By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest
On a stormy night, U.S. Marines set off secretly from submarines to assault a remote island base. They are led by a controversial commander with radical new ideas. And the son of the sitting U.S. president is one of his officers.
The Makin raid in 1942 might seem to have the implausible plot of an action movie—and in fact, one year later it would become one! But it was a deadly real for both the American and Japanese troops involved. What was arguably the first combat operation ever undertaken by a U.S. military special forces unit nearlyended in complete disaster.
At the outbreak of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the marines form an “unconventional warfare” unit to conduct raids behind enemy lines modeled after British commandos. U.S. Marine Corps brass disliked the idea, but reluctantly formed two battalions of “Raiders”—and appointed a black sheep of the USMC to lead one of them.
Lt. Col. Evans Carlson had been wounded in action as an army captain in World War I, decorated with the Navy Cross for defeating bandits in Nicaragua as a marine lieutenant, befriended FDR while commanding his guard detachment in Georgia, and then accompanied and observed Communist insurgents fighting the Japanese in China. There, Carlson met key leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and developed an appreciation for the tactics, team spirit and zeal of the Communist guerilla units. Upon returning to the United States, Carlson resigned his commission to advocate against Japanese expansionism, before reenlisting shortly before the U.S. entry into World War II.
Carlson sought to instill in his Raiders the team spirit that he had observed in China, a quality he called gung ho, based on the Mandarin Chinese words gōng (work) and hé (and/together). Ironically, gung ho was not an actual Chinese idiom, but would soon become a term in English. The marine leader believed in giving more initiative to subordinates and breaking down the barriers between officers and enlisted men, which did little to endear him to his superiors.
The Pacific War began with six months of defeats for U.S. forces until the decisive turning point in the naval battle of Midway. In August 1942, the U.S. Navy and Marines were ready to go on the offensive with an amphibious landing on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. However, Pacific Commander-in-Chief Adm. Chester Nimitz also conceived of a commando raid to divert Japanese forces and gather intel. He ultimately dispatched A and B company of Carlson’s Raiders to launch a hit-and-run raid on a Japanese seaplane base on Makin Island, allotting them a month of preparatory training time.
Makin, now known as Butaritari, is a tiny triangular-shaped atoll at the northern tip of the Gilbert Islands, located just north of the equator between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. Seventy-five Japanese personnel, including a platoon of around forty-seven Special Naval Landing Force marines, maintained a refueling base in the atoll’s lagoon, circumscribed by an eight-mile long road. The Allies had only sketchy photographic intelligence on the actual Japanese forces present, and estimated there could be as many as 300 troops on Makin and a shore battery overlooking the lagoon.
To get Carlson’s men into striking position, the navy assigned two huge cruiser submarines, the USSNautilus and Argonaut, the largest in the U.S. Navy at the time. Designed for long-range patrols, they disposed of two powerful 6-inch deck guns, and each displaced more than 4,000 tons submerged.
Even with two 100-meter long super-subs, there was just barely enough room to fit 221 men of A and B Company on board, forcing them to depart minus a platoon from each company. One man Carlson tried to leave behind was Maj. James Roosevelt—the thirty-five-year old son of the U.S. president. Despite having served as a political counselor and even secret diplomat on behalf of FDR, the young Roosevelt had been enlisted in the marines after the outbreak of World War II. An advocate of the Raider concept, he pulled strings with his father to ensure he got a place on the raid.
Conditions during the transit were miserable, with the Raiders packed into vacated torpedo storage tubes. The submarines’ ventilation systems could not prevent the air from growing thin and temperatures from rising to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Twice a day, the boats would surface to allow the Raiders to exercise and breath in fresh air for exactly ten minutes on deck, before the vessels ducked back into the hot Pacific waters to avoid air attack.
At midnight on on August 16–17, the two submarines surfaced just outside of Makin’s coral reef—only to discover stormy waters racked by wind and rain. The first two rubber LCRL boats put into the water washed away in the surf. The uninsulated 6-horsepower engines on the remaining launches were swamped with seawater and many failed to start. Carlson quickly realized that the two-prong attack he had planned would be too complicated to execute under the stormy conditions and instead ordered A and B company to land together. However, in the confusion, the boat carrying Lt. Oscar Peatross and eleven more Raiders didn’t receive the orders and motored off to the western side of the island.
After struggling for an hour with the surf, Carlson’s Raiders finally landed around 5 AM, with some of the units badly scattered but apparently undetected. The Raiders were bristling with automatic weapons, as one of Carlson’s innovations was to divide his squad into three fireteams, each including one rifleman with a semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle for distance shooting, another man with a Thompson submachinegun for close range firepower, and a Browning Automatic Rifle gunner to provide covering fire. For heavy weapons, they had .30 caliber light machineguns and .55 caliber Boys anti-tank rifles Carlson had specially requisitioned from the Canadian Army.
