HONOLULU, HI (Jonnie Melillo Clasen) – Tom Tsubota, the oldest WW II Merrill’s Marauder, who turned 102 on Jan. 14, is recovering at Straub Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii after suffering a heart attack earlier this week.
“On Monday (January 23) he went into the hospital with a mild heart attack,” said his son, Leighton, 64, the youngest of Tsubota’s three children who all live in Hawaii. “As soon as he can start walking, he’ll be coming home, which we hope will be in a couple of days.”
Fluent in Japanese, Tsubota is the only one of the 14 Japanese American — or Nisei — interpreters still living who served in Merrill’s Marauders. Their language skills were crucial to Merrill’s Marauder success in the China-Burma-India Theater, known today as the “forgotten theater of WW II.”
Although Tsubota has an impressive military background, his son said, “That generation is pretty humble, and my father didn’t really talk about things until the last 20 years or so when more and more people started asking him questions. I think he wanted to forget some of the things he saw in the war.”
Drafted in June 1941, Tsubota was on maneuvers with G Company of the Hawaii National Guard’s 298th Infantry Regiment when Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941.
Tsubota said in a 1993 interview that he and the other men thought the activity they were seeing on the morning of Dec. 7 was part of their maneuvers “until the machine gun firing started near Bellows Airfield. Then we knew it was for real.”
On Dec. 8, 1941, Tsubota, who was guarding the shore line, helped capture the United States’ first prisoner of war, LT Kazuo Sakamaki, the only Japanese survivor of several two-man mini submarines attempting to reach land. Tsubota used his blanket to cover the body of Sakamaki’s crew mate.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Tsubota and the other soldiers of Japanese ancestry serving in the 298th became part of the 100th Infantry Battalion which was sent to Camp McCoy, Wis. Tsubota was going through combat training there when he was recruited for the Military Intelligence Service because his background included two degrees from Japanese universities and because he had qualified for the 1932 Olympic trials in Los Angeles.
While attending the Military Intelligence Service language school at Camp Savage, Tsubota volunteered for a “dangerous and hazardous” mission. He is now one of only 24 original Merrill’s Marauders still living out of almost 3,000 who volunteered in 1943 for that top secret mission. Merrill’s Marauders were the first American ground troops to fight the Japanese in Asia.
Officially designated the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, the Marauders were nicknamed by the press after their commander, BG Frank D. Merrill. Some called the volunteers, who represented 15 ethnic groups, the “dead end kids.” “Magnificent” was how others described them.
Malnourished, poorly supplied and battling malaria, dysentery and mite typhus, the skeletal-looking Marauders defeated the much larger elite Japanese 18th Division in five major battles and 30 minor engagements. Their final objective of capturing north Burma’s all-weather Myitkyina Airfield meant that supplies could be flown in so an important pathway could be forged into China.
With only what they could carry on their backs or pack on mules, the tough jungle fighters made military history by walking farther — almost 1,000 miles — than any other WW II fighting unit through what Winston Churchill, British prime minister at the time, called “the most forbidding fighting country imaginable.”
Considered “expendable,” the Marauders were not expected to survive their 1944 mission. When the remaining elements of the unit were disbanded Aug. 10, 1944, in Burma, slightly more than 100 of the original Marauders remained.
Yet several Marauders have lived into their 100s. Tsubota, who had 11 malaria attacks in Burma, is the oldest at 102. Two others, John Jones and Everett W. Stanke, lived to 101. Another Nisei, Roy Matsumoto, was weeks away from turning 101 when he died. Milton A. Pilcher turned 100 last November. Ernie Hubacker, who was a member of Mars Task Force, the unit succeeding the Marauders, is 101.
The legacy of these Infantry volunteers is being carried forward by members of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, whose crest is the Merrill’s Marauder patch.