ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Georgia has joined the effort to urge the U.S. Congress to recognize Merrill’s Marauders for their service and sacrifice during WWII with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Veterans and residents gathered at Alpharetta American Legion Post 201 on Aug. 22 to honor the group and present the resolution to Jonnie Melillo Clasen, daughter of late Merrill’s Marauders’ member and Korean War veteran Vincent Melillo. Melillo Clasen, a Columbus resident, is helping lead the charge to pass the Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act. The medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow. 

Georgia is the second state, behind California, to pass the resolution. Georgia Senate Resolution 466 was passed unanimously by Democrats and Republicans.

Merrill’s Marauders was a volunteer group envisioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1944 to engage in a long-range penetration mission behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma. They were to cut off the communication and supply lines and capture northern Burma’s only strategic, all-weather airfield in Myitkyina. 

The group was officially designated as the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, code-named “Galahad.” They later became known as Merrill’s Marauders, after their leader Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill.

“Merrill’s Marauders history is very confusing,” said Melillo Clasen. “The almost 3,000 men who answered President Roosevelt’s call for a dangerous and hazardous mission and volunteer without knowing their destination or objective, started out as a British force under Lord Louie Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia Command. They were trained by the British Chindits in India before being transferred to General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell’s China-Burma-India Theater in January 1944, today known as the ‘Forgotten Theater of WWII.’”

Merrill’s Marauders were the first Americans to engage the Japanese on the ground in Asia and the first Americans to fight there since the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, said Georgia Sen. Ed Harbison, a sponsor of the resolution. 

They endured months of jungle fighting, starvation, disease, monsoons and isolation, he added. But although Merrill’s Marauders were believed to be expendable, with no survivors, the group successfully seized their objective, the Myitkyina airfield, on May 17, 1944, Harbison said.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Burma mission. 

“Merrill’s Marauders’ uniqueness is part of what has made efforts so difficult for them to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal,” Melillo Clasen said. “The Georgia resolution — which has been sent to the U.S. Congress — urges passage of S. 743 and H.R. 906, which would award the Congressional Gold Medal to Merrill’s Marauders for their success and sacrifice in the China-Burma-India Theater.”

S. 743 was reintroduced this year by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, and the time is running out to get it passed, Melillo Clasen said. 

When the first bill was introduced in 2016, 28 Merrill’s Marauders were still alive. That number was halved this May when Melillo Clasen accompanied Merrill’s Marauders Bob Passanisi and Gilbert Howland to voice support for the Congressional Gold Medal Act.

Since Memorial Day this year, six Merrill’s Marauders have died. Two died since Aug. 10, the 75th anniversary of the unit disbanding in Burma, Melillo Clasen said.

Nine Merrill’s Marauders are still alive today. 

After the special mission was completed, thousands of replacements were flown in to serve with the unit until it disbanded. Although Georgia’s last Merrill’s Marauder, Melillo Clasen’s father Vincent, died, one of the replacement Merrill’s Marauders, Stanley Sasine of the Atlanta area, is still alive. 

“There are many more living replacements alive than there are Marauders,” Melillo Clasen said. “Both groups would be eligible for a Congressional Gold Medal if the bills pass in Congress.”

This recognition is long overdue, said American Legion 201 Ambassador Roger Wise.

“They were before rangers,” Wise said. “They were before special forces. They were a very, very brave group of young men who volunteered to go behind enemy lines realizing that many of them would not come home. They did their duty to God and our country.”

Melillo Clasen regularly gives history presentations about Merrill’s Marauders across Atlanta. For more information or to contact her, call 706-689-0153 or email jmc6154@aol.com.

To read Georgia’s resolution, visit legis.ga.gov.

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