The Mars Task Force



THE MARS TASK FORCE:  A SHORT HISTORY

by Ralph E. Baird

 The 5332d Brigade (Provisional) was activated on 26 July 1944. It soon came to be known as the MARS TASK FORCE. It was designed as a Long Range Penetration Force and training, equipment and organization were all directed toward this end. The following narrative report is submitted. Staff and unit histories, and technical reports are submitted under separate cover.

 MARS was able to profit by the experience of Wingate’s Raiders and Merrill’s Marauders in Burma jungle operations. The leaven of veteran jungle fighters was mixed with the freshness of volunteers and the assignment of the 124th Cavalry Regiment. A triangular plan was envisioned and in many ways MARS TASK FORCE was truly a Division, consisting of the 475th Infantry, 124th Cavalry (Sp.) and 1st Chinese Regiment. The Cavalry Regiment had a long history of mounted Cavalry and was converted by MARS to Cavalry dismounted, with the functions and employment of an Infantry Regiment. The 475th Infantry was organized by MARS and given official status as a numbered Infantry Regiment by the War Dept. The Brigade itself was organized as a Provisional Unit.

 At no time was Brigade permitted to employ the 1st Chinese Regiment in any tactical operations. To have been able to use this regiment would have increased the striking power of the Brigade considerably. Although the Namhpakka-Hosi Campaign is considered highly successful, another regiment would have permitted the use of either the 475th Infantry or the 124th Cavalry to swing southward or eastward in a Brigade encroachment of the enemy. It was impossible to do so under the circumstances, for to use one or two Battalion Combat Teams for this purpose would have jeopardized not only such a small striking force but also the holding force. The series of commanding terrain features were such that they had been left open by any Battalion Combat Team it would have been an open invitation to the Japs to surround and destroy the Brigade piecemeal. The 1st Chinese Regiment, later attached to the 50th Division, and committed, demonstrated its ability, and climaxed its campaign by securing Kyaukme and linking with the 36th Division (British). This closed an East-West line Mong Yai - Hsipaw - Kyaukme - Monglong - Mogok. The British were thus placed in a position to join with the forces of the 14th Army, to establish the line Mong Yai - Hsipaw - Kyaukme - Maymyo - Mandalay, to terminate the conquest of Northern and North Central Burma.

 The Brigade component committed in the Tonkwa-Mo Hlaing sector (475th Infantry) broke Jap opposition in that area and permitted the 50th Division to move in and occupy the area, thence to move Southward to play its part in establishing the line mentioned above.

Upon completion of the action at Tonkwa, the Brigade turned to the East and thrust deep into enemy territory to strike the Namhkam-Lashio Burma Road axis, at Namhpakka. The swiftness of movement gained surprise, and the viciousness of attack removed the keystone of the sector. The blow inflicted by MARS at this point caused the enemy to withdraw rapidly below Lashio and allowed the New First Army (Chinese) to move almost unopposed south of Lashio, screening against counter-attack and forcing the enemy a safe distance from the Stilwell Road. Brigade was held in the Namhpakka area to be passed through by New First Army. Hence, MARS could not further exploit its own successes. Here contact was broken, and friendly forces belatedly grasped the advantage gained, fulfilling its order in a virtual road march.

 The training period of MARS as a Brigade was unusually short. One year is considered the normal training period for a division. Further, all of the Brigade Infantry units, as noticed before, had to be organized (475th Infantry) or converted (124th Cavalry, 1st Chinese Regiment, Sept.)

 Throughout tactical operations, the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) and the 613th FA Bn (Pk) acquitted themselves with distinction. This was accomplished with the sole aid of 75mm Pack Artillery, constantly opposed by much heavier and longer range enemy weapons (105 and 150mm). The basic intention of Field Artillery - to displace enemy artillery from hostile fire positions against our forces - could not be accomplished by range and striking power. However, in the long run, this was satisfactorily accomplished by attrition and by slow but effective destruction of enemy armament and materiel, as well as by disorganization and damage to motor parks, fuel dumps, warehouses and CP’s (brought within range by the selection of objective). Inability to force earlier displacement of enemy artillery resulted in numerous Brigade casualties.

 To reach Brigade objectives, many difficulties previously believed to be well nigh impossible were overcome. That men, mules and fighting equipment can be moved during the monsoons over mountainous Burma jungle trails was indicated. Three days of torrential rain, known as the Christmas monsoons, came during this movement. Trails became running streams of water; narrow paths lacing the edges of the mountain ranges became slippery deathtraps. Necessarily, some mule loads were thrown and animals plunged headlong off trails, but approximately 3000 mules and 7000 men performed the entire movement with the loss of no more than three mule loads. Often mules were hoisted by rope and the load recovered in the same manner. It is a signal tribute the mule leaders who so successfully nursed their hardy charges through these difficulties. Although previous training of the mules had been along herding principles, the Brigade system of a mule leader to each mule paid rich dividends. Perimeter defense was securely established each night and wide reconnaissance patrols kept active.

 In the movement from Nansin to Namhpakka, topography was unfavorable. Forbidding ranges were traversed. Above the Shweli River these were sometimes so exhausting as to permit only one or two minutes of moving, followed by five minutes of rest. Terrain permitted, for example, one day’s move of only 3-1/2 miles. A reasonable time table was nonetheless maintained. Despite hardships, upon arrival of the objective the Brigade attacked without delay with high combat efficiency.

 Although the popular picture of Burma warfare is portrayed by steaming jungles, elevations as great as 8000 feet were surmounted. On three successive days of fair weather, water froze in canteens and helmets. These extremes in climate did not result in illness to the troops, even though but one blanket and poncho per man constituted the entire bedding. Fires were out of the question for wandering groups of Japs were always a threat.


