World War Two: Marines; Carlson’s Raiders-Makin Atoll 17 August 1942

Evans Carlson, still the idealist, more than ever the believer in Gung Ho, was now 46 years old, gaunt, his face deeply lined, hair grayed. His 2nd Raider Battalion was just nine months old. The Raiders were a controversial pet idea of President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Before the United States entered the war, two young captains, Samuel B. Griffith II, and Wallace M. Greene Jr., had been sent to England and Scotland to observe the British Commandos; and on their recommendation, Commandant Holcomb had authorized two raider battalions. Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson formed one on the East Coast; Lieutenant Colonel Carlson the other on the West Coast. They were organized to make hit-and-run raids, spearhead amphibious landings and fight as guerrillas behind enemy lines.

The Raiders were all picked men, all hardened to hike 50 miles a day without food and then to fight a battle with automatic weapons and knives. They were tough, and with great confidence in themselves and a pride of being a Raider.

Although half of Carlson’s battalion had been diverted to Midway, the rest was about to launch the first truly Raider operation. This raid on Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, was planned, allegedly, to distract the enemy from the Guadalcanal landings, although the value and purpose of this bit of bravado are not certainly clear today.

Two big submarines, Nautilus and Argonaut, slipped out of Pearl harbor on August 9, 1942, two days after the Marines had landed on Guadalcanal. Crowed in the boats were 222 Marines of A and B Companies, 2nd Raider Battalion. It was thought that on Makin the Japanese had only some 43 defenders, but the Marine raid would still have very mixed results.

On the moonless night of August 17, the men, faces blackened, poured into rubber boats. The high seas flooded their out board motors. Helped by the tides, the Marines paddled for an hour toward the east side of Butaritari, Makins larges Island. As dawn broke, 15 of the boats grounded on the designated beach across the island from Government Wharf; three other boats landed slightly to the north, and one boat a mile south–as it turned out, behind enemy lines. The men in the main element hid their boats, posted guards, made contact with the subs by radio and oiled their soaked weapons. Suddenly, the great advantage of surprise was lost whena Raider accidently fired his BAR.

The small Japanese garrison quickly manned its machinegun posts, and its snipers climbed to the bushy tops of the coconut palms. Lieutenant Merwyn C. Plumley and his A Company crossed the island to the lagoon side, and headed toward the enemy strong point two miles south. Carlson had Nautilus shell both it and two ships in the lagoon. Machine gunners and snipers worked over the Raiders. Second Lieutenant Wilfred S. LeFrancois and his men turned back a Banzai charge. The former enlisted man from Watertown, New York, was hit in the right shoulder by five machinegun bullets. Constantly in the van, with a shotgun for close-in fighting, sergeant Clyde Thomason, a reservist from Atlanta, wiped out a Japanese attack before a sniper killed him. He was the only man in this operation to receive the Medal of Honor.

Carlson was everywhere, encouraging his men, coolly smoking his pipe. Machine guns, a flamethrower, snipers slowed the Marine advance; and Carlson had to send in B Company. Just before noon, Japanese planes bombed and strafed the invaders; and two flying boats put ashore 35 more Japanese. The Marines destroyed the planes. Frustrated by the snipers in the coconut grooves, Carlson retreated northward to draw Japanese into more open ground. It worked. The enemy pursued, and the next enemy bombing raid clobbered them–in the Marines former position.

Lieutenant Oscar F. Peatross and 11 Marines in the boat that had landed far to the south wrecked the Japanese storngpoint and radio station and killed a number of the enemy. After dark, Peatross’s eight surviving Raiders returned to their submarine.

Carlson also tried to slip off the island, as the plan required; but less than half the men made it. The rest paddled and bailed, boats capsized, men lost their weapons, giant waves threw the exhausted men back onto the beach. Among the 120 Marines now on the Atoll, more than half od them were wounded. During the rainy night, red-headed Private First Class Jesse Hawkins of Paragould Arkansas took two bullets in the chest but drove off an enemy patrol.

In the morning, Major James Roosevelt, Carlson’s executive officer, plowed through the surf with four boats. Five Marines on Nautilus volunteered to bring ashore weapons, ammunition and aline. They were strafed by seaplanes, and only one man reached the beach. There were now 70 Americans left on Makin.

There is a story that a Raider officer set out to surrender but could find no Japanese left on Butaritari to surrender to. The raiders discovered that the enemy were either dead or had fled to a smaller islands. The Raiders armed themselves with Japanese weapons, destroyed arms and installations and counted 86 enemy dead. That second night with natives help, the Raiders put their lost four boats and a native canoe into the water on the lagoon side and struggled back to the submarines, this time they made it.

In addition to Thomason’s Medal of Honor, the Raiders bravery was recognized when Carlson, LeFrancois, Peatross, Plumley, Roosevelt and 13 others received the Navy Cross. But 21 Marines were dead, and nine Raiders, still alive, had been left behind. They were captured and moved to Kwajalein. Vice Admiral Koso Abe ordered them executed; and on October 16, they were beheaded. After the war, Abe was hanged on Guam for this atrocity.

Although Makin raid heartened the folks back home and Carlson’s Raiders were widely publicized, the action had another disastrous aftermath. In good part as a result of it, the Japanese recognized their vulnerability and fortified the Gilberts intensely. The Marines found nearly 5,000 dug in Japanese waiting for them on Tarawa.

SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story: BY: J. Robert Moskin

World War Two: Marines; Midway


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