NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It's the last reunion for members of the famed U.S. Army jungle fighters called Merrill's Marauders . Three thousand volunteered for a dangerous secret mission during World War II — a mission so secret they weren't told even where they were going.
They hacked their way through nearly 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) of jungle behind enemy lines in Myanmar, then called Burma, fighting in five major and 30 minor actions against veteran Japanese troops.
"This is the last of the outfit," said David Allen of Rock Hill, South Carolina.
He's among 13 of the original volunteers still alive. Five are in New Orleans this week, along with three men who joined the unit as replacements or were at its final battle to take an airfield held by the Japanese.
With the veterans are more than 90 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They filled a meeting room Tuesday at a New Orleans hotel, gathering at round tables to reminisce and look at small black-and-white photos, articles about the campaign and their old reunions. Children and other descendants were collecting autographs and listening to memories.
It was the first reunion for Ethan Glen Byrne, 15, of Hamilton, Alabama, and his grandfather Rick Lowe, whose father was a Marauder.
Lowe was in his teens when his father, Delbert P. Lowe, died. He began researching Merrill's Marauders several years ago and learned about the reunions.
He came because it was the last. "I wanted to honor my dad," he said.
The unit won a Presidential Unit Citation, six Distinguished Service Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 44 Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for every man in the regiment. Their shoulder patch was adopted by the 1st Battalion of the 75th Infantry Ranger Regiment. And their families are pushing a pair of bills to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Merrill's Marauders.
A war correspondent created the nickname, after Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, because the formal name was a mouthful, according to the 2013 history "Merrill's Marauders: The Untold Story of Unit Galahad and the Toughest Special Forces Mission of World War II."
The men of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) were a thoroughly mixed bag. Some were seasoned jungle fighters. Others were city boys without much service. Still others, some of them joining when the unit was training in India, were like the "Dirty Dozen," leaving the stockade for danger and a pardon. Allen said he was a "college playboy" when he was drafted.
Robert "Bob" Passanisi, 94, of Lindenhurst, New York, said patriotism and family solidarity were his reasons for volunteering. He had two brothers serving in Europe. "I somehow felt that me doing my part would relieve my brothers," he said Tuesday.
Gilbert H. Howland, 95, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, said he was among 124 volunteers out of 500 gathered in a Puerto Rico stadium. "These guys were my buddies," he said. "I didn't want to be with any strange unit."
Marcos M. Barelas, 96, then a private and a machine-gun operator, was pragmatic: "If I had to go, I may as well go now."
With mules and horses to carry 70-pound (32-kilogram) radios and airdropped supplies, they also had muleskinners and others to care for the animals. Lester Hollenbeck, 96, of Deltona, Florida, shod them. "Mules sometimes were ornery," he said. "We sometimes had to throw 'em down on their side to put shoes on them."
He signed autographs Tuesday with a pen made from a 50-caliber bullet.
During the six-month campaign in 1944, malaria, amoebic dysentery and other tropical diseases took down five times as many members as bullets and shrapnel, which wounded 293 and killed 93. When they reached the airfield at Myitkyina (MITCH-ih-nuh), fewer than 500 were in shape to fight.
Howland and Passanisi both said they were hospitalized — Howland with shrapnel wounds and Passanisi with malaria — when the Marauders took the airport, but were shipped back with other just-discharged "walking wounded" to help hold it.
The reunions may be over, but not the closeness, said Linda Rose Burchett of Hampton, Virginia. She said her father, who died in 2003, attended every reunion from 1949 through 2003. Burchett and her daughter, Lara Watson, 32, of Rockville, Virginia, also have attended steadily, starting as babies.
"These men have seen me grow up," she said. "They are my family. Absolutely. They were my dad's family. Absolutely. But through social media now we're all going to remain connected to honor our fathers."