Unfortunately, upon landing a Raider accidentally fired a burst from his BAR, eliminating any hope of achieving surprise. The garrison’s commander, Chief Petty Officer Kyuzaburou Kanemitsu, had already been placed on alert several days earlier, and his men snapped into action, deploying by bike and truck to to confront the American invaders. The Raider’s misadventures continued when they captured a Japanese soldier, but then grew distracted, and shot the captive when he made a break for it.
Carlson had made contact with the natives of Makin, a few of whom spoke pidgin English. They were happy to help the Americans, and told them that there were between 160 and 300 Japanese on the island, and that they had been prepared for their coming. Wearily, the Raiders continued the advance when at 6 AM the scouts of 1st Platoon of A Company, under Lt. Le Francois, spotted Japanese troops dismounting from trucks.
Quickly, Le Francois put his platoon into an ambush position in a grove of breadfruit trees on high ground. Sgt. Clyde Thomason ran down the line of men, adjusting their positions as the Japanese approached in skirmish formation. Once the Japanese had closed within short range, the marines opened fire, wiping out the closest attackers, and blasting the truck’s engine with an anti-tank rifle.
The Japanese response was lethally effective, however. Four Type 92 Lewis machine guns raked the Raiders’ positions, killing Sergeant Thomason and later badly wounding Le Francois. Thomason had persisted in standing out of cover to assist his men, and posthumously became the first enlisted marine to receive the Medal of Honor. Camouflaged snipers strapped to palm trees picked off more leaders, killing battalion intel officer Lt. Jerry Holtom as well as no less than four radio operators.
Carlson soon threw in the 2nd Platoon into the fray—it suffered nine casualties in fifteen minutes—then rushed in B Company. Raider machine gunner Cpl. Leon Chapman dueled with a Japanese machine gun nest at a range of 200 meters, unleashing 400 rounds. Inspecting the silenced position afterwards, Chapman “almost threw up” when realized that he had killed a dozen Japanese who had sacrificed themselves one after another to man the weapon.
Meanwhile, Peatross’s squad of a dozen soldiers had landed at the second landing zone and advanced unopposed through the barracks and into the defender’s command post. The isolated squad shot a half dozen surprised Japanese before being pinned down by a light machine gun team. Pvt. Vernon Castle was hit several times as he advanced, but crawled close enough to toss a grenade and kill the crew of three before dying from his wounds.
Afterwards, Peatross’s marines shot up a car zooming towards the command post, blew up a radio and a truck full of ammunition, and withdrew back to the safety of the Nautilus that evening, having lost two additional men. At some point amidst the mayhem, they had killed Kanimetsu, who had destroyed the classified documents and sent a final message “We are dying defending the island.”
Earlier, the Nautilus had begun blasting the Japanese positions with two dozen shells when at 7 AM Carlson radioed intel acquired from the natives that there were enemy ships in the lagoon. Unwilling to risk entering the line of fire of a potential shore battery, the Nautilus arced sixty-five 6-inch shells over the palm tree line into the lagoon. By remarkable luck, the indirect fire sank two vessels, causing a transport to burst into flames and a patrol boat to catch fire. But then a mistaken sighting of an enemy airplane caused the submarine to dive, bringing an end to the naval gunfire support
Suddenly a bugle sounded, and the Japanese troops rushed the Raiders, screaming Banzai! But the attempt to swarm the larger force of Raiders ended disastrously, with the attackers all cut down at short range. Undeterred, the bugle later rang a second time and the Japanese launched a second suicide attack in which Kanimetsu’s marine platoon was mostly wiped out, though intermittent sniper continued from a few dozen survivors. Worried that there were even more reinforcements in the wings, Carlson decided not to press the attack on the Japanese base.
At 1:30 PM the reinforcements arrived—from the air. A dozen Mitsubishi F1M floatplanes swooped down on the island and bombed and strafed it for an hour, sending the Raiders scurrying for cover but failing to inflict any casualties. Then one of the F1Ms and a huge Kawanishi flying boat came in for a landing at the lagoon. The Raiders nearby blazed away at the aircraft with their machineguns and anti-tank rifles, setting the smaller float plane ablaze. The seaplane, carrying dozens of troops onboard, managed to land on the water. However, the volume of incoming fire must have given the pilot second thoughts, as it taxied around on the water and took off again before crashing into the lagoon.
The colonel decided it was safest to withdraw back to the submarines as planned at 7 PM. However, as they set back off into the ocean, his men discovered the motors on their boats had ceased working entirely, and the tossing surf and wind made it nearly impossible to paddle back to the submarines. The exhausted Raiders ditched the useless motors on their launches and for five hours made repeated efforts to power through the violent waves, losing most of their weapons and gear in the process. Eventually, eleven out of eighteen boats managed to make it to the American submarines. But by midnight, Carlson, Roosevelt and seventy more Raiders, many of them wounded, were still stuck on Butaritari.
