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Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honors the two living WWII soldiers known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders

Exactly why the ordinary-looking bridge that carries Everett Turnpike traffic over the Souhegan River at the Nashua-Merrimack line would become the favorite of a retired U.S. Army officer who, for several post-war years, served as the state’s highway commissioner isn’t clear.

Perhaps the late Brig. Gen. Frank Dow Merrill was enamored with the work of the “extraordinarily talented and gifted” Robert J. Prowse, a nationally acclaimed bridge designer hired by the state as the designing engineer for the new span.

As highway commissioner, Merrill was probably pretty familiar with the process of bridge-building, and was likely quite impressed when he reviewed Prowse’s plans and learned that Prowse intended to incorporate the use of shaped, welded girders with curved haunches in its construction, making the new bridge – designated “F. E. Everett Turnpike Bridge No. 13 – State Bridge No. 111/115” – the first bridge in the state, and among the earliest in the nation, to make use of a design that established the precedent for Prowse’s later award-winning designs.

Or maybe Commissioner Merrill, who died in December 1955 just a week after turning 52, just really liked the idea of having a three-span, 224 foot long bridge featuring 12 steel stringers placed on 8-foot centers, with each stringer being a composite of rolled wide-flange members with welded plate-girder haunches above the two piers rise over the river on his watch.

Although Merrill by all accounts served the state’s transportation division well during his tenure, it’s his “previous life” as an Army soldier and officer for which he stands out most in the annals of World War II-era American history.

An enlisted man, Merrill was assigned to command a new, all-volunteer Army special forces unit called the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) – code name “Galahad” – made up of roughly 3,000 soldiers who assembled in the jungles of Central India.

Patterned after the Long Range Jungle Penetration groups formed by the British to harass Japanese forces in Burma, the unit would soon adopt the nickname “Merrill’s Marauders,” a nod to their popular leader for which they became widely known.

There in the jungles, the marauders trained under a impenetrable veil of secrecy to plan their long march up the Ledo Road, over the Himalayan Mountains and into Burma, according to the Merrill’s Marauders Association website, which, until his recent passing, was maintained by association historian Robert Passanisi.

Passanisi was one of three Merrill’s Marauders who died within a month this spring, leaving two survivors – Russell Hamler and Gabriel Kinney.

In late May, in conjunction with national Memorial Day observances, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville hosted a virtual Congreessional Gold Medal ceremony paying tribute to the 2,997 Merrill’s Marauders.

The Congressional Gold Medal ensures that the U.S. will never forget the sacrifices of the Merrillís Marauders, said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who spoke during the ceremony.

“Your bravery and outstanding service in the jungles of Burma speaks for itself, and the ultimate sacrifice of the soldiers of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) will not be forgotten,” Wormuth said.

On Veterans Day 1999, some 47 years after the bridge was opened to traffic and 44 years after Merrill’s death, a crew from the state Department of Transportation, as part of a dedication ceremony at the site, unveiled two new prominent signs – one at each end of the bridge – officially designating the span “Merrill’s Marauders Bridge.”

Legislation sponsored about a year earlier by the late 12th district state Sen. James Squires was eventually approved by legislators, paving the way for the dedication and naming ceremony.

At the national level, the Merrillís Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed into law in fall 2020, shortly after it was passed by the U.S. House and Senate.

George Ahern, a Lowell native who moved his family to Hudson around 1960, was a horseshoer by trade who enlisted in the Army at war’s outset – and became a Merrill’s Marauder.

“My father joined the service as a horseshoer,” Ahern’s son, longtime Nashua resident Greg Ahern, said. “He taught horseshoeing at Fort Riley, and he shoed the mules that (the Army) sent to Burma,” Ahearn added, referring to the Kansas Army base where his father was stationed.

Like many U.S. soldiers during wartime, especially those deployed to active duty, George Ahern had a unique skillset that his commanders realized would be of great value when Ahern and his fellow Merrill’s Marauders began their long march into Japanese-held territory.

“They had more than 100 mules over there that my father shoed” before and during the march, Greg Ahern, a recently retired career electrician who for years co-owned Gate City Electric.

When the Aherns moved to Hudson, they lived nearby the then-thiriving Benson’s Animal Farm, where, Ahern said, he worked as a teenager, while his father helped out by shoeing the farm’s horses.

A new film documentary, “They Volunteered for This: Merrill’s Marauders,” is narrated by The Greatest Generation author Tom Brokaw, and focuses on what is referred to as “one of World War II’s most heroic and least talked-about units.”

Thanks to the renewed spotlight on Merrill’s Marauders, such as the Memorial Day ceremony and the release of the documentary, Greg Ahern said he and his family have learned quite a bit about his father’s years as a marauder.

“We got a lot out of this, because my dad, he was pretty tight-lipped about it,” he said.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.

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