MHQ, Experience, Spring 2002
On a cloudy August day in 2001 more than 100 veterans stood shoulder to shoulder at Arlington National Cemetery. They were there to honor 13 fellow United States Marines who were finally returning home—marines who had been left behind in a daring raid on Makin Atoll in 1942. After numerous attempts since 1948, army investigators finally found the remains of the men in 1999. The ceremony closed a remarkable chapter in history that had begun nearly six decades earlier.
Ten days after the August 7, 1942, landings at Guadalcanal, A and B Companies of the Second Raider Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, made one of the most perilous raids of the war. The raid on Makin Atoll was primarily a diversion to lure Japanese attention away from the main landings at Guadalcanal, but things went badly from the start. The raiders approached Makin in two submarines, Nautilus and Argonaut. When they surfaced, the men set out for shore in rubber boats amid heavy rains and a tumultuous sea. Most of the outboard motors on the boats failed, but somehow the men made it ashore.
Shortly after landing, the raiders engaged the Japanese garrison in a fierce firefight that included two banzai attacks. Raider casualties began to mount, but the Americans’ attack was more successful than they realized: They had unknowingly killed most of the Japanese on the island.
The Japanese attempted to reinforce Makin by air and sea. Although seaplanes carrying reinforcements were destroyed by ground fire, and the subs managed to sink the boats using indirect fire from their deck guns, the Japanese retained control of the air, with several enemy planes strafing the raiders. American plans, however, did not call for holding the island; the raiders were scheduled to assault Little Makin Island the next day. Carlson and his officers, including the battalion executive officer, Maj. James Roosevelt, the president’s son, agreed to withdraw from the island rather than continue to engage the Japanese.
Withdrawing from Makin, however, was more difficult than invading. Outboard motors once again failed, and heavy surf capsized several boats, keeping many of the raiders on shore. A few boats made it to the waiting submarines, but Carlson and about 120 men were stranded, most of them weaponless and weakened from their battle with the sea.
The situation worsened over the next few hours. Without working radios to contact the subs, unaware of whether the subs had survived the air attacks or if his men had reached them, and believing he was facing a reinforced enemy, Carlson called a council of war and decided to surrender.
Before dawn, the battalion operations officer and another man delivered a note discussing the surrender of the remaining raiders to a Japanese soldier. But the Japanese commanders did not get a chance to accept the surrender: The soldier was killed before he could deliver the note to his superiors. (Japanese troops found it a few days later, and Tokyo Rose commented on the note on Japanese radio.)
By dawn, a few hours after Carlson sent the surrender note, things began to brighten for the raiders. Several men made it through the surf to the subs. Carlson and the vessels established contact by flashlight and arranged a rendezvous in the calmer waters off the island’s lagoon. After lashing several boats to a native outrigger, the men paddled out into the lagoon, meeting the subs at about 11 p.m.
Only when the raiders returned to Pearl Harbor could they get an accurate head count, listing 18 as killed in action and 12 as missing. And only after the war did the raiders learn what had happened to some of those men. At least nine marines failed to reach the submarines. After evading capture for 12 days with the help of some natives, they surrendered on August 30 and were eventually beheaded by the Japanese on Kwajalein Island.
What follows are accounts of the raid on Makin Atoll by veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps Second Raider Battalion.
We landed about 100 to 150 yards from the main landing point. We hid the boat as best we could and crossed a road, contacting B Company in the village. The Japanese were in trenches outside the village and were manning several machine-gun nests. There was a lot of small-arms fire. I had the Boys [antitank] gun along with Tiny Carroll. A truck was coming down the road, so I hit the deck, braced myself, and fired, hitting the truck in the radiator. Steam poured out and several Japs tumbled out.
I also used the gun on two seaplanes that landed in the bay. All of us were firing at them. The smaller one caught fire and burned. The bigger plane was a four-engine seaplane. I remember firing about 20 rounds. It took off, and flames came up on it, and then it went down.
We were ordered to withdraw, and the Japanese hit us with a banzai attack, but we stopped them. After that they offered very little resistance. There were quite a few guys that were shot, and I saw several men dead on the ground. It’s always hard to see a buddy get killed. But you don’t have time to think about it. You have to do your job, but it’s something you’ll never forget.
In the evening when we were supposed to evacuate, we got into our boat and tried to get it out, but the surf was too high. The waves were 15 feet or higher and they were breaking three at a time. The boat kept tipping over backwards, and we lost everything. To keep from drowning, I took all my clothes off. The last thing we tried to do was swim out to the reef with a long rope and tow the boat with the rope. As we got near there the guy I was with yelled, “Shark!” I never saw him again. I immediately turned around and rode the waves back in to the beach.
It was dark. [The Japanese] were surrounding our perimeter. There was a lot of confusion and a discussion on how we should leave the island. We got in the rubber boats. Doc Stigler was carefully holding a wounded man at the prow of our boat; he was shot in the head.
