Empire man recalls arduous World War II mission

jjardine@modbee.comMay 25, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— EMPIRE — You've heard of guys like Sam Montgomery before.

Boys who should have been in high school but instead fibbed about their ages to serve during World War II.

Boys who should have been playing summer sandlot baseball at home instead of fighting the Japanese, Germans and Italians overseas.

Boys who became men before their time, and now represent the very tail end of the "Greatest Generation."

Montgomery, 87, lives quietly in Empire after spending 23 years in the Army and nearly 24 more making shell casings for the military at the Army Ammo Plant in Riverbank. He has a story to tell, and Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to tell it.

Be forewarned: He graphically describes what he and others among the famed "Merrill's Marauders" encountered while fighting the Japanese, the vermin and the elements in the jungles of Burma in 1944. And he wouldn't have traded his experiences for anything in the world.

"I enjoyed my military career," said Montgomery, who at 16 lied about his age to join the Army Reserve late in 1942.

The following year, Allied forces began hatching a plan to send 3,000 U.S. troops secretly into Burma to disrupt Japanese supply lines and communications. The mission's code name: GALAHAD.

Montgomery and a buddy from his native Pennsylvania couldn't have been happier. They wanted to see the Orient, and the Army certainly had the job openings.

"We saw a sign for hazardous and dangerous duty in the Orient," Montgomery said. "So we decided to go and try it out. We told 'em we were ready to go, and we went."

Several companies formed the 5307th Composite Unit, later nicknamed "Merrill's Marauders" for its commander, Brigadier Gen. Frank D. Merrill.

In one of the war's toughest, most heroic campaigns, they set out in February 1944 on an 800-mile march through Burma's dense jungles and the steep terrain along the Himalayas. They did so lacking heavy artillery or tank support, fighting hardened and battle-tested Japanese troops all along the way. According to the Marauder.org website dedicated to the unit's history, it endured the longest march involving continuous fighting of any U.S. outfit during World War II.

"They called us 'The Bastards of Burma,' " Montgomery said. He was a cavalryman with the 5307th's Headquarters detachment, packing horses and mules with supplies and carrying his own 50-pound pack, Browning automatic rifles and 14 clips of ammo as his unit beat the Japanese, the elements and extreme odds.

One day, the Americans took a plateau where the Japanese had established a makeshift hospital to tend to their wounded. It's also where they held Allied prisoners, and Montgomery's unit found a British soldier who had been tortured and left to bleed to death on a cross — a chilling reminder of the enemy's cruelty and savagery.

"(The Japanese) called it the 'death of a thousand slashes,' " Montgomery said. "They used a razor on his arms and down his body, castrated him and went all the way down to his feet. That Englishman was begging someone to shoot him. Someone did."

One U.S. soldier, he said, took an unnecessary and fatal risk when they reached a settlement where four Buddha statues stood, each adorned with fist-size precious stones.

"A young man that night had selected three or four gems — jade and what have you — off of a Buddha and was showing them to us," Montgomery said. "You do not disgrace Buddha."

The next morning, he said, brought a startling discovery.

"Right where he had taken the stones, we found his body," Montgomery said. "The gems were back on the Buddha."

In another instance, Montgomery survived only because a fellow soldier threw himself on a live grenade to save the others.

"If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't be here right now," Montgomery said.

In reality, GALAHAD was a suicide mission. Military brass predicted 85 percent would be killed or wounded.

The final numbers were close — 80 percent — but not for the reasons you might suspect.

The 5307th lost 93 soldiers in battle, 30 more in nonbattle deaths and saw 293 hospitalized because of wounds. The numbers would have been higher if not for the work of advance scouts during one part of the march, Montgomery said.

"Intel and Recon said, 'Stop!' " he said. "We were running right along with a Japanese column 50 yards away. We were going that way. They were, too."

"That way" was toward one of the few available fresh water sources. Except that by the time the Americans got there, it wasn't very fresh.

"It took three attacks to secure the water hole," Montgomery said. "When we got there, there was blood in the water. We filtered it through our socks."

Supply planes dropped containers of clean water periodically, along with other supplies. But the bugs and bad water of Burma's jungles made disease a greater foe than the Japanese. Usually fatal mite-borne typhus, fevers, malaria, exhaustion, malnutrition and battle fatigue combined to affect nearly 2,000.

And virtually everyone had dysentery, rendering the soldiers incontinent and weak. Montgomery weighed 150 pounds when he joined up as a buck private. He was a 92-pound master sergeant when the campaign ended.

The casualty numbers didn't reflect those who were wounded but not hospitalized, nor the fact that nearly everyone in the unit endured malaria in some form.

Even so, they still defeated the Japanese in the decisive Battle of Myitkyina and made their mission a success. After Japan surrendered to end the war in 1945, Montgomery received his orders to go home.

"They told us to get aboard trucks," he said. " 'You're going back where you came from (to Myitkyina).' I said, 'What about me?' He said, 'You don't want to go home?'

" 'No,' " Montgomery said. " 'What I'd like to do is go to China.' "

About 30 minutes later, he boarded a plane to Kunming and began processing thousands of soldiers who were heading home.

"It took us 3½ months to get 'em out," he said. That done, he wasn't. He ran the port at Shanghai for a couple of months. Still in the Reserve, his commander promised a 90-day vacation if he'd enlist in the regular Army. He did, using the time to go to Pennsylvania to marry his girlfriend, Faye.

She returned to China with him, and their son Dennis was born there in 1948 while Montgomery schooled Chiang Kai-shek's generals on military protocol. Mao Ze-dong and the communists drove Chiang and his nationalists to Taiwan. Faye and Dennis left days before Montgomery, and their bus was riddled with bullets as they drove out of the city of Nanking.

"I left four or five days later," Montgomery said. "I had to stay long enough to destroy all the classified material."

Then it was on to Germany, where daughter Pam was born. Montgomery retired from the Army in 1966 and moved to the valley to work alongside his son, who worked at the Army Ammo plant.

A world tour, indeed. But the rest of it was nothing like his march through Burma with Merrill's Marauders — the fighting, the disease and the elements.

Boys grew up quickly. And now they are old men who endured and survived what most of us could not begin to fathom.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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