James Collins was a 19-year-old U.S. Army private first class when he volunteered for a secret mission during World War II. He had no intel on where he was going or what he was going to do. He just wanted to play his part.
He ended up behind enemy lines in Japanese-controlled Burma as a member of the all-volunteer 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders. Trekking nearly 1,000 miles on foot, battling the elements almost as much as the enemy, the unit of about 3,000 men sought to capture an airfield for a critical Allied supply route in the region.
Collins, now 96 and living in Tampa, is one of the nine Marauders left standing to see a new recognition: a Congressional Gold Medal for the unit achieved through a bill that was signed into law by the president on Oct. 17.
“We were Special Forces before they had Special Forces,” Collins said.
The unit got its nickname from its leader, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill. Its mission involved marching through jungles and over mountains, carrying their supplies on their backs or relying on mules to help with the load, all while facing enemy fire and a variety of diseases.
Collins at one point got malaria and was only given about a day or two to rest before getting back to the mission, his son Greg Collins said.
And rations were limited.
Winslow B. Stevens, another Marauder, went into Burma weighing 160 pounds. He got out weighing about 85, said his son Winslow Stevens. Supply drops didn’t happen often and sometimes Japanese soldiers would beat them to the drop.
The elder Stevens, who left the Army as a captain, did not live to see the latest honor for the unit having died on Jan. 10, 2014 at the age of 97. He lived his final years in Bartow.
While surviving Marauders gathered for various reunions through the years, Stevens' son said his father stopped attending after a while, reminiscing about the war worsening his nightmares.
Casualties in combat and by disease were high for the unit and Stevens lived through many close calls, including one instance when he had to loudly cuss to identify himself as an American so his own men didn’t shoot their machine guns at him.
But the camaraderie of the Marauders was clear even at Stevens' death, where thanks to connections with other Marauder families, former Army Rangers paid their respects at the funeral service with an honor guard, his son said.
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“It was just an amazing group of soldiers and a nice part of history,” Stevens said of his father’s unit.
The new Congressional Gold Medal is an honor bestowed upon the unit as a whole with the medal itself going to the Smithsonian and bronze replicas available for purchase in the future, said Jonnie Melillo Clasen, daughter of late Marauder Vincent Melillo and one of the individuals working in the last 10 years to make the medal a reality.
While the medal is an honor, Collins in Tampa, who left the Army in 1944 as a sergeant, lamented how many of his fellow boys were no longer around to share the news.
Marauder Lester Hollenback from Deltona died on July 16 this year at 97, Clausen said.
They were a tight-knit group, Collins said, that “went through a bunch of stuff.”
Looking back at his service, Collins said there were too many memories to share. So many close calls.
These days, he’s just glad to be home.