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World War II vets honored at Airborne & Special Ops Museum

By John Ramsey | Published Saturday, November 10, 2012

W.B. Woodruff was a 19-year-old private first class marching mile after mile through the rugged mountains of Burma alongside a mule he called Jack.

HONORED – W.B. Woodruff salutes Sept. 15 during the national anthem at the dedication of a memorial stone for the World War II mule packers at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville. Photo courtesy of Cindy Burnham/Fayetteville Observer

It was 1944, and Woodruff was among about 7,000 soldiers and 3,000 mules walking single-file through jungle paths full of disease-carrying mosquitoes and across cold rivers with chest-high water. Collectively, the special operators were known as the MARS task force, artillerymen sent to capture the Burma Road to open a supply route to China to support the fight against Japan.

Woodruff was one of 13 World War II veterans called mule packers who saw their unit honored Sept. 15 with an engraved granite stone near the entrance to the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. The ceremony coincided with the 25th annual reunion of the MARS Task Force Mountain Artillery Association, 612th and 613th Field Artillery Battalions.

“As I look back on it now, it sounds kind of exciting,” said Woodruff, who at 87 was one of the youngest in the group Saturday. “When I was there, it was just another day’s march.”

It was no easy march. The unit’s weapons, 75 mm Howitzer cannons, were broken down into six pieces, each weighing more than 300 pounds. The pieces were packed on the backs of mules wearing special saddles. Sometimes, the mules slid hundreds of feet down the mountainside, and soldiers had to scramble down to retrieve them. Food and other supplies had to be dropped in by air.

The marsmen, as they were sometimes called, fired more than 12,000 rounds of artillery and covered more than 400 miles in five months.

Six mules grazed by the Iron Mike statue outside the museum Saturday as family members and veterans posed for photographs.

Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Irizarry II, deputy commanding general of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, spoke to the group before the granite marker was unveiled.

“Your tradition lives well with the men and women out there today,” he said. “I applaud you for setting the bar so high.”

This article originally ran in the Fayetteville Observer Sept. 17.

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