October 31, 2014

Former Au Gres-Sims superintendent was member of Merrill's Marauders

Kevin Bunch
Ernest Jordan holds up a photo of himself during his days with the U.S. Army during World War II. He was a member of an all-volunteer special ops team known as Merrill's Marauders, who fought behind Japanese lines in Burma.
8/20/13

Au GRES TWP. — Ernest Jordan knows the value of a good education.

The 92-year-old resident of Au Gres is perhaps best known locally as the former superintendent of Au Gres-Sims from 1973 until 1982, and of Iosco Intermediate School District in Tawas from 1957 until 1973. He originally grew up in Kalamazoo, working for his uncle’s lumber yard as a truck driver, driving and unloading trucks at the local railroad station.

“I felt there something had to be better than that, unloading boxcars of lumber and plaster,” Jordan said. In Oct. 1, 1940, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Jordan served in the Pacific theater once the U.S. entered World War II, and said he was stationed in Trinidad in 1943 when the Army put out a call for an all-volunteer unit. He said they were told that if they volunteered, they would be able to return to the U.S. before they normally would.

“I got back to the states, all right,” Jordan said. “I returned to Miami, and then went to Stockton, California. We never stopped. They let us off and we ended up in India.”

The unit, known colloquially as Merrill’s Marauders after its commanding officer Brigadier General Frank Merrill, consisted of about 3,000 men split into three 1,000-man columns. Their objective was to irritate the Japanese in Burma —¬ who controlled the Southeast Asian territory at the time — with hit and run tactics on supply lines and patrols, Jordan said.

The Army had very low expectations for the unit’s survival, anticipating 98-percent casualty rates, and casualties from disease and combat were high. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, only 130 men were still fit for combat by the end of the Marauders’ eight-month mission.

“When we went in there, they told us, ‘We won’t guarantee you a way out,’” Jordan said. “It’s funny. I don’t recall anybody begging to get out of there. They seemed to adjust to it pretty well.”

Jordan was a medic in the “blue combat team,” which was part of one of the three columns. Though the Marauders largely lived off the land, he remembered how tricky it was to get resupplied behind Japanese lines. Everything had to be dropped in by air — food, ammunition, cigarettes — and the Japanese were just as likely to spot the drops as the Marauders.

“They told us not to pick it up, because the Japanese would hide outside the clearing, and anyone who would run out there would get shot,” Jordan said. “We’d outwait them until they got discouraged and left.”

They also had Piper seaplanes available to extract the wounded, and tropical diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and fungal infections, were a constant threat. Jordan himself still periodically suffers the aftereffects of them himself, decades later. The U.S. Army was also careful not to let anyone know where the Marauders were, and Jordan recalled sending a letter home requesting Burma-Shave shaving cream where the name brand was redacted.

The troops also had mules to carry their records and other supplies, and Jordan said when crossing mountainous passes, the mules would sometimes slip and fall down the sides, taking everything they were carrying with them.

“The worst record we lost was our payroll record,” he mused.

Jordan said the Allied troops had good experiences with the native Burmese during the eight months he was there. He said they served with the Americans and gave them intelligence on dangerous areas to avoid. In all, he said the Burmese were nice people, and he was more worried about the Chinese soldiers fighting there too than the Burmese.

Jordan’s unit was practically finished in April 1944, after the Japanese attacked the rear of their unit. He said they made their way to higher ground in a hamlet called Nhpum Ga and set up a defensive position. Japanese soldiers had them surrounded, but Jordan said they were rescued when another Marauder column drove through and broke the Japanese line on Easter Sunday.

From there, he ended up in the battle for the Myitkyina airfield, which ran from May until early August. The Marauders were evacuated from the airfield to India afterward, and Jordan was treated for diseases for about a month before being released back to duty. He said he did regret that he never had the chance to see much of India, beyond flying over the Taj Mahal.

Jordan was discharged Aug. 24, 1945 at the rank of staff sergeant. He married his first wife Yettie around 1946, and headed to Western Michigan University to become a teacher. He originally wanted to be an agriculture teacher, but ultimately ended up teaching history and biology.

“I took a world history course from what I thought was an elderly teacher, and took a test in ancient world history,” he said. “She wrote at the top of my paper, ‘You got your age right.’ I didn’t do very well at all.”

Jordan ended up teaching in Richland, Kalamazoo and Johannesburg before moving to Northeast Michigan to work at Iosco Intermediate School District in Tawas as the superintendent from 1957 until 1973. He then moved on to Au Gres-Sims for another nine years.

Much of his work at the school consisted of working with the budget, the school board, and hiring and firing staff members. Jordan said he remembered a board member who would wander around town to solicit opinions on the job he was doing to bring it up at meetings, while another time a board member gave him grief for not doing something that the same member did not want him to do.

“I think the unionism took care of a lot of those problems,” Jordan said. “I enjoyed working here at Au Gres. They’re good people to work for, and (the community) is very thoughtful about the school, and supportive. I never had trouble with a millage, and if you had trouble with a student, a parent would call on you.”

Following his retirement in 1982 from Au Gres, Jordan was able to spend time gardening, golfing and traveling around the U.S. and Europe, touching base with fellow Merrill’s Marauders at reunions. He did return to teaching one time, to substitute for a sick teacher in Tawas, but ultimately decided it was not for him.

Yettie died in 1998, and he was remarried a year later to Mary Jo Jordan. He said he is now living with the sort of things that a person his age would expect — his memory is not as sharp as it used to be, he started developing Parkinson’s disease three years ago, and he suffered a heart attack and stroke in 2005. He still is a regular at the Au Gres coffee club every morning, however, and has had time to reflect on how education has helped him avoid returning to the lumber yard.

“I’d say one of the pieces of advice I hope (young people would) listen to is to get an education,” Jordan said. “At the very least (a high school diploma).

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school, but I knew what I didn’t want to do: work in a lumber yard.”

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