Merrill and the Road to Eastman

Story and Photos by Tom Rockett
Generals Merrill and Stillwell
Generals Merrill and Stilwell
One of the true heroes of World War II, General Frank Dow Merrill, was responsible for planning the major highway leading to Eastman: US Interstate 89. General Merrill was born at Hopkinton, Middlesex County, Massachusetts on Dec. 4, 1903 (the same month as the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. He died Dec. 11, 1955 at Fernandina Beach, Nassau County, Florida. He was laid to rest in the U.S. Military Academy Post Cemetery at West Point.

After the war, this great field commander became the New Hampshire Highway Commissioner under Governor Sherman Adams. His vision and engineering expertise were major factors in shaping our present highway system.

A Massachusetts native and West Point graduate, Merrill held a degree in engineering from MIT. At the outbreak of World War II, he was in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) serving as chief-of-staff for General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who was the American commander-in-chief of the China/Burma/ India Theater of Operation.

Rangoon was strategically important for many reasons, not least of which was because the Burma Road began there. Over this road, the Allies supplied Chiang Kai-Sheik’s Chinese Army, keeping the Chinese army in the war and tying up over a million Japanese troops. When the Japanese invaded Burma in May 1942, supplies had to be flown “over the hump,” the spur of the Himalayas that extended along the India-Burma border. The invasion forced the Allies to retreat into the Burmese jungle. In what became known as “the walk-out,” Stilwell and Merrill led the remnants of their army on a 600-mile trek through the almost impenetrable jungle of Northern Burma into India. Astoundingly, every member of that retreat survived the ordeal.

For the next year and a half, Stilwell, Merrill and others prepared for the campaign to retake Northern Burma and reopen an overland supply route to China. During this time, the acerbic Stilwell alienated most of the British command in India and grew to despise Chiang Kai-Sheik, whom he thought to be corrupt and indecisive. He expressed his belief that the Chinese people would be better off under Mao Tse-tung, thus gaining the enmity of witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

During this time, Merrill conducted the training and organization of a group of about 3,000 men who had volunteered for a “dangerous and hazardous mission.” A war correspondent observing this Special Forces unit named them “Merrill’s Marauders,” and the term became the official designation for the group. There is a bridge on Route 3 in Nashua named the Merrill’s Marauders Bridge. Merrill and his troops left India in February 1944 and for the next three months fought their way over the hump and into the dense and dangerous Burmese jungle. They covered a distance of 750 miles. Several hundred men died or were evacuated to India because of dysentery, malaria, wounds, devastating exhaustion and diseases caused by leaches, poisonous snakes and spiders.

Merrill led the Marauders in 27 skirmishes and five major battles. They were victorious in all of them. As they moved toward Central Burma, other allied armies of Burmese, Chinese, British and American troops under the overall command of Stilwell converged with them at a place called Myitkyina, but which was referred to in all official communications as “Mitch.” This was the site of a major Japanese army base on the Burma Road and a strategically important air base. The Battle of Mitch took place in early August 1944. At this final battle of the Burma Campaign, the Japanese army was defeated, the country was liberated and the Burma Road was re-opened. The Marauders returned to India.

Frank Merrill survived to finish his career as a New Hampshire commissioner but it was close. Just as Roosevelt’s polio paralysis and Stilwell’s blindness (total in one eye and severe in the other) had been kept a secret during the war, as was Merrill’s heart disease. He had two and perhaps three heart attacks in the Burma jungle. After the first, he was evacuated to India but returned to direct the fighting after two weeks. He contracted malaria but still led the Marauders through the worst fighting at “Mitch,” where he suffered another heart attack and was ordered by Stilwell to return to India. He would not act on the order until all of the wounded were evacuated. Finally, two days later, he turned the command over to his successor and left Burma to spend the remainder of the war in a staff position at headquarters in India.

This unwavering devotion to his men won for him the country’s respect and admiration. This remarkable man, a soldier’s solder and an able engineer and capable administrator, left his mark on the New Hampshire highway system, serving the state as the highway commissioner from 1948 until his death in 1955. It is fitting that his memory is preserved at the Merrill’s Marauders Bridge and on Interstate 89, where signs on the off-ramps bear witness to his national and local importance.