During World War II, an Army unit of nearly 3,000 soldiers marched more than 1,000 miles into Japanese-held Burma, launching raids, ambushes and reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. They faced disease, jungle heat, hunger and overwhelming enemy forces. Despite all of that, they helped lead an Allied push through what is now Myanmar, including taking the important Myitkyina airfield. “Merrill’s Marauders,” as they were known, achieved major successes despite heavy losses. This week the last of the surviving Marauders died.

Private First Class Russell Hamler died at the age of 99 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, Hamler was the last living member of the unit since December 2022. 

Hamler was born in the Pittsburgh area in 1924. He enlisted in the armed forces in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The 18-year-old Hamler trained at Fort Riley before being assigned 27th Cavalry Troop based in Puerto Rico. He soon left the Caribbean in 1943 though, bound for India. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed to set up a special long-range jungle unit for fighting in Burma, which had been seized by Japanese troops in 1942. The mission was highly secret but despite not knowing what it entailed, thousands of soldiers volunteered, Hamler among them. 

2,997 soldiers who volunteered were put together as the 5307th Composite Unit. The approximately 3,000-strong unit was put under the command of Brigadier Gen. Frank D. Merrill, which led to its nickname. The nature of the unit’s mission meant soldiers went into the field with a focus on speed and light-weight equipment, leaving heavy weaponry behind. As a result, despite the unit’s size, its firepower was not comparable to a regular Army regiment of the same numbers. 

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Unlike the British commando raids under “Mad Jack” Churchill fighting in Yugoslavia or the Rangers who took part in the invasion of Normandy, Merrill’s Marauders had a long, arduous campaign fighting their way through dense terrain and often cut off from some wider support. The Burma campaign saw British, American and Chinese forces fight their way across the British colony. For the Marauders, monsoons and rough jungle conditions were almost as dangerous as Japanese forces. Outbreaks of dysentery and malaria impacted their fighting ability, but they kept pushing forward.

Hamler, part of the 2nd Battalion, took part in several combat operations, including the fighting at Nhpum Ga. Instead of conducting raids, the Marauders had to defend the position against several Japanese assaults. Despite not being what they were trained for, the 5307th held off enemy attacks. 400 Japanese soldiers were killed, while the Marauders lost 57 people. Another 302 were wounded and hundreds more taken out of action by disease.

During the fighting, shrapnel from a mortar shell hit Hamler in the hip. Unable to get out of his foxhole, he and the other soldiers were left on their own until reinforcements arrived. 

“We were surrounded,” he told members from his town. “We accepted it for what it was.”

Hamler was eventually evacuated back to India. He recovered and returned to Pennsylvania, being discharged at the end of 1945. He worked as an airplane mechanic until he retired in 1985. He was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions during World War II. 

The Marauders kept fighting, taking the Myitkyina airfield in May 1944.

The five months of fighting in Burma saw heavy casualties for Merrill’s Marauders. When the unit was disbanded in August 1944, only 130 soldiers were still viewed as combat effective. According to Charles Hunter’s book on the unit, Galahad, of the 2,750 soldiers in the 5307th who left India (the remaining troops stayed behind) there were only two soldiers in the unit who had not been hospitalized either for illness or wounds. 

During the war, the unit is credited with playing a major role in liberating Burma from Japanese occupation, which also allowed Allies in India and China to link up. Along with the World War II Rangers, the 5307th is seen as one of the ancestors to the modern 75th Ranger Regiment. The unit’s exploits were so great that they were adapted into a Hollywood film, 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders written and directed by Samuel Fuller, himself a veteran of World War II. 

In 2020 the government approved awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the surviving members of Merrill’s Marauders for their actions in Burma. Hamler was presented with it in 2022. 

That same year another veteran of the unit, Gabriel Kinney, died in December at 101, leaving Hamler as the last remaining Marauder.

During the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, Hamler said that he wanted to see war outlawed, calling the violence awful. 

“I would like to see a peaceful world,” Hamler told attendees.

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