for freedom and democracy.”

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., an Army officer, said he was “especially thrilled” that the House of Representatives could approve the award “while we still have survivors of the Merrill's Marauders with us.”

The legacy of the Marauders can be directly traced to today’s Army Rangers. The colors used to identify the unit’s six combat teams can be found on every tan beret worn by a Ranger, said J.D. Keirsey, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment. The Rangers’ crest displays a star, sun and lightning bolt to symbolize the "behind enemy lines, deep-strike character" of their predecessors, he said.

“We Rangers of today salute the Marauders of World War II,” Keirsey said. “Your legacy is impossible to forget. You inspire us and the memory of your fellow Marauders will not go forgotten.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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