Thursday, February 12, 2015

Misunderstood Merrill


In 1962, a film starring Jeff Chandler brought a new hero into the American pantheon: Brgadier General (later MG) Frank D. Merrill, leader of the eponymous Merrill’s Marauders. Theater-goers watched Chandler and a cast of TV actors defeat the Japs heroically in the low-budget movie, and then Chandler’s character, beloved by his men, collapses of a heart attack. The movie was a huge success, in part because it was Chandler’s last — the 42-year-old wasn’t faking pain on the set, he was acting with an injured back, and then he had the sour luck to die during what should have been routine back surgery after the film wrapped.

As often is the case with movies, the connection with reality is a bit thin. Merill’s Marauders did do some amazing things, as a long-range penetration unit modeled on Orde Wingate’s Chindits; but Merrill’s own connection with the unit was tenuous and intermittent, despite his being the nominal commander.

The guy who trained the volunteers? It wasn’t Merrill.

The guy who led the unit in combat, through its bleakest days? That wasn’t him either.
Merrill wasn’t a Stolen Valor case, exactly; he wasn’t absent for dishonorable reasons, but because he was, in the first place, appointed late as commander, and then, he had persistent heart trouble that took him off the line.

But Merrill could have done the honorable thing, and said a few good words about the man who actually did all the stuff that Jeff Chandler portrayed Merrill as doing, Lt. Col. Charles N. Hunter. Instead, he seldom missed a chance to run down the man, despite (or because of?) Merrill’s legend being based on Hunter’s deeds. Nothing I detest more.

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