Carlson’s Raid On Makin Island

USMC Association

The war news in America in 1942 was bleak. Our navy had lost the bulk of its striking power, with the exception of the carriers, at Pearl Harbor. German U-Boats prowled the Atlantic and exacted a terrible toll on United States shipping. American outposts such as Guam and Wake Island had already fallen to overwhelming Japanese forces in December 1941, and other U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered in early May 1942. Although the U.S. Navy won the most important naval battle of the war off Midway Island from 4-6 June, the full impact of the victory, which put the Japanese Navy on the strategic defensive, was not yet fully appreciated by the Pacific Fleet staff. Most Americans thought the Pacific Ocean was rapidly becoming a Japanese “lake.”

In August 1942, however, two events were to take place that would capture the imagination and hope of the American people. The first was the landing of the Ist Marine Division on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on the 7th; the second was a daring raid on Makin Island by two companies of the 2d Raider Battalion on the 17th and 18th.

Makin Island (see Map 1) is actually an atoll in the Gilbert Islands, roughly triangular in shape, running northeast to southwest. Butaritari, the principal island, is located at the southwest point, just below the main lagoon entrance, and is approximately eight miles long by less than one-half mile wide. The entire island is covered by a thick growth of coconut palms which extends to the water line. On 10 December 1941, the Japanese Navy occupied Makin and set up a seaplane base. This base represented the easternmost output of Japan’s defense line in the Pacific area. In August 1942, the 2d Marine Raider Battalion raided Butaritari.

Marine Raider battalions represented a new type of unit, born out of a need to take offensive actions. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, often considered a military romantic, championed the creation of commandos in order to overcome the military conservatism of his generals. From the beginning, Americans were interested in these forces. Articles on commando activities ran in major U.S. newspapers and magazines. As a result, the Commandant of the Marine Corps dispatched officers to England to study commando organization and techniques.

Nothing more was done until Pearl Harbor. Thereafter, the rush of Japanese victories reproduced for Americans the same sort of conditions that first led the British to “special warfare.” Some way was needed to strike back, if only by means of weak, token gestures. The Marine Corps in particular came under heavy pressure to mount such attacks. Applying the pressure was none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a friend of Churchill.

Early in Februrary 1942, the Commandant, MajGen Thomas Holcomb, decided to organize two raider battalions, one on the east coast and one on the west coast. The basic mission of these two new raider units was threefold: to be the spearhead of amphibious landings by larger forces on beaches generally thought to be inaccessible; to conduct amphibious raids requiring speed and surprise; and to conduct guerrilla-type operations for protracted periods behind enemy lines.

LtCol Merritt A. Edson and Major Evans F. Carlson (see Figure 1) received their orders. Each was to organize, train, and command a Marine raider battalion. The two men were very different, and so were the battalions they formed. Carlson organized the 2d Raider Battalion at Camp Elliott near San Diego, CA. Its executive officer was Maj James Roosevelt, son of the President. With particular emphasis on physical conditioning, the 2d Raider Battalion trained extensively in hit-and-run tactics, hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, scouting, “fire-team” tactics, night operations, handling of rubber boats, and rigid field discipline.

Evans Carlson merits special attention. Born on 26 February 1896 in Sidney, NY, he was the son of a Congregational minister and spent his formative years in New England. At 16 Carlson misrepresented his age and joined the Army for 3 years of uneventful service. In 1916 he was recalled for duty in the Mexican border disturbances. Shortly after the United States entered World War I, Carlson was commissioned and rose quickly in rank to captain, although he saw no combat duty. For a time after the armistice he worked on GEN John J. Pershing’s staff. Carlson considered making the Army a career, but the prevailing Army attitude was that one never initiated any consequential action of his own. Since this tendency was antithetical to his beliefs, he decided to resign in 1919.

Restless and unhappy as a civilian, Carlson elected to rejoin the military service. The War Department informed him that he could return to duty, but only as a second lieutenant. If he accepted the offer, he would be outranked by those of his colleagues who had stayed on active duty. Since Carlson did not want to add this burden to his mounting sense of failure as a civilian, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private in 1922.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1923, Carlson served in various domestic and foreign assignments, including a tour as an intelligence officer in Shanghai in 1927 and a tour in Peking from 1933-35. In 1935 he was promoted to captain and assigned to the military guard as the secondin-command for President Roosevelt’s retreat at Warm Springs, GA. There he formed a friendship with the President which led to a private correspondence when he returned to China for a third tour of duty as an observer with the Chinese armies fighting the Japanese.

