BELFAST, Maine — In 1944, when Bert Skinner was just 20 years old, the U.S. Army gave him a one-way ticket, destination unknown.

All during the long sea voyage across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, through an endless train ride in the terrible heat of India, the young man from an Ashland farm and his fellow infantrymen played a guessing game: Which of the world’s battlefields would it be? Finally, in a plane that initially couldn’t land because of the heavy tropical rains, they figured it out:


The Southeast Asian British colony was a major front in the war effort. Burma had been seized by Japan in 1942, and because of that, Axis troops were able to blockade China. The British, American and Chinese governments needed to build a road through Burma’s rainy mountains, and their soldiers had to fight from behind enemy lines to do it.

That’s where Skinner came in, to give some relief to the famed unit nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders, despite his personal feelings about war and combat.

“The war idea was not in my vocabulary,” Skinner said. “I didn’t belong there. But we never could have just sat down and let the Japanese and Germans run over us. That would have been worse. Uncle Sam just grabbed me by the shirt collar and made me go.”

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Humble guy

The short, slight 85-year-old sat with his wife of 58 years, Beatrice, in the living room of their house, which overlooks the farmland the family once cultivated on the Back Searsport Road in Belfast.

Skinner seems much younger than his years, and was as eager to talk about his farming days and family memories as he was reluctant to discuss the war.

Despite this, he’s going to be the guest of honor this Memorial Day at a special ceremony at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor, when he’ll finally be presented the Bronze Star Medal that each Marauder was to receive by presidential order after the war.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was instrumental in getting Skinner his long-overdue recognition and will be at the ceremony on Monday.

“As the proud daughter of a World War II veteran who is a Bronze Star recipient, I know the face of service and sacrifice first-hand,” Collins said. “One of the most rewarding experiences I have as a United States senator is to help our veterans, like Bert Skinner, obtain the medals and commendations they earned but never received. Each of these medals tells a story of courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty, and symbolizes the gratitude of an entire nation.”

Dr. Robert Smith of North Carolina was one of those grateful people. He knew Skinner because his wife’s relatives were also from Ashland, and he decided to see if Collins would be able to help the veteran receive his due.

“Bert’s a very humble guy,” Smith said. “He doesn’t want to be seen as some hero. I think of [him] as just a great American.”

Merrill’s Marauders

Robert Passanisi of Long Island, N.Y., a veteran Marauder and the historian of the Merrill’s Marauders Association, said Skinner and the other reinforcements came at a crucial time.

“Skinner and his group were virtually shanghaied and sent into Burma as replacements,” he said. “Many of them did not have the opportunity to have any actual training for this type of mission, but were immediately put into combat.”

Passanisi and his fellow combat infantrymen had struggled and suffered to fight Axis troops and to secure the major airstrip of North Burma. The first Marauders were a volunteer force famous for fighting under tough conditions, including insufficient food and the prevalence of malaria.

“The original Marauders like myself weren’t too much use to them [Skinner’s unit],” Passanisi said. “We were just skin and bones. We barely had the energy to breathe.”

The new guys, including a 115-pound farmer from Aroostook County, became responsible for securing the Burma Road.

They carried 30-pound packs on their backs, hoisted 10-pound rifles, waited for parachute drops with food and supplies, and watched for enemy soldiers.

“It was kind of like the Wild West,” Skinner said. “The skirmishes I was involved with never lasted more than two or three hours.”

It was rainy, he remembered, hot and humid, and the soldiers slept each night on the ground.

“That didn’t seem to bother me,” he said. “It was just war stuff that was awful.”

His wife, Bea, spoke up.

“He doesn’t like violence,” she said.

Skinner concurred.

“It’s just all wrong. I always said, people ought to be 50 years or older by the time they got sent to war,” he said.

Skinner used to lie awake at night, wrestling with heavy questions about what it means to take a life. He saw friends get shot. He had such a bad bout of malaria that he thought he might die himself. But still, he did his job.

“When we first heard we were going to move up in dangerous territory, and saw people with stretchers carrying bodies … it does something to your stomach,” Skinner said. “I thought my feet weren’t going to move. It was terrifying. … But you had to stick with your task.”

Reluctant hero

“A hero is somebody who does the right thing at the time it was needed. Heroes are accidents,” said Passanisi. “I don’t think Bert wanted to be there any more than I did. But there was no thinking about it. You did what needed to be done. I think it’s important that the present generation gets some ideas of the sacrifices that these guys made so that we could have the choice of our thoughts.”

Howard Segal is a professor of American History at the University of Maine. He said that a lot of World War II veterans tend to underplay their accomplishments.

“It’s especially critical that these people be honored when they are alive,” Segal said. “What these incredibly brave and hardworking people did — any one of them deserves absolute, total respect and admiration.”

Skinner went back to the states on Dec. 28, 1945, weighing not a pound less or more than he did when he enlisted. He saw his sister get married in Ashland, then found a job at a Connecticut factory. He came back to Maine when his father purchased the farm in Belfast, and he and Beatrice had a family, raised chickens and grew strawberries, green peas, string beans and sweet corn on their 40 acres for decades.

After the war, Skinner never got back to Burma — now called Myanmar — but he wanted to. He wanted to see his group’s old campsite on the Irrawaddy River, where Skinner and his friends used to go swimming. And he wanted to find a particular grave.

“The last place I was had high ground overlooking rice paddies,” he said. “There was a cemetery. I’d like to see if a certain man is buried there. He died there.” The soldier he knew made a lasting impression. He was short, like Skinner, but more strongly built.

“I heard that he lost his life. I never forgot him,” Skinner said.