How I remember that scene. There were about 10 of us, paddling out over the breakers, and we were tipped over three times before we got past them. We lost all of our weapons. The boat was full of water about up to our waists. It was miserable. After we passed the breakers we were paddling and paddling. We were so exhausted paddling, yet we kept on. You can’t believe when there is danger how you respond to it. The current was pulling us back but we somehow made it to the sub.
There were about four of us holding to the side of the sub while the rest of them got Lenz [the wounded man] up and carried him up to the conning tower and down the hatch. I was straining to hold the rubber boat, the sub was going, and you were trying to hold the rubber boat close to the sub, and all of a sudden the sub started going uuurrrrhhhhggggaaaa. It’s diving! And here I’m still out there in the boat! I looked up and I’m the only guy holding the rubber boat. I heard a guy in the conning tower yell, “Get your ass up here, we’re going down!” I said, “Holy shit.” I never swore before I got in the corps and I haven’t stopped since. I dove down the hatch and somebody caught me. They were diving because a plane was approaching.
My thoughts are on Makin quite frequently. My squad had the nickname the Flying Wedge. Makin means a lot to me because I lost five men from the squad. They were killed or beheaded. I think about these guys. I remember Gaston, Larson, Nodland, and the others. But Bud Nodland really gets to me. He was only 17 at the time and was going to be married when he got back. Over the past year I’ve been in contact with his fiancée. In August I’m going to be a pallbearer when they re-inter some of the men at Arlington. I’m glad they’re finally coming home.
I got back to the beach and somebody was shooting at me. I crawled in these bushes and the firing stopped. There wasn’t much I could do, so I went to sleep. The next morning I was awakened by giggling women. I got away from them and knelt down and prayed. I was over 2,000 miles away from America and felt helpless. As soon as I finished praying I saw there was a native standing in the coconut tree and he motioned for me to sit down. He came down out of the tree and made me understand that he was going to help me. And then he was gone.
I went and hid. I wasn’t sure if he was going to turn me in or what. So he came and handed me three hand grenades and a pair of Japanese skivvy shorts and a coconut shell full of some kind of juice. I don’t know what it was but it tasted pretty good. It lit me up. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since we were on the sub. The shorts were ripped in the front and back, so I was exposed again, but I was able to attach the grenades to the waistband.
He knew that the submarine was still there, and he was going to take me out on this outrigger. We began paddling toward it, and I turned around and he wasn’t in the boat. I looked up and Jap planes were strafing us so I dove into the water. I went clear to the bottom as far as I could get. I could see the trails as the bullets streamed underwater around me. I got out of the water and went down the beach.
I had three hand grenades and I was 2,000 miles away from friendly territory so I decided the best thing for me to do was take two hand grenades and throw them into the Japs and use the other one on myself. I wasn’t going to get captured!
I got down the beach about a mile or so. I saw some marines, and boy I thought they were beautiful. They told me there was another group trying to leave because Carlson had sent a couple of his men to the Japanese with a note offering to surrender.
I wandered down the beach some more and found several men in a hut. My feet were bleeding and sore, so one of them told me he’d help me find a pair of shoes. We went up to where the battle had been the day before. We passed a pit and there were about 10 [Japanese] men lying with their faces down. I could see that they were breathing. One opened his eyes. I jumped on him and one of the other men shot him in the head and finished off the rest. I put on their shoes, two-toed shoe things. I couldn’t stand them so I took them off. Then I found a rifle and I went to look at the truck that I shot the day before. I hit it right through the motor.
All day the airplanes were coming over. They bombed the village. Our guys got in touch with the submarine and took the rubber boats around to the lagoon. We tied the boats to a wooden outrigger. I was the front man on the right side of the boat. We put our wounded on the big wooden boat. It wasn’t going fast but we paddled. It took us a long time and the wooden boat was full of water. We finally made it to the Nautilus. I was never so happy in my life.
Dr. Stephen Stigler
I spent the trip back [to Pearl Harbor] tending to the wounded. Some of them were in a state of shock. Fortunately, however, I did not have to perform any major surgery. I’m very proud that we got all of our wounded back to Pearl Harbor.
It took several days, but we got back to Pearl, and this was a very emotional thing. We thought that we had sneaked out of Pearl; it was supposed to be a secret mission. When we left we were all below decks. On the return trip we were also below decks because we thought we were sneaking back in.
By the time we got abreast of the first ship they were out on deck, standing at attention, saluting us. Each ship we passed saluted us. They were playing the “Marine Corps Hymn” and they were cheering. It was all very emotional.
I was an officer and in the conning tower, so the captain quickly got the rest of the men on deck. We were not exactly dressed to be saluted or salute back because most of us had lost a lot of our clothes when the surf was so heavy. We had to divest ourselves of our clothing just to handle the heavy surf and swim. The navy folks loaned us some clothes, but we were a pretty ragtag bunch.
It was my most vivid memory of the war. I was so moved that they were cheering us. It felt like we had really done something worthwhile and good.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is the author of Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (Simon & Schuster, 2001). This article is adapted from his new book Into the Rising Sun: In Their Own Words, World War II’s Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (Simon & Schuster, 2002).