WILBER LITTLER, MERRILL'S MARAUDERS:
Wilber Littler was born in 1915 and grew up on a small farm in the Cass Lake, MN area. Times were tough, especially during the Depression, and survival literally meant relying on your skills as a farmer, hunter and fisherman. Money and jobs were scarce.
Then in 1933, the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal Program created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to help reduce unemployment with a focus on public works projects. Several CCC camps were established in the Cass Lake area and Wilber and all of his schoolmates and friends were soon working 30-40 hours per week, making money for themselves and their families. It was a "God-Send Program" per Wilber and he always thought it was one of the best things the government had ever done. He didn't know it at the time but the CCC's regimentation, discipline, detailed planning, and hard physical work were also preparing him for Army life and the upcoming war.
After the Attack at Pearl Harbor, Wilber and just about every one of his friends enlisted in Army. They had basic and advanced infantry training at Camp Roberts in California and then shipped out to the South Pacific ... to places they had never heard of: New Guinea, Guadalcanal, and the Solomon Islands. They would be fighting the Japanese Imperial Army as it advanced toward Australia.
Wilber had a great sense of humor and often told us that there were two jobs in the Army had didn't want to do. He didn't want to be a medic or an MP (Military Police). Ironically his first assignment (probably due to his size, 6-3, 230 lbs) was combat medic and his last WWII assignment before his discharge would be MP!
During the New Guinea campaign, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry on the battle field. But he always told us he was "just doing his job".
Weary after about a year of fighting in the jungle, Wilber heard that the War Department was looking for volunteers "for a dangerous and hazardous mission". He figured it couldn't be any worse than where he was so he volunteered. But he was chastised by his buddies who said he'd soon be the first "dead hero" from Cass Lake. Reminiscing after the war, he often told family members that his decision to volunteer and leave "was probably the best decision I had ever made because several of my friends died in the very next battle in Bougainville."
Wilber had volunteered for a completely new outfit, the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, which would ultimately be known as Merrill's Marauders ... legendary jungle fighters who the current US Army Rangers tie their origination and lineage too. There were just under 3000 volunteers and they were split into 3 battalions, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. And each battalion had 2 combat teams. Wilber was in the 2nd Battalion Blue Combat team. He was assigned to a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and had an assistant, Don Stetler, who carried the ammunition.
The "hazardous and dangerous" part was that after training they were sent to Burma (in the China/Burma/India Theater "CBI") where their mission was to harass and tie-up the Japanese 18th Division (32,000 men) while American combat engineers would finish the construction and linking of the Burma and Ledo Roads to complete a land supply route from India to China. They would also be given the task of taking the Japanese airbase at Myitkyina. Chinese troops as well as Burmese tribesmen (Chindits, Kachin, Ghurkas) supplemented the US forces.
The Marauders began their mission in February 1944. They would march 1000 miles through mountainous and jungle terrain; fight 5 major battles and another 30 minor battles; and, would be re-supplied by air drops. One major battle was at a place called Nphum Ga, where the 2nd Battalion ... including Wilber and Don ... were surrounded by the Japanese for 14 days before being rescued. They had no food and very little and mostly contaminated water. Wilber always told us "you can live without food for a long time but you'll die quickly without water". They were liberated on Easter Sunday. 57 of our soldiers had been killed and over 400 of the enemy.
The Marauders had a high casualty rate. Of the nearly 3000 soldiers who marched into the jungle only 285 walked out. In addition to losses in battle, there were numerous casualties from jungle diseases (malaria, dysentery, typhus). Wilber was lightly wounded by shrapnel in one of first battles but it was typhus that nearly killed him. He contracted it just before the first battle at Myitkyina in early May and didn't wake up for 21 days at a hospital in India. Months of rehab and recovery prevented him from returning to combat. By August 1944 the Marauders, after the second battle for Myitkyina, had become "unfit for combat" due to the high casualty rate and were disbanded and a new unit the 475th Infantry (also known as the Mars Taskforce) took over the fighting.
Wilber returned to the States and did his MP assignment before his discharge in 1945. He got married (to June) and lived in Cass Lake for a short time before moving to Cloverdale (near Nashwauk) and raised his family. He worked for M.A. Hanna Co. as a production truck driver. He retired in 1977 and died in March 2001 at 85 years old.
Wilber was proud of his service to his country but he did not dwell on it.
The Merrill's Marauder Association was established in 1946 by some of the officers for the sole purpose of holding annual reunions for the Marauders and their families. This year the 68th Reunion will be held in Milwaukee and it is now sponsored by Merrill's Marauders Proud Descendants. Wilber did make it to one reunion in 2000 in Huntsville, AL and loved seeing old buddies and sharing stories with them. That strong wartime bond still existed among these brave patriots and warriors.
Written by Greg Walker (husband of Barb Littler Walker) of Savage, MN