The soldiers’ mission was as dangerous as it was audacious: a trek of more than 500 miles through mountainous jungle in northern Burma to seize a Japanese-held airfield in World War II.

The threats were constant: fierce attacks by superior numbers of enemy troops, monsoon rains, tropical diseases and malnutrition.

When the airfield was finally taken three months later, only 130 able-bodied soldiers remained of the 2,600 who had crossed into Burma in 1944 with Merrill’s Marauders, a fabled unit that was one of the forerunners of the Army’s Special Operations elite, the 75th Ranger Regiment.

On Dec. 29, Russell Hamler, the last survivor of Merrill’s Marauders, died at a veterans’ hospital in Pittsburgh. He was 99.

The death was confirmed by his son Jeffrey.

Mr. Hamler left high school to enlist in the Army on his 18th birthday in June 1942. Originally sent to Puerto Rico, he volunteered, like all of the men in Merrill’s Marauders, for a secretive mission with anticipated casualties of up to 85 percent.

“In essence, they didn’t think any of us would pull through,” Mr. Hamler recalled several years ago.

Mr. Hamler, a private first class, was not a leader of the unit. But he experienced the full brunt of jungle combat behind enemy lines as much as any member. He fought in three of its five major battles, as well as in many lesser engagements, armed with a Thompson submachine gun.

“The jungles were full of Japanese,” he recalled. “We did a lot of shooting because they kept coming.”

After Pearl Harbor, Japan’s armed forces overran Southeast Asia, capturing Hong Kong, Singapore and Indochina. An American general, Joseph Stilwell, was forced into a humiliating retreat from Burma (now Myanmar). Allied leaders agreed in 1943 to send a force back into Burma, into what Winston Churchill called the “most forbidding fighting country imaginable.” It would be a long-range penetration unit, challenging Japanese control of the northern half of the country. The men would have only the weapons and supplies they could carry on mules or on their backs, with additional supplies dropped occasionally by parachute from planes.

General Stilwell named Gen. Frank Merrill to command the unit, officially the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).

The dense bamboo, tangled vines and banyan trees of the jungle, where men marched single-file in stifling tropical heat and humidity, was as much an enemy as the Japanese. Dysentery and malaria were endemic and rendered many men unfit for combat.

Mr. Hamler trekked until he wore holes in his boots, then walked on bare feet before receiving new footwear in one of the parachute drops, he recalled in an interview published in 2022 with Carole Ortenzo, a retired Army colonel and a member of Mr. Hamler’s extended family. Leeches sucked blood from his limbs and bugs “bored into your arms,” he recalled.

The Army supplied mostly K-rations, providing just 2,830 calories a day to men who were burning far more energy. Famished soldiers, Mr. Hamler recounted, dropped grenades into rivers, skimmed the dead fish and cooked them in their helmets.

“There had to be absolute silence at night in the jungle because any noise invited shelling from the Japanese,” Mr. Hamler said. Pairs of men dug foxholes nearby so one could sleep while his buddy stood sentry. When it was time to switch roles, the sentry tugged a rope attached to the sleeping man to wake him without uttering a sound.

In one of the Marauders’ fiercest battles, Mr. Hamler’s Second Battalion was dug into a ridge-top village named Nhpum Ga, which was surrounded and under siege for 10 days.

The Japanese fired mortars and large artillery ahead of banzai charges by fearless soldiers willing to run into the Americans’ Browning machine guns. The Japanese advanced close enough to taunt the batallion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. George McGee, by name, according to a 2013 history, “Merrill’s Marauders” by Gavin Mortimer. A Japanese American interpreter with the Marauders, Roy Matsumoto, crept close enough to enemy lines to overhear talk of a planned dawn attack, then alerted his comrades.

Mules killed in the assault putrefied and attracted swarms of maggots. Dysentery sickened many soldiers. As they ran out of drinking water, they suffered dehydration and delirium, and tried chopping apart bamboo to suck water from the joints.

Early in the fighting at Nhpum Ga, Mr. Hamler was hit in the hip by a mortar fragment and lay immobilized in his foxhole for more than 10 days, until Americans from the Third Batallion broke through to the village — by that point christened “Maggot Hill” by the Americans — and the Japanese retreated. The Marauders counted 400 enemy corpses. The Marauders lost 57 men, with 302 wounded. General Merrill himself suffered a heart attack just before the siege and was evacuated.

Command of the Marauders passed to Col. Charles N. Hunter, who later wrote a critical report accusing General Stilwell of sending men still recovering from jungle sicknesses back into combat, which drew a Congressional investigation.

A 1962 movie, “Merrill’s Marauders,” directed by Samuel Fuller, made General Merrill the hero, but it appalled many veterans of the unit, including some who considered Colonel Hunter their true leader, according to Mr. Mortimer’s book.

In May 1944, three months after the Marauders entered Burma, the airstrip in the town of Myitkyina, the mission’s key objective, fell to the Americans and Chinese troops who had reinforced them. In August, the heavily fortified town itself was captured. The Marauders were disbanded one week later. All told, the unit suffered 93 combat fatalities in Burma and 30 deaths from disease. Another 293 men were wounded and eight were missing. Most startling, an additional 1,970 men at one point were hospitalized with sicknesses, including 72 with what was described as “psychoneurosis.”

Mr. Hamler had been evacuated after the battle of Nhpum Ga in April to northern India, where he spent five weeks recuperating in a hospital. He was transferred back home to Pennsylvania and served as a military policeman until he was discharged in December 1945. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

In 2022, Merrill’s Marauders were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Mr. Hamler was presented with his medal at a ceremony near his home.Credit…via Hamler Family

He became a mechanic for Trans World Airlines, retiring in 1985.

Russell Hamler was born on June 24, 1924, in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh. His father, Robert Hamler, was part owner of a bus company; his mother was Margaret (Schweig) Hamler. Mr. Hamler attended Mt. Lebanon High School.

Besides his son Jeffrey, Mr. Hamler is survived by another son, James Hamler. His wife of 71 years, Imelda Hamler, known as Jean, died in 2018.

In 2022, Merrill’s Marauders were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, after a lobbying drive by the handful of surviving veterans and family members.

Mr. Hamler was presented with his medal at a ceremony near his home. He said that “people that haven’t been around killing” don’t realize the horror of war. Speaking of children dying in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, “I would like to see them outlaw wars.”

He proposed a body of international leaders to solve the world’s problems. “This group would get together and iron it out in words instead of bullets,” he said. “I would like to see a peaceful world.”

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