"Gung-Ho!" - The Marine Raid on Makin Island August 1942

By John Dudek 30 Jun 2015 0

Just after mid day on the sunny tropical afternoon of 17 August 1942, several big four engine Japanese flying boat bomber aircraft banked lazily over their newly conquered South Pacific islands of Makin atoll to view the situation below.  Two of their planes were carrying over three dozen troops meant to reinforce their island garrison below.  It was reported the island was now under attack from "Devil Dog" U.S. Marine commandos although there was no evidence of any American invasion ships offshore.  The flying boat's pilot shook his head and shrugged his shoulders uncomprehendingly as he prepared to put his sea plane bomber down into the lagoon before making for the island's sea plane ramp.  Taxiing the big plane into the shallow waters near the seaplane ramp, he ordered the troops he carried to leave the plane.  As the last armed man disembarked and splashed ashore, the planes doors were closed and the pilot now advanced the engine's throttles for takeoff.  Suddenly, the plane was buffeted by heavy automatic weapons fire from across the lagoon.  He ducked low in his seat to avoid being hit and firewalled the engine's throttles to full maximum, even though one of the plane's engines had caught fire.  His co-pilot frantically tried to cut out the burning engine's gas flow, even as the flying boat picked up to take-off speed in the lagoon and prepared to return to the air.  Again the plane was hit by automatic weapons fire as it bounced once... twice... and three times off the lagoon's surface before its main fuel tank in the wings suddenly erupted into a blazing fireball.  The crippled aircraft crazily lurched one last time off the lagoon's surface before its massive wing folded up, separating itself from the plane as the seaplane buried its nose into the placid waters of Makin atoll lagoon and exploded. Several hundred yards away across the lagoon, a squad of celebrating U.S. Marine Raiders joyously shouted and happily slapped the backs of a light machine gun team and a Boye's anti-tank rifle squad for destroying the Japanese bomber.  They would make an additional flying boat bomber "kill" within the next few minutes.  Three more downed aircraft and they could achieve the "Ace" status of five downed enemy aircraft.  The Marines were now ashore and had the situation well in hand...

 

 

Evans Carlson was a mustang, maverick U.S Marine officer who didn't seem to fit into the traditional mould of the Marine officer hierarchy.  As a teenager of 16, he'd joined the U.S. Army by lying about his age. He later served along the Mexican border during the quasi-war there in 1916.  He became a commissioned officer after the United States entered WWI but saw no action overseas.  Following the armistice, Carlson resigned his commission in 1919. He soon found that civilian life no longer appealed to a highly strung young man and he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private in 1922.  He resumed officer status as a second lieutenant the following year and served in Nicaragua where he won the first of three Navy Crosses for bravery under fire while fighting in the insurrection there. 

He also served in a number of both domestic and foreign postings and as an intelligence officer in Shanghai China.  He served several further tours in China throughout much of the 1920's and 30's and was a military observer to the embattled North China Communist Army under Mao Tse-tung during their ten year war against the Japanese Army, long before the outbreak of war in the Pacific.  Carlson gained a wealth of valuable information towards the carrying out of a successful "behind the lines" guerrilla war against the Japanese.  During these years he weighed the many combat strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese Communist forces against those of the US Marine Corps.  As a result, he came up with a number of wholly new and different disciplines of fighting completely separate and foreign to what he had been taught at the officer candidate school in Quantico Virginia.

In 1935 he was promoted to captain and assigned to the military guard as the second in-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.  After striking up a friendship with its primary leaders, including Mao, he was able to further observe the differences between far eastern methods of warfare and the traditional ways of fighting practiced by the Americans.  On one occasion he witnessed a column of 600 Chinese troops making a 58 mile forced march without sleep and was astonished to find that no one had dropped out during the march.  Carlson found out their secret lay in the mindset of the average Communist soldier.  They had been well schooled in ethical indoctrination, in that every soldier knew every facet of his duty performance. This was a primary step towards winning the victory that would bring victory for all. 

Carlson's approach to leadership underwent a huge and fundamental change.  His unorthodox beliefs clashed with those traditional ideals of the Marine Corps and in April 1939, Carlson resigned from the Marines.  For the next two years he continued his travels to China as a civilian observer, author and correspondent while continuing his long correspondence with President Roosevelt.  He returned to duty in the Marine Corps in April 1941 as a major in the Reserves, but was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel and commander of the newly formed 2nd Raider Battalion immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time, Carlson continued to raise the hackles within the traditional Marine Corps hierarchy because of his continuing private correspondence with President Roosevelt.  This became even more so with the naming of the president's son Major James Roosevelt as Carlson's executive officer.  Another sore point with many Marine Corps officers was they believed Carlson to be an avid Communist after his long association with their leaders and army throughout the 1930's while acting as a military advisor and observer.  Although no proof of this was ever found, the mere implication was enough to hound Carlson for the remainder of his career and he would resign from the Marines for the last time after the war in 1946.