Boldly slipping through the Japanese lines, Carlson joined the 8th Route Army, the principal Communist force in northern China. He became friends with Chu The, the commander of the 8th Route Army, Chou En-Lai, and Mao Tse-tung, the spiritual leader of the Chinese Communists. They spent many hours discussing the war and the role of both the Americans and the Communists.

One day after a column of 600 men completed a particularly arduous 58-mile march without sleep, Carlson observed that not a single man had dropped out. It was a feat unprecedented in his experience. Carlson believed the secret lay in ethical indoctrination. Each soldier knew that his performance of duty was an essential step in attaining the victory that would assure freedom for all. That experience changed Carlson’s approach to leadership.

Carlson’s outspoken praise of the Communists’ discipline, elemental democracy, and resolute determination to defeat the Japanese contrasted sharply with the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek. His superiors began to muzzle his reports. Because he felt so strongly about the issues, Carlson knew he had no choice but to resign. And, in April 1939, he officially did.

For the next two years, he traveled in the United States and again in China. Along with several periodical pieces, he wrote two books, The Chinese Army and Twin Stars of China, about his experiences and observations. He knew, however, that war between Japan and the United States was inevitable. Therefore, Carlson requested a Reserve commission as a major and returned to active duty in April 1941.

Although his reputation as a maverick was well established, Carlson was promoted to lieutenant colonel early in 1942 and given command of the 2d Raider Battalion. As a commander he drew heavily upon the observations of his experiences in China. For example, “gung-ho” meetings became commonplace occurrences in his battalion. In these meetings he stressed the need for all Marines to work together. Everyone, regardless of rank or billet, was encouraged to speak their mind. Carlson wanted each man to know why he was there and what he was fighting for. Gung-ho meetings became his form of ethical indoctrination.

Besides Carlson’s unconventional leadership methods, which also included abolishing the NCOs’ and officers’ messes, several other actions stirred up bitter feelings among senior Marine officers. Carlson had free reign to select any enlisted man or officer for his battalion. Naturally, no commander wanted to lose his best men to another command. Moreover, Carlson made a unilateral decision to organize his ten-man squads into “fire teams” of three men each in order to enhance the squad leader’s fire control capability. He wanted additional automatic weapons to make his fire teams even more potent, and requested a variety of nonstandard equipment such as knock-down bicycles, special boots, poles with buckets to carry heavy equipment loads as the Chinese did, outboard motors, and Canadian antitank rifles.

Carlson’s well-known association with the President aroused the ire of many fellow officers. They looked upon his “eyes only” reports for the President from China as circumventing the time-honored chain of command. When Jimmy Roosevelt became his executive officer, some senior Marine officers must have viewed this assignment with jaundiced eyes. Finally, many individuals, both in and out of the Marine Corps, firmly believed that Carlson was a Communist. His well-publicized association with the Chinese Communists aroused suspicions that haunted him until he retired from the Marine Corps in July 1946.

Having completed its basic training, Carlson’s 2d Raider Battalion was transferred in May 1942 to Camp Catlin on Oahu, Hawaii, where it was placed under the direct operational control of ADM Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CinCPac). Nimitz decided to use the raider battalion for hit-and-run operations, using submarines as transports. Carlson immediately began training his raiders to make practice landings. Soon they could disembark with all their weapons and equipment and, undetected, make night landings in rubber boats equipped with outboard motors. These motors, however, failed in rough surf because the coils and magnetos were exposed. Equipment with enclosed electrical components was continually requested but never made available. The lack of a reliable outboard motor would play a critical role during the raid on Makin Island.

Nimitz’s staff began planning a raid on the Makin atoll in July 1942. Specifically, the mission was to collect intelligence, destroy enemy installations, capture prisoners, and, most importantly, divert Japanese attention from the Ist Marine Division landing on Guadalcanal. Using aerial photographs, CinCPac constructed a mock-up of the island’s wharves, roads, and buildings at Barber’s Point, Oahu. Carlson and his battalion began intensive planning and training for the raid. Numerous practice night landings were made during July until every raider knew from memory the details of the plan, the island terrain, the location of each building, and the direction of every road. Naval intelligence reported that 250 Japanese were on Makin, and that a shore battery covered the entrance to the lagoon where there was a good protected anchorage. Actually, only 43 Japanese of the 62d Guard Unit, Combined Special Naval Landing Force under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Kamemitsu, were on the island.

