September 23, 2020
Veterans of a top-secret U.S. Army unit that fought behind enemy lines in the jungles of Burma in World War II will finally receive the recognition they deserve, due to legislation passed awarding them a Congressional Gold Medal.
Robert E. Passanisi, 96, and Gilbert Howland, 97, two of only eight surviving members of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), popularly known as Merrill’s Marauders, met with members of Congress multiple times in the past two years to gain support for the legislation.
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Frederick R. Eames led a pro bono team assisting the Merrill’s Marauders Association in enlisting congressional support for the recognition. The legislation, Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act, was passed on Tuesday, September 22. The 75th Ranger Regiment Association, U.S. Army Ranger Association, the Association of the U.S. Army and the Special Forces Association collaborated in the effort, with additional assistance from Scott Stone of S2C Pacific and the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell LLP.
“Highly trained infantrymen whom we regard today as heroes, such as the Special Forces, look to Merrill’s Marauders as role models,” Eames said. “The unimaginable conditions these men successfully fought through changed the understanding of the limits of human endurance in armed conflict. The Congressional Gold Medal brings them the public recognition they deserve. We are honored to have assisted in getting it across the finish line.”
Howland said: “It is a great honor for me and our unit. It recognizes how important our special operations mission was in Burma. We were the only American ground troops fighting on the Asian continent. The men in this unit all volunteered. We sacrificed a lot. The Congressional Gold Medal will now shine a light on that forgotten theater in the Pacific that was so crucial in defeating the Japanese. We did it because our country needed us.”
Passanisi added: “This recognition means so much to me and the other survivors and our families. Back in 1944, along with nearly 3,000 other infantrymen, I volunteered for the mission despite being told nothing except it was ‘top secret’ and generally considered ‘suicide.’ Still, we volunteered because we believed strongly in duty, honor and country. Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of Merrill’s Marauders helps keep alive the values of duty, honor and sacrifice in the United States of America. My one regret is that only eight of us are alive to enjoy this historic honor.”
Passanisi, the Merrill’s Marauders Association’s spokesperson, lives in Long Island, New York, and Howland lives in Hamilton, New Jersey. Both in their late-90s, they are among the unit’s eight remaining members. Additional surviving members include: James Collins (Tampa, Florida); Rocco DeLuca (Norwich, Connecticut); Russell Hamler (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania); Gabriel Kinney (Daphne, Alabama); Raleigh Nayes (Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin); and James Richardson (Jacksboro, Tennessee).
Commanded by Army Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, the almost-3,000 volunteers were a commando jungle warfare unit that served in Burma in 1944. In its six-month operation, the Marauders’ three battalions fought five major battles and more than 30 other engagements against the much larger, elite Japanese 18th Division. Its success opened a critical land route so the United States could continue to supply its Chinese allies and help support them as a fighting force.
By the time it was deactivated in August 1944, Merrill’s Marauders had lost hundreds of soldiers to both fatal or incapacitating combat injuries, starvation and disease. The unit was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 44 Silver Stars, and a Bronze Star for every member. Thirty have been inducted into the prestigious Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Three have the extremely rare distinction of being triple Combat Infantry Badge recipients.