Carlson fell into a state of total despair. Out of radio contact with the American submarine, he was convinced Japanese reinforcements were only hours away. He decided that the only hope for his marines—and to save the president’s son in particular—was to surrender. He even ordered Cpt. Ralph Coyte to draft and deliver a surrender note, which was tentatively handed over to a Japanese soldier found in a native hut. But even the attempted surrender went awry—shortly afterwards, a marine accidentally shot the Japanese soldier carrying the message. The note was later recovered by Japanese forces and used for propaganda purposes.
Individual boats continued to struggle through the waves, however, including one with Roosevelt onboard at 8 AM the following morning. An hour later, a five man crew led by Sergeant Allard volunteered to row back to the atoll while trailing a rope that the Raiders could use to pull themselves onto the submarine. But as the launch was halfway there, a squadron of Japanese planes swooped down upon the Nautilus, dropping bombs. The American submarines crash dived and the planes strafed the rescue team, apparently killing them.
By then, Carlson had reassessed the situation, and decided to complete the mission on Makin. The Raiders scrounged Japanese supplies weapons to replace the ones that had been washed away and set about sabotaging the seaplane base, which they found deserted, all the while dodging additional air attacks. They proceeded to destroy most of the complex and set 1,000 drums of aviation fuel ablaze. Discovering the lagoon did not have a shore battery after all, Carlson decided his men had a better chance of reaching the submarines from there instead.
Using a semaphore lamp, he convinced the Nautilus’s captain to enter the lagoon, proving he was not Japanese by referencing a dinner conversation they had shared earlier. Then the Raiders paddled out using a raft rigged together from three of the launches tied together with two still-functioning outboard motors and native canoes serving as outriggers. They had bartered for the canoe and the burial of their dead from the natives, in exchange for USMC combat knives.
The new craft made it across to the submarines and the relieved Raiders finally embarked on the voyage home. It was still not easy riding—amongst the seventeen wounded soldiers, four surgeries had to be performed on the submarine’s mess table. Thankfully, all the wounded soldiers survived.
Carlson’s Raiders arrived back at Pearl Harbor on August 27, receiving a hero’s welcome. They reported eighteen dead and twelve missing in action, while estimating to have killed 160 enemy soldiers. According to Japanese record, the true toll counted forty-six base personnel, plus an unspecified number onboard the destroyed Japanese boats and aircraft. A year later, the film Gung Ho! starring Randolph Scott would depict a fictionalized version of the Makin raid, adding a fanciful attack-by-steamroller.
However, there were several sad postscripts to the Makin Island raid. Five months later, the Argonaut was sunk in a duel with Japanese destroyers, with all hands lost. When U.S. forces seized Makin Island in November 1943 after a grueling eleven-day battle, they learned a startling fact from the natives; the submarines had inadvertently left behind nine Raiders separated from the main force—including the five-man rescue team, who had washed ashore. After surviving in the wild for a week, they negotiated their surrender to Japanese forces. Imprisoned for a month at Kwajalein, they were then beheaded on the order of Adm. Kōsō Abe due to the logistical inconvenience of transporting them back to Japan. After the war, Abe was tried and executed for killing POWs, while his two subordinates were sentenced to five and ten years of imprisonment. Japanese records, for their part, allege that the corpses of their dead were mutilated by the Raiders.
Carlson and his battalion would go on to distinguish themselves again in brutal battles in Guadalcanal. Still detested by the brass, he was transferred out of his command in March 1943, and his replacement ended his doctrinal innovations, with one notable exception: his three-fireteam squads would become a standard aspect of U.S. Marine organization that remains to the present day. Carlson would continue to see combat in an advisory role and was wounded in action at Saipan attempting to rescue a wounded marine; he then died from heart disease in 1947. As for the Raider battalion, they were disbanded in 1944; the Marine leadership had always resented the concept, and saw little use for additional special operations in the Pacific theater.
The Makin raid inflicted only minor military damage, and its strategic impact is disputed. Some historians contend that it led the Japanese military to reinforce the island of Tarawa and root out the Allied local spy network, worsening marine losses when they invaded Tarawa and Makin in 1943. Others argue that the raid achieved its purpose in 1942 by diverting resources from the critical battle unfolding on Guadalcanal.
Either way, Carlson’s Raiders managed to recover from near disaster to deliver a moral boost to the American public, and also gave the U.S. military its first lesson in the challenges of special operations—particularly the exfiltration part!
In 2014, seventy years after the Raider’s disbandment, the Marine Corps redesignated its Special Operations Regiment the Raider Regiment in honor of their World War II predecessors.
As for the Raiders that fell at Makin, more than a half century later, nineteen of them were recovered from graves which had been carefully lain by the Butaritari islanders and transported by C-130 for burial in the United States.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
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