On 8 August 1942, 222 officers and men embarked on the USS Argonaut and USS Nautilus for Makin. The trip was uneventful and also uncomfortable as evidenced by the numerous cases of heat rash and heat prostration that developed during the voyage. The raiders were to disembark at 0300 on 17 August 1942, assemble alongside the submarines until the two companies were organized, and then move onto Butaritari. Withdrawal from the island was scheduled to take place no later than 2100 that same day. If the raiders had not returned by that time, Task Force Commander John Haines would decide whether to wait or return to Pearl Harbor without them. (See Figure 2.) If the raid was successful, Little Makin, a less important part of the atoll, would be raided the following morning.

Unfortunately, almost every one of Carlson’s plans went awry from the beginning. On the night of 16 August, the raiders encountered rain squalls, heavy swells, and an onshore wind. The rubber boats from the Argonaut were loaded and launched. Immediately the heavy sea drowned the outboard motors out. Carlson was then advised that the tide was moving the submarines toward the reef and they would have to start backing away. This meant that the two company commanders would not be able to assemble alongside the submarines and would probably lose control of their men. When no alternatives seemed possible, Carlson issued the order to disembark from the Nautilus with instructions for both companies to follow his boat to the beach.

Although the outboard motors were inoperable, the raiders paddled with all their strength to land at 0530 as planned. Fifteen of the 18 boats reached opposite Government Wharf where they were quickly hidden by sand and palm fronds. Lt Oscar Peatross and his 11 men failed to get the change of plans and landed their boat at the original beach about I mile south of the main body. The two other boats landed just north of the main body. The mix-up in the landing required reorganization on shore, but before it was completed, one man accidentally fired his weapon. The element of surprise was now lost.

One company moved across the island to control the coastal road and to seize the Government House and Government Wharf. The other company stayed in reserve and protected the left rear. Alerted by the gunshot, CWO Kamemitsu informed his headquarters and started his small force up the coastal road by truck and bicycle toward the Government House. A firefight developed near the native hospital. The tenacious enemy defense included four machineguns, a flamethrower, two grenade launchers, infantry armed with automatic weapons, and supported by well– concealed snipers.

About this time in the rising light, the raiders spotted a 3,500-ton troop transport and a small patrol boat entering the lagoon. Carlson radioed the submarines and requested that they surface to fire their 6-inch guns. Although communications eventually broke down, the Nautilus, shooting blindly at the ships with only a compass bearing furnished by Carlson, fired 65 &inch shells into the lagoon. Through a combination of excellent gunnery and amazing luck, both vessels were sunk.

Carlson renewed the attack, but the Japanese snipers proved to be a formidable problem. From 0730 to 1130 the action consisted of a series of small-unit movements. just before noon two Japanese reconnaissance planes circled over the fighting area for 15 minutes, dropped 2 bombs, and then departed. Soon thereafter, a small force of Japanese made a banzai attack down the center of the island. The raiders quickly repulsed the attack, killing most of the Japanese.

At 0120, 12 planes appeared-2 Kawanishi flying boats (about the size of a U.S. PBY-4), 4 fighters, and 6 reconnaissance bombers. They bombed and strafed the island for over an hour without inflicting any real damage on the raiders. One Kawanishi flying boat and one reconnaissance seaplane landed in the lagoon; the Kawanishi brought about 35 to 40 reinforcements. However, both aircraft were shot down during takeoff. Meanwhile, Lt Peatross proceeded to carry

out his initial orders to rendezvous with a platoon from Company A at the church. They found the church empty. Then Peatross and his men moved toward the main body of the raiders, but they were soon brought under intense machinegun and rifle fire. In the process of knocking out the machinegun and killing several Japanese, three men were killed and most of the others wounded. Peatross decided to pull back to the ocean side of the island. He also sent a runner to Carlson to notify him of their circumstances. When no linkup with the main body took place after several hours, Peatross returned to the Nautilus with his men.

Carlson’s raiders held a poor position in the thick brush. Their fields of fire were limited, and they were subjected to heavy sniper fire, so Carlson ordered his men to pull back a few hundred yards. As the Japanese infantry followed, more Japanese planes arrived at 1630 and bombed the area just evacuated, wounding some of the enemy advance. Time, however, was running out. Though the raid had inflicted heavy damage and casualties on the Japanese, the mission had not been fully accomplished. Carlson’s orders were to return to the submarines by 1930. With too little time to complete the mission, he ordered a retreat.

