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Wilson in 2000, upon his retirement as president of Hampden-Sydney College. (Courtesy of Gavin Mortimer)

BORN IN 1923 IN RICE, Virginia, Lieutenant General Sam Wilson was one of the most distinguished soldiers of the 20th century. Credited with coining the term “counterinsurgency,” Wilson—or “General Sam” as he was better known—was a driving force behind the creation of the army’s counterterrorist Delta Force; an experienced CIA operative at the height of the Cold War; and the fifth director, starting in 1976, of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Yet his military career began with a lie when he enlisted in the National Guard in 1940 at age 16, claiming he was 18. Three years later Wilson volunteered for a “dangerous and hazardous” mission with a new 3,000-strong force, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). Subsequently dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders,” the unit distinguished itself in the brutal jungle war in Burma, an experience that shaped the rest of Wilson’s life. A few months before his death in June 2017 at age 93, Wilson gave a final interview in which he reflected on his experience with the Marauders.

How did your military career begin?

When I went to enlist in the National Guard, I was asked about my interests and talents; I told them I was a musician and could play the clarinet. They clapped their hands and said, “Boys, we’ve got ourselves a bugler!” I hastened to explain that a trumpet and a clarinet are two quite different instruments.

How did you come to join 5307th Composite Unit?

By 1943 I was a second lieutenant and an instructor at the Fort Benning, Georgia, infantry school. There I met Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hunter. When he was selected by General George C. Marshall to command a newly formed special unit, he asked me to join. I was the third to become a member—after Hunter and First Lieutenant Gordon Mereness, a logistician—of what became Merrill’s Marauders.

Brigadier General Frank Merrill eventually replaced Hunter. Can you compare the two?

Hunter was a tough, no-nonsense, hard-bitten man of few words. At the same time, he had a cutting dry humor, and beneath the crusty exterior he was one of the most warm-hearted people I had known. That part of himself he kept concealed from those who were not close to him. He and Merrill were classmates (1929) from West Point. Merrill was a brilliant staff officer with creative ideas and Hunter was the executive executor of ideas, the man of action.

Who else made an impression on you during jungle training?

Orde Wingate—the British brigadier who, in 1943, founded the Chindits, a special forces unit that penetrated into Japanese-occupied Burma to launch a guerrilla campaign. Wingate was brilliant—truly brilliant. He was extremely innovative and had evolved an advanced form of warfare that later we would call insurgent warfare. These were long-range penetration units that would go deep behind enemy lines and fight for months, cut off from any friendly support, except by air.

What was your opinion of General Joseph Stilwell, the China-Burma-India [CBI] Theater commander?

Stilwell was one of the greatest corps commanders in World War II, with enormous tactical skills. But he had an impossible job because, aside from being in charge of the CBI, he was deputy commander of South East Asia Command and chief of staff to Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. He was stretched so thin he could not give adequate attention to any one of these jobs. The ultimate in diplomacy would have been required for a man holding these various jobs at the same time—and he was not a diplomat, so as far as I’m concerned he failed.

On February 24, 1944, Merrill’s Marauders marched into Japanese-controlled Burma. What were you feeling?

A strong sense of adventure and excitement—and also some confidence because I was beginning to do the things on the ground that I had been teaching for over a year at infantry school.

Had you an opinion of the Japanese soldier prior to your mission?

I knew that he was tough, capable, and skillful, and so he proved to be.

When did you first encounter one?

We were moving along a trail parallel to a river when we came to a kind of open glade. I saw some horses by the river so I walked toward them. About halfway across, Japanese troops hiding along the riverbank opened up on me. Shot my canteen off my belt and riddled my pack. I fell to the ground stunned.

What happened next?

I looked up and saw one of the Japanese leaping on a horse a bit farther down the bank. I opened my full-bore carbine on him and hit him with the first round but kept pumping rounds into him as he was sliding off the horse. Then a grenade came sailing through the air. I flicked it away and it went off. I temporarily blanked out from the concussion and as I came to—apparently I was out just for an instant—a Japanese soldier was running at me with his bayonet. I turned to fire and suddenly realized I had emptied my magazine at the horseman.