 Marine Raider battalions represented a completely new type of unit, born out of a need for carrying out telling hit and run raids deep behind enemy lines and making war "on the cheap" until sufficient numbers of trained troops and material became available so as to begin waging war in the traditional manner. It was a concept borrowed from the British, who in turn had learned it at the beginning of the 20th century from the Dutch South African commandos during the Boer War.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was an avid and eager supporter of Special Forces units.  He championed their cause after personally witnessing their fighting style and hit and run tactics while still a young officer during the Boer War 40 years before.  With Churchill's encouragement, the alluring seeds of Special Forces warfare units were planted into the fertile mind of American president Franklin Roosevelt.  He in turn began pressuring the U.S. Marine Corps to send officers to England to study commando tactics and the mind set behind their Special Forces operations throughout occupied Europe.  In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and following the many Japanese victories throughout the Pacific and Far East, some way was needed to strike back against the as yet unchecked and victorious Japanese enemy.

Early in February 1942, the Commandant, Maj. Gen 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.

 As a raider battalion commander, Carlson immediately set out to retrain his recruits, relying heavily upon what he'd witnessed and learned in China.  Carlson was determined to break down the traditional barriers between enlisted men and officers under his command while forging a stronger military bonding relationship.  Not even the NCOs’ were exempt in this ethical re-indoctrination training.  This much more informal military atmosphere included the elimination of traditional NCO and officer messes. Instead all the men ate together.  Carlson's unconventional leadership methods encouraged what became known as "Gung-Ho" meetings and these soon became common occurrences.  Gung-Ho not only became the Raiders rallying cry, but the meetings also stressed the need for all the Marines to work together as one for the good of all.  At the same time each man, no matter the rank was freely encouraged to speak his mind. 

 

 

At the tactical level, Carlson reorganized his ten-man squads into "fire teams" of three men each while adding more Browning Automatic Rifles, Johnson light machine guns, plus Thompson and Reising sub machine guns to their TOE.  (Table of Organization and Equipment). This greatly added to the shock value and strike firepower of his Marine Raiders.  In addition, Carlson requested a large number of pieces of equipment not found in the U.S. military inventory, ranging from rubber boats with outboard motors to Canadian Boyes anti tank rifles.  The newly formed 2nd Raider Battalion was extensively schooled in hand-to hand combat, knife fighting, scouting, demolitions, night operations, "fire team" tactics, the handling of rubber boats and tight field discipline.  With their basic training complete, the 2nd Raider Battalion was transferred to Camp Catlin Hawaii where they came under operational control of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific in May, 1942.  Nimitz planned on using the raider battalion to make hit and run raids on Japanese islands using the V-Class submarines USS ARGONAUT and NAUTILUS to transport them.  Dating back to the late 1920's the V-Class boats were the largest non-nuclear submarines ever built by the U.S. Navy and both had only recently been extensively modernized towards this purpose of carrying troops.  Besides their torpedo tubes, each submarine mounted two big 6inch guns, a calibre of cannon normally used aboard much larger light cruisers.  They would soon prove their worth in combat during the coming operation.

 

 

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 1st 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. On 8 August 1942, 222 officers and men embarked on the USS ARGONAUT and USS NAUTILUS for Makin.

 

 

Makin Island is a triangular shaped atoll in the Gilbert Islands about four degrees north of the equator,  It is eight miles in length and less than a half mile wide and covered with coconut palms.  It had been under Japanese occupation and control since 10 December 1941. D-Day for Carlson's Raiders was set for 0300 hours on 17 August 1942.  If all went well, the raiders would come ashore unobserved while it was still dark. However, "Murphy's Law" soon made an appearance and would remain in evidence throughout the entire raid.

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. 15 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 1 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.

As the morning sun arose, Raiders quickly fanned out across the island with companies cutting the coast road and seizing Government house and its wharf.  Now aware of the Marine presence on the island, the Japanese commander radioed the alarm to other nearby island commands as its garrison began advancing up the coastal road by truck and bicycle to attack the invading Marines. After the first burst of Raider gunfire, they recoiled and momentarily halted near the native hospital.  The Japanese company then fixed bayonets and charged after hearing their shrill two note bugle call.  Screaming "BANZAI!!" the Japanese ran madly into a wall of Raider automatic weapons fire that quickly killed or wounded nearly all its participants while driving its few unwounded men back into concealment.  At about this same time, a 3,500-ton Japanese troop transport and a gun boat entered the lagoon and opened fire on the suspected Marine Raider positions. 