The withdrawal from combat was orderly. Carlson and Roosevelt said goodbye to the natives who had helped them, and arranged to have the dead raiders buried. By 1915 all the boats were lined up on the beach with those on either flank entering the water first. The first was Carlson’s. The effort to return to the submarines was an unmitigated disaster. Unfortunately, the rapid succession of the breakers, combined with their great force, proved too formidable for even the highly trained raiders. After nearly an hour of struggling, in which almost all the weapons and equipment were lost, about two-thirds of the raiders gave up, and were washed ashore. With a few salvaged weapons, the men posted a security perimeter. One of the guards spotted an eight-man Japanese patrol and fired, killing three of them. The rest apparently ran away. With the possibility of Japanese reinforcements arriving in the morning, the raiders’ prospects seemed dreary.

The feeling of helplessness at this point marked the low ebb of the raid. At midnight Carlson called a meeting of his officers and some of his men. What should they do? Try the surf again? Hide on the north end of the atoll? Surrender? When one raider thought surrender was in order, Carlson suggested, “Look-you take anyone you want and go out and find someone to surrender to-and then you have the right to come back here and tell the men, and the men will have an opportunity to express their views.” The raider went out, but came back with the news that he could not find any Japanese. Carlson then asked, “Is there anyone else who thinks we ought to surrender?” No one mentioned it further, and the idea was abandoned.

After daylight, a group of men fought a terrible battle with the surf and made it to the submarines. A little later another group was organized and also succeeded in reaching the submarines. Approximately 70 raiders remained on the beach. During the remainder of the day, however, they completed the rest of their mission with the exception of capturing prisoners. Carlson found his dead and confirmed once again with the native chief that they would be buried.

With his wounded men, Carlson decided not to try the ocean side again, but opted to get out through the lagoon side. The Japanese had no coastal guns covering the lagoon.

When darkness came, Carlson, after much difficulty in identifying himself, made contact with the submarines. He arranged for them to pick him and his men off Flink Point at the west end of the lagoon. His men reported that everyone seen that day was loaded in the remaining rubber boats and an outrigger canoe. The trip took 3 very difficult hours. Forty hours had elapsed since the raiders first left the submarines.

The wardroom on the Nautilus was cleared so that four Marines could be operated on. In addition, the officers turned over the staterooms to the wounded. Under the most austere and difficult conditions, the Navy doctors performed magnificently.

In the chaos of the 2-day operation, 9 men were somehow left behind. Remarkably, they eluded capture for nearly a month after the Japanese returned in force-a relief expedition of more than 1,000 men landed on Makin the day after Carlson and his men departed. Eventually caught, the nine raiders were taken to the 6th Base Force Headquarters on Kwajalein. Early in October Vice Admiral Hirokai Abe was informed that any transfer of the prisoners to Japan would be impractical. Consequently, Abe had the raiders formally executed on 16 October 1942. After the war, the admiral was tried for his war crimes in a court in Guam; he was found guilty and hanged.

The raiders accomplished most of their mission objectives. They destroyed the valuable Japanese radio stations, 700-1,000 barrels of aviation gasoline, and all useful military stores. Although the total number has been estimated to reach 300, the raiders counted about 85 enemy bodies. In addition to the two planes that were shot down, two ships were sunk by expert, if not lucky, gunfire from the Nautilus. Moreover, the Japanese reinforcements, who landed on Makin on 19 August 1942, may have been diverted from the Solomon Islands.

The biggest impact of the raid, however, was the electrifying effect it had on the American people. Less than a year later, Hollywood enshrined Carlson and his raiders forever with the movie Gung Ho, starring the southern-drawling, cowboy hero, Randolph Scott. Followed by Marine Raiders in 1944, which starred Robert Ryan and Pat O’Brien, these cinematic efforts ensured the raiders their fair share of glory.

Although in many respects Carlson’s raid was successful, the operation invited criticism. First, no prisoners were taken. At this stage of the war the prisoners could have provided invaluable information, although we know that no important Japanese were on Makin. Also, as a result of the treacherous and disastrous efforts to return to the submarines-extending the operation on Makin by a day-the planned raid on Little Makin Island did not take place. Of later importance, the raiders’ excursion into the Gilbert Islands may have stimulated the Japanese into fortifying Tarawa. The Marines were to pay a terrible price in the November 1943 assault on that bastion of Japanese strength.

In the true military sense, the Makin raid, as well as the famous Doolittle raid, were insignificant. No one should overlook the fact that the war in the Pacific overtook the need for raider battalions. Their special skills were not needed as the Marine Corps expanded to six divisions. But at the time, America needed something to cheer about, and Makin filled the bill. This bold, offensive action revived national spirits and sent a clear message to the Japanese that they had truly “awakened a sleeping giant.”