A Hard Look Back at Burma: Conversation with Morris Factor | HistoryNet MENU

A Hard Look Back at Burma: Conversation with Morris Factor

By Gene Santoro
4/18/2017 • World War II Magazine

AT AGE 93, Morris Factor still endures bouts of dengue fever, which he contracted while serving in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), the official designation of the Ranger style group led by Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill, confronted brutal fighting in malarial jungles against much larger Japanese forces. Factor was luckier than most: after six months in combat, 95 percent of his fellow Marauders were dead, wounded, or no longer medically fit. Congress probed whether American general and theater commander Joseph Stilwell had sacrificed the Marauders to poor planning and his own dreams of glory. “Stilwell told Merrill, ‘If they can walk and carry a gun, they can fight!’” Factor recalls grimly. “So we did.”

You trained as a Ranger.

 After I enlisted in February 1942, the army assigned me to a mapmaking engineer battalion. Then they suddenly ordered me to Fort Lewis, Washington. A few of us were on the train. The first thing we saw was all these beautiful barracks. I asked the MP at the gate, “Which one are we going to?” He grinned and said, “Do you see those tents out in the field about three-quarters of a mile away? That’s where you go.” I said, “What are we doing in tents?” He shrugged. We walked across the grass carrying our duffel bags and everything, then saw flags that said First Ranger Battalion. I said, “What’s a Ranger?” None of us knew.

How did you train?

They’d load us into trucks, usually in groups of five to 10, and put the canvas over the backs to make sure we couldn’t see where they took us. They’d drop us in mountainous areas, with about 75 pounds worth of stuff each of us had to carry while climbing up and down mountains. We had to navigate by the stars, pitch camp, and find our way back to the fort the next day. The rest of the time we went to the firing ranges and learned our weapons: rifles, .45s, and .30-caliber machine guns. I was a marksman, not a sharpshooter; sharpshooters were put into reconnaissance platoons later. We also had combat training—a lot of it, including hand-to-hand. At first they wanted us to use real bayonets, but we complained somebody would get killed, so they changed their minds.

Your troopship sailed to North Africa, then to Bombay.

From Bombay, we took the train to Kharagpur in northeast India. We were now officially the 5307th Composite Unit; a journalist coined the name Merrill’s Marauders later. We were there because General Stilwell, who was in charge there, had Chinese troops but no Americans. So they cobbled together a force for him from three main sources: Pacific jungle-war veterans, Ranger trainees like me, and a lot of guys from Brooklyn—we used to call them dead-end kids—who were pretty hard cases. There were about 3,000 of us, divided into three units. Each of those was subdivided into two smaller groups. That was so we could do reconnaissance and pincer movements in the jungle.

Did they send you into battle right away?

No; first we went for more training to Deogarh in central India, which is 10,000 feet high, and met Orde Wingate, who was famous for creating special forces. We had the same training as in Washington, but it was much, much harder because it was our first time in real tropical jungle and mountains, like it would be in Burma. Even a 10- or 15-mile march was no picnic. We were in good shape, but they worked us hard to toughen us up even more, partly because we didn’t have any motorized transport.

What transportation did you have?

Ourselves and mules, 700 of them, and a few horses. We were light infantry; anything that had to be carried—flame throwers, mortars, machine guns, carbines, K rations—we carried. Us and the mules.

In December 1943, you finally headed into Burma.

We had to march 500 miles to get there. We were lucky if we could get 10 or 15 miles in a day. Some days we’d only get a mile or two. This was tropical jungle, you know, with 200-foot trees and dense cane and mud. Snakes everywhere. We had to combat two or three different kinds of mosquitoes. Leeches we’d scrape off with knives. There were streams and swamps to ford, and that cane was very hard to bushwhack through. Plus we had to carry the stuff the mules couldn’t over the mountains. Fortunately, each unit had three or four Kachin guides. They were born in Burma and knew all the trails. And they really hated the Japanese.

Where was your first battle?

We fought small battles as we went along. Japan’s General Giichi Tanaka, who commanded the 18th Division, knew we were there. But we didn’t get into a big fight until February, when Stilwell decided to use us to take the village of Walawbum to cut Japanese supply and communications lines. The Chinese 38th and 22nd Divisions were supposed to pressure the Japanese toward us. It worked: Tanaka turned on us in a pincer movement, and we were outnumbered.

How did that play out?

We had about 400 men outside Walawbum in foxholes. One fellow climbed a tree to watch the river. He almost fell out when he realized more than a thousand Japanese were getting ready to come across right at us. He yelled, “Don’t shoot until I tell you!” So there we were, waiting. When they were within 300 yards, he yelled, “Fire!” The last wave got within 100 feet of us. They retreated and regrouped and did it again, and again, and again. We killed a few hundred of them. Our casualties were very light. The Chinese were behind the Japanese, so they picked up our stragglers. We had no artillery; the Chinese at least had some, and tanks, which helped.

How did you get along with the Chinese?

For the most part, we got on pretty well with them. But we didn’t know they were using streams we got drinking water from as latrines. They boiled all their water, but we didn’t. Dropping halazone tablets into it did nothing. About 350 of our guys got amoebic dysentery. On R and R in Shikau Gau, we bartered K rations—that was all we were eating, but to me they tasted like heaven—for eggs and chickens. We sunbathed to get rid of our rashes, and got resupplied for the first time since we left India.

In May 1944, Stilwell ordered you to take the vital city of Myitkyina.

To get there we had to march 65 miles over the Kumon Mountains during monsoon season. About 1,300 of us were left. Stilwell told General Merrill, “I don’t care what shape they’re in, go in there and take it.” Men with 103-degree fevers, pants slit because of dysentery making them go so often—they fought. We took Myitkyina airport on May 17, but we were almost finished. We had dysentery, malaria, and dengue fever eating away at our numbers, not to mention wounded and dead from combat. By then only about 300 men were really capable of fighting, against almost 5,000 Japanese. But Stilwell still wanted us to take that city. We joined forces with the Chinese and finally took Myitkyina in August; we killed almost all the Japanese. When the 5307th was disbanded by order of the president, there were 130 of us left.

 

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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