Carlson frantically radioed his submarines now lying submerged offshore and managed to establish contact with the NAUTILUS.  The big submarine soon surfaced and its crew manned its two six inch guns to take the Japanese warships under fire.  Carlson provided radio adjustments to the submarine which was firing blindly over the island and into the lagoon.  He successfully made corrections and walked the shell fire directly onto the two ships.   After firing 65 shells, both ships were sunk.  The Raider's progress was now held up by a stubborn Japanese defence of four machine guns, two 50 mm. knee mortar grenade launchers and a large number of snipers concealed in the tree tops. 

With Japanese resistance growing and stiffening, and after seeing his men being in a poor position to defend their positions of limited fields of fire, Carlson ordered his men to withdraw a few hundred yards to the rear and the Japanese followed.  The Japanese infantry had no sooner occupied the former Raider positions when Japanese planes appeared overhead and began bombing the area just evacuated, killing or wounded a large number of their own compatriots. 

While the Japanese defenders were still disorganized following the bombing, Carlson renewed his attack to link up with his far flung unit on the far side of the island, but progress was again slowed by the numbers of Japanese snipers concealed in the palm tree tops.  The cut-off Raider unit under Lt. Peatross, being unable to return to the main body of Raiders arbitrarily decided to return to their rubber boats and return to the NAUTILUS with his men.  He sent a runner to notify Carlson of his intentions.  Upon hearing of Peatross' evacuation from the runner and knowing the lateness of the day, Carlson ordered his men to return the submarines as well.  While the subsequent rear guard action withdrawal back to the landing beach was without incident,  Murphy's Law soon came into play again and turned the evacuation into an unparalleled, nearly fatal disaster. 

The massive high breaker waves from earlier in the day were still very much in evidence. They swamped the boats and swept away most of the Raiders weapons.  About two thirds of the Raiders were washed back ashore, most without weapons.  A security perimeter was quickly established in the nick of time by using a few of the remaining Raider and salvaged Japanese weapons.  An 8 man Japanese patrol was sighted and one of the Raiders fired a burst of submachine gun fire into them, killing three of their number while the rest fled.  Late that night, Carlson called a meeting of his remaining officers and men within the perimeter to discuss the possibilities.  Carlson gave serious thought towards surrendering the remaining Raiders on the island, as the thought of President Roosevelt's son being killed if the fighting continued was a possibility he didn't wish to think of.  With no further Japanese attacks forthcoming, the idea was quietly abandoned.  Early the following morning, a large number of raiders managed to successfully paddle their boats through the offshore surf and return to the submarines.  With but 70 Raiders remaining in the perimeter, Carlson opted to escape by way of the gentler waters of the lagoon. 

Finding no Japanese coastal guns anywhere covering the lagoon helped seal the deal. An amateur construction team of shipwrights led by Lt. Charlie Lamb, built a raft made up of three rubber boats and two native outrigger canoes, all lashed together. They were powered by two outboard motors that had been cleared of saltwater overnight and repaired. With this crazy looking patchwork quilt of a raft, the remaining 70 Raiders sailed the 4 miles from Makin to the entrance of the lagoon, where the waiting NAUTILUS and ARGONAUT brought them aboard.  The two submarines and their charges immediately returned to Pearl Harbor.  Sadly, 9 Raiders never got the final word and were left behind on Makin Island.  After escaping capture for a month from the pursuing Japanese, the 9 men were eventually captured, tried and executed under the orders of Vice Admiral Hirokai Abe.  He in turn faced war crimes trial following the war and was hanged.

 

 

The Marine Raiders had accomplished most of their mission objectives. At a cost of 31 killed and 17 wounded they destroyed the valuable Japanese radio stations, 700-1,000 barrels of aviation gasoline, and all useful military stores. Although their 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 and the fighting on Guadalcanal.

 

 

On the down side, only one Japanese prisoner was ever taken during the raid and he was shot while trying to escape. Sadly, he could have provided priceless information, because one live prisoner is worth a hundred dead men.  In the end, the Makin operation was but a "pin-prick" raid as was the earlier Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo.  Both were raids of insignificant strategic importance, primarily designed to revive the badly shaken morale of the American people and that of the other Allied powers in the Pacific.  The Marine Raiders and their fighting skills and Special Forces status would survive for another two years through the long, bloody and ultimately successful fighting on Guadalcanal and throughout the long advance up the Solomon Island's chain.  However, by 1944 the Raiders were no longer needed as the Marine Corps was expanding to a final wartime strength of six full divisions.  The men of the now four Raider battalions were used to reconstitute and leaven the re-formed 4th Marine Regiment that had been lost during the fighting on the Philippine island of Corregidor earlier in the war.  However, while they existed the Marine Raiders sent an inescapable and painfully clear message to the Japanese Imperial Empire that rang out clearly like a fire bell in the night stating "they had truly awakened a sleeping giant."  Gung-Ho!

 

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