Years after his death, some Washington siblings are getting to see a major honor bestowed on their late father and his U.S. Army unit.
Longtime Washington resident Bernard Bieker, who grew up on a nearby farm and died in 2014, was part of the 5307th Composite (Provisional) Unit in the Army during World War II. The special operations jungle warfare unit was nicknamed “Merrill’s Marauders” after its commander, Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill.
After getting congressional approval, President Donald Trump recently signed the Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the entire 5307th.
The recognition was a long time coming, said Mitch Bieker, Bernard’s son.
“It was pretty emotional for me,” he said. “The things those guys went through, and it’s like the Army wants to forget them.”
But many would not let them be forgotten. One Merrill’s Marauders veteran created a website (marauder.org) to commemorate the unit.
The unit also was the subject of a book and a 1962 movie titled “Merrill’s Marauders.”
Bernard Bieker spent 37 total months in the military and served with Merrill’s Marauders in 1944, from January until May, when he was evacuated because of severe malaria, said his daughter, Wanda Bieker Weirich. The unit marched more than 1,000 miles, through Japanese-held Burma, climbing over parts of the Himalayan mountains.
The goal for Merrill’s Marauders was to re-establish a supply route between Burma and China, which had been cut off since the Japanese captured Burma in early 1942.
The soldiers had little food and weren’t allowed to carry many provisions because of the terrain. They relied on planes to drop K-rations, which they weren’t always able to retrieve. Along with hunger and malaria, they dealt with leeches and dysentery.
The primary purpose of Merrill’s Marauders was to serve as a “spearhead” force to motivate the Chinese forces, Bernard Bieker told The Missourian in 2013, adding that the men in the unit were the only American forces which fought on Asiatic soil during World War II.
“We wanted to get rid of the Japanese in Burma, and we were able to accomplish that,” Bieker said.
Merrill’s Marauders received the presidential citation at the time for their capture of the Japanese airfield at Myitkyina, Burma, in May 1944. According to the Gold Medal bill that was filed, only 130 of the 2,750 original Marauders remained fit for duty afterward.
“Though Merrill’s Marauders were operational for only a few months, the legacy of their bravery is honored by the United States Army through the modern day 75th Ranger Regiment, which traces its lineage directly to the 5307th Composite Unit,” the bill said.
Following his discharge from the military, Bieker returned to Washington where he worked for a number of factories before joining the city of Washington’s water department.
Mitch Bieker said an important contribution his father made was developing a hydrant that would drain directly out of Lions Lake.
Previously, firefighters would train using the city’s water supply, which impacted water pressure in the community.
“That way they can do their training exercises without messing with the water system,” Mitch Bieker said.
The fire chief at the time noted that similar systems started popping up across the country after Bernard Bieker’s idea, Mitch Bieker said.
In addition to working for the city, Bieker also was involved in the Knights of Columbus, Western Catholic Union, the VFW 2661 and Our Lady of Lourdes Church, according to his obituary. Bieker was the son of the late John and Mathilda (nee Tiemann) Bieker. He later married Mildred Meyer and after her passing married Elfrieda Oberhaus in 1997.
The medal will go to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The bill asks that the Smithsonian make the medal available for viewing at outside events associated with Merrill’s Marauders.
“We’re very, very proud,” Weirich said. “A lot of guys in that unit went through awful times.”
The units Bernard Bieker served with received two Bronze Stars. Bieker also received the Good Combat Medal, the American and Asiatic-Pacific campaign medals, the World War II Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.
Bernard Bieker was humble about his military service, his son said.
“Honestly, it wouldn’t mean as much to him as it does to me,” Mitch Bieker said of the medals. “I made him a shadow box for his medals, and he said, ‘That’s pretty neat.’ It wasn’t a real big thing to him.”
Bieker did cherish the several reunions he had with members of Merrill’s Marauders. The Missourian interviewed him after he attended one on Labor Day weekend in Minneapolis in 2013, months before his death.
“The reunions are good,” said Bieker, who was 92 at the time. “I don’t know many people when I go, but I see a lot of different people. I find out who everyone is all over again.”