MARS TASK FORCE mule skinners and pack animals plod through the hills toward the Burma Road, January 1945. 

 Mules survived almost 100% and arrived in excellent condition. As distance traveled increased, the ratio of soldier march fractures went up. Men who otherwise would have remained effective under shorter overall distance, found their metatarsal arches breaking down and a high percentage of such casualties had to be evacuated.

 At times evacuation difficulties were a cause of deep concern to the entire command. Air Liaison could not function. No motor roads were available. Natives had vanished, were unemployable, or were felt untrustworthy for this work. Animals were prime loaded with loads and also unsuitable for evacuation. The line of communications was vulnerable to ambush, and blockade by the enemy. It was necessary to withhold a Rifle Company to escort and carry through evacuees for a period of four days. Evacuation at this time was to Mongwi where a Liaison plane strip served evacuation to the rear. Hemmed in as this strip was by rough mountains, the burden of evacuation was heavy. On several occasions, evacuation parties were able to come within one mile of this strip and unable to reach it before nightfall. It is considered a benevolent stroke of good fortune that evacuees were brought in without exception.

 When ordered out for a conference, the CG, 532nd Brigade (Prov) covered in a forced mule back ride of one day, the distance traveled by the foot elements in three days marching. Traveling mounted with a single companion reduced the number of obstacles that confronted mass movement.

 Although one blanket and poncho provided the only protection against bitterly cold nights, substantial weight was thereby added to the individual pack. No instances of pack paralysis occurred. However, the weight is considered a contributing factor to march fractures. To accomplish Long Range Penetration, it was necessary for each man to carry essential items. These were stripped to the minimal by such measures as having each individual carry a spoon, and the top of the meat can, in some instances only a spoon and canteen cup. Two canteens were necessary for all water had to be boiled or treated before consumption. Rations, jungle kit, machete, jungle knife, individual weapons and ammunition had to be man carried as well as shoes, clothing and toilet articles. Compasses were carried by all. Mule loads, such as guns and signal equipment sometimes amounted to 350 pounds. Green fatigues and combat boots, or GI shoes with leggings proved satisfactory as a jungle uniform. Jungle boots were generally used for relief. Helmets were worn except in certain night patrolling.

 Throughout the movements, air drop was the only source of rations and other resupply. No more than three days rations could be carried. The country seldom offered fair air drop sites, and frequently a high percentage of the drops was impossible to recover in precipitous wooded areas.

 To accomplish the Brigade mission of cutting the Burma Road at Namhpakka, it was necessary to seize extensive battalion objectives. The controlling features were independent broad hills and high ranges. To leave one unoccupied was to leave the enemy in a commanding position. Loi Kang Ridge, for example, extended approximately two miles in length. rising between the long valley on the west and open stretch of the Burma Road on the east. No cover or defiles existed on this sector of the Burma Road. The Japs were well entrenched on Loi Kang Ridge and held two villages (Loi Kang and Man Sak) which nestled high in its wooded recesses. Only surprise and a quickly prosecuted attack by the second battalion upon its reaches could have ousted the enemy. The attack had to be made up sheer walls and base tactics of fire and movement wrenched this ground from enemy hands. Gaining the northern crest it was necessary for this battalion to turn south and fight down the axis of the range, yard by yard drawing the enemy back until another battalion (1st Bn. 475th Inf.) had seized its objectives and organized the ground. This battalion then executed a limited encirclement of the Loi Kang enemy forces. Thereafter, the 2nd Battalion was secure upon the ridge, enemy forces having been killed or forced to decamp. A trail along the only passage this range had 80 individual pillboxes in a 100-yard area that had to be cleaned out. Continuous enemy counter-attacks was pressed. The 1st Battalion had to be withdrawn immediately after its participation in this attack to protect the hill features it had secured to the west of Loi Kang Ridge.

 During this operation each Bn combat Team had its hands full with its respective objective, all being high ground features commanding the road. Continuously, however, ambushes, combat patrols, roadblocks, automatic weapons, fires, mines and artillery were used on the road by all battalions and squadrons. Even before the heights were fully taken, the enemy situation had become such that in his withdrawal from the north he had to cease all day movement over the road; soon all night movement. The equipment and troops he was able to extricate from the north had to go over the network of roads previously constructed well east of the Burma Road and out of range of MARS fire power. Many of his wounded, and perhaps many of his dead, were taken southward toward Lashio through the corridors east of the Burma Road.

 Disregarding enemy numbers not confirmed as killed, a ratio of six and one half Japs to one American was established.

 During these operations, the only equipment to fall into enemy hands was one small radio set. It is possible, but not confirmed, that one American prisoner was taken. One 75mm piece suffered a direct hit and three others were damaged, but replacement parts put these guns in action on the succeeding day.

 Both air drop supply of all classes and Liaison plane evacuation of the wounded were under enemy fire throughout this campaign. Air currents were treacherous and inadequate Liaison strips were all that could be devised.

 Little malaria existed, except recurrences of earlier contraction. Precautions against typhus and dysentery; as well as malaria, were constantly impressed, but some inevitably was suffered. Only one latent neurosis developed.

 Mules were controllable in proximity to hostile and friendly fire. Bamboo cutting made nutritious provender when the tactical situation prevented loose grazing.

 During the campaign MARS introduced to combat use, the night sighting devices known as Snooperscopes and Sniperscopes. These were received in the midst of operations and hasty acquaintance with the instruments was all that could be had. Tactics were established for the use of these on the ground.

 At the conclusion of this campaign, MARS was a well-knit and experienced force, all elements having undergone combat, new techniques devised, lessons learned, morale high, leadership seasoned.

   

© George P. Haupin 2012