Washington, D.C. February 16, 1942

In the wake of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on U.S. naval and army bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt settled on the U.S. Marine Corps as the home for a new com­mando-type force in the mold of British special oper­a­tions forces to take the fight to the enemy. Nudged by U.S. Pacific Fleet com­mander Adm. Chester Nimitz, the com­man­dant of the Marine Corps created two “raider” bat­tal­ions, the 2nd Raider Bat­tal­ion, acti­vated on this date in Febru­ary 1942 under the com­mand of Lt. Col. Evans F. Carl­son, whose crea­tion he had influ­enced, and the 1st Raider Bat­tal­ion, acti­vated three days later under Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson. Both Raider bat­tal­ions saw action against the Japa­nese at about the same time, and each bat­tal­ion, con­sisting of hand­picked volun­teers, earned a lasting place in Marine Corps history and mythology.

Of the two Raider battalions, Carlson’s 2nd Raider Bat­tal­ion devi­ated more from the ortho­dox Marine Corps doc­trine in training, orga­ni­za­tion, and disci­pline. During two Marine Corps duty tours in China, Carl­son observed the guer­rilla tactics and stra­tegy of Mao Tse-tung’s Com­munist Chin­ese irreg­u­lars fighting the Japa­nese behind enemy lines, incor­por­ating much of what he’d seen there into rigor­ous training, orga­nizing, and moti­vating his men. For example, the 46-year-old Marine eschewed strict respect for rank and the privi­lege it confer­red on offi­cers and embraced as his bat­tal­ion’s battle cry the Chin­ese phrase “Gung-ho!,” meaning “work together,” egal­i­tarian quali­ties that were foundational to 2nd Raider training.

Carlson’s elite force of Marine raiders thrilled Ameri­cans when they launched the first Ameri­can offen­sive ground com­bat oper­a­tion of World War II. Delivered by two sub­marines, their August 17–18, 1942, hit-and-run, touch-and-go raid on a Japa­nese sea­plane base on tiny Makin Island (Buta­ri­tari Atoll) in the Gilbert Islands wiped out over half the enemy garri­son and destroyed two flying boats bringing in reinforcements.

Carlson’s leadership in the Makin Raid earned him a second Navy Cross. (His first he earned in Nica­ragua in 1930.) His third Navy Cross came for leading the “Long Patrol” (aka Carl­son’s patrol) on Guadal­canal from Novem­ber 4 to Decem­ber 4, 1942. Using their trade­mark guer­rilla tactics, a force of 220 Raiders infil­trated Japa­nese lines, disrupted enemy supply lines, inflicted a string of defeats on enemy forces mostly in small unit engage­ments during which nearly 500 Japa­nese were killed at a cost of 16 Raiders dead and 18 wounded, cap­tured or destroyed large amounts of equip­ment, and gathered inval­u­able intel­li­gence on Japa­nese opera­tions on the island. When the attri­tional, six-month struggle for Guadal­canal was over (August 1942 to February 1943), Amer­ica could claim its first major ground vic­tory against the Japa­nese bushido jugger­naut that for three years had ravaged South­east Asia and the Pacific and in partic­u­lar had threatened the supply routes between America and its ally, Australia.

Despite achieving their tactical objectives on Guadal­canal, the Raiders suffered terri­bly in the steaming jungle from the effects of mala­ria, jaun­dice, worms, diar­rhea, ring­worm, jungle rot, and mal­nu­tri­tion. Declared unfit for com­bat duty for months on end, Carl­son’s men were injected into the Bougain­ville Cam­paign (November 1943 to August 1945). But by then Lt. Col. Carl­son had been relieved of com­mand and inva­lided to the U.S. His bat­tal­ion was reor­ga­nized along more ortho­dox Marine lines. Once restored to health, Carl­son saw fighting at Tarawa (late November 1943) as an obser­ver and Saipan (June–July 1944), where he was wounded. Physical disability forced his retire­ment, at which time he received the rank of brigadier general. He died at age 51 on May 27, 1945.