What did you do?

I cringed. Back to my left rear, maybe 30 or 40 yards away, Sergeant Clarence Branscomb stood up and hit the charging Jap in the chest with three quick rounds. He practically fell on top of me.

What lessons did you draw?

I realized how stupid I had been. I posted security and pulled the men in close together and critiqued what had happened to show them the mistakes I had made, they had made, and how if we had moved faster we could have gotten the two Japanese who had got away.

You had another close shave at the Mogaung River.

We could hear voices on the other side of the Mogaung, so at the request of Lieutenant Colonel Osborne I went to investigate with Sergeant Perlee Tintary. We were about halfway across when a Japanese patrol came into view. We went tearing across the remaining stretch of water, clambered up the bank, and crawled into the weeds just as the patrol came by. I was wondering if they would notice the stream of water we had left behind but they didn’t.

You commanded one of the Marauders’ intelligence and reconnaissance platoons. How did you select your 48 men?

I went to the guardhouse and had the sergeant call them all out. I then walked down the line, shaking hands with each man and briefly talking to them. I stepped back and told them what I was about, what I needed, and that the job would be very dangerous—more dangerous than others—but we would have a front-row seat, and that those who wanted to come with me should take three steps forward. And they did. I wanted men who regarded the business of losing their lives lightly—who were tougher than the tough.

The Marauders had interpreters who were Japanese Americans, known as Nisei.

The Nisei were extraordinary men—highly intelligent and very courageous. (See “Always Remain True.”) They knew that if they fell into the hands of the enemy they would be subjected to the vilest form of torture.

In April 1944 Stilwell reneged on his promise to pull the Marauders out of Burma and instead ordered them to seize the airfield at Myitkyina, 70 miles south. What was your reaction?

A kind of dull anger. By that time, we were down to one-third of our force, our uniforms were in tatters, and we were breaking out of our combat boots. We were having difficulty holding ourselves together.

The Japanese believed the route there, over the 6,600-foot Kumon Mountains, was impassible. How did you hold yourselves together?

There was some outrage and some resentment, but we also had a favorite saying: “Well, you volunteered for this.” One time a mule fell into a ravine and this fellow was trying to get it out. He kept yanking on the bridle and finally he yelled, “Get up you son of a bitch; you volunteered, too.”

Down in the valley where it was relatively flat, it was steaming hot. Halfway up the mountain it began to get cold and muddy, and by the time we got to the Naura Hkyat Pass, it was very cold and foggy.

Did you rest at the top?

We lit fires and tuned in our radio and found a Russian broadcast. One of my men was of Russian ancestry and interpreted what was being said. It was then I realized that as bad as we had it, we were just a little pimple on the face of the war, and the real war was being fought between the Russians and the Germans on a front that extended 1,000 miles. I said to my guys, “When this thing is over, I’ll study Russian and then go to Moscow to find out what gave these people the heart to hang on and struggle through the privations and suffering.” Several years later I did just that.

You took Myitkyina Airfield on May 17, 1944, and then you fell sick.

I had amoebic dysentery, malaria, mite typhus—and grenade shrapnel embedded in the back of my right leg. There were six of us in the typhus ward and I was the only one to survive. In total, when Myitkyina fell, there were probably just a little over 100 combat-effective troops still standing.

Shortly after that, the Marauders were inactivated and reconstituted as the 475th Infantry Regiment, the wounded and sick sent home in dribs and drabs. Did you regret the Marauders’ callous breakup?

That made me sad and somewhat bitter. We could not have been conceived at a higher level—by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Marshall at the Quebec Conference in August 1943—but a week after Myitkyina fell, the unit was disbanded and disappeared without a whimper. No formation of troops, no flags, no marching bands; nothing, just wipeout.

How did your time with the Marauders shape you as soldier and as a man?

I was once asked how I kept going when I was so sick. I found I had one ability—I could put one foot in front of the other; I could take the next step. And that is all that is required. One just has to take the next step. And later, when I encountered difficult situations in other climes, I told myself, “Yep, I can still take one more step.”

This interview was originally published in the August 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.