The Elite of the Elite: Evans Carlson’s Raiders, 1942–1944

Carlson’s Raiders train for August 17–18, 1942, Makin RaidCarlson’s Raiders welcomed back, Pearl Harbor, August 26, 1942

Left: Shown here training near San Diego, California, for their Makin Island raid are 2nd Marine Raider Bat­tal­ion com­mander Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, Major James Roose­velt (son of the U.S. Presi­dent), and some of their men. The main objec­tives of Carl­son’s Raiders were to gain intel­li­gence, destroy instal­la­tions, and divert Japa­nese rein­force­ments from the ongoing Allied battle on the islands of Guadal­canal and Tulagi in the Solo­mon Islands chain (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943). The diver­sionary Makin Island raid, when it was carried out on August 17–18, 1942, was touch and go. Two com­panies of Raiders wiped out just over half the Japa­nese garri­son, destroyed radio stations, a fuel dump and other sup­plies, but gained little action­able intel­ligence. Marine casual­ties were 19 killed, 17 wounded, and 12 missing in action. Of the latter, 9 were inad­ver­tently left behind or returned to the island during the night­time with­drawal. They became cap­tives, removed to Japa­nese-occupied Kwa­ja­lein Atoll in the Mar­shall Islands, and beheaded. None­the­less, Carl­son’s Raiders made wel­come media head­lines in a coun­try sur­feited with bad news (e.g., the loss of Wake Island, Guam, the Philip­pines) and led to the 1943 Holly­wood war film Gung Ho!, starring Randolph Scott and Robert Mitchum, glamorizing their perilous exploits.

Right: USS Argonaut, a troop transport submarine, docked at Pearl Harbor after her return from the Makin Island raid, August 26, 1942. Carlson’s com­mandos and mem­bers of the sub­marine’s crew are on deck, as bands played and cheering people lined the piers. A bat­tal­ion of Marines in dress blues stood stiffly at ready along with Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, com­mander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (standing left in photo), and Ray­mond Spru­ance, then Nimitz’s chief of staff. Reporters and camera­men recorded the heroes’ wel­come. Nimitz and Carlson saluted each other on board the sub, Nimitz con­grat­u­lating Carlson, saying “Makin has made you and your Raiders famous.”

Adm. Nimitz presents Navy Cross to Carlson, September 30, 1942Carlson’s Raiders pose for photo, probably Guadalcanal, November–December 1942

Left: Visiting Guadalcanal on September 30, 1942, Adm. Nimitz took time to deco­rate Carlson with the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second-highest mili­tary deco­ra­tion for extraor­dinary her­o­ism in com­bat. In the right of the photo, second person in, is Col. Mer­ritt A. Edson, com­manding offi­cer of 5th Marines Regi­ment and former com­mander of the 1st Marine Raider Bat­tal­ion. Edson’s Raiders achieved fame in the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, aka Battle of the Bloody Ridge (Septem­ber 12–14, 1942), when they beat back a des­per­ate Japa­nese attempt to recapture Guadal­canal’s Hen­der­son Field. Marine defenders suffered 80 killed to the Japa­nese 700–850 killed. The mas­sive defeat at Edson’s Ridge con­trib­uted not only to Japan’s defeat in the Guadal­canal Cam­paign (August 7, 1942, to Febru­ary 9, 1943) but ulti­mately to Japan’s defeat throughout the South Pacific.

Right: This photograph shows Carlson, kneeling front row center, probably during or after completing the Long Patrol (Novem­ber–Decem­ber 1942), part of the Guadal­canal Cam­paign. The Long Patrol was extremely success­ful from a tacti­cal view­point (488 enemy killed) but came at exces­sive cost to the Raiders’ health and man­power strength. Two com­panies totaling 266 offi­cers and men at the start of the patrol lost four-fifths of their num­bers due to inad­e­quate rations and tropi­cal dis­eases when the patrol ended. Carl­son’s Raiders, like the other three Raider bat­tal­ions, were collec­tively dis­banded in Janu­ary 1944, most men trans­ferring to the 4th Marine Divi­sion. A total of 8,078 servicemen, among them 7,710 Marines and 368 sailors, served in Raider units during the war.

History Channel’s Dangerous Missions: Marine Raiders

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