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Evans Carlson, Marine Raider: The Man Who Commanded America’s First Special Forces

By Duane Schultz. 256 pp. Westholme, 2014. $26.

General Jimmy Doolittle said his toughest leadership challenges were deciding which mavericks to protect, and which to let alone. As this readable biography shows, Brigadier General Evans Carlson, creator and leader of the famed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, tested his Marine superiors in just that way.

Carlson joined the army in World War I, earning a commission despite lying about his age and not being a college man. After a turn as a civilian, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Service in China and Nicaragua schooled him in the ideological and psychological underpinnings of irregular or guerrilla warfare. As one of FDR’s Marine guards, he impressed the president; when Carlson returned to China in 1937, Roosevelt invited him to send back-channel reports.

In China, Carlson freely borrowed concepts from the Communist Chinese Eighth Route Army, especially egalitarianism among the ranks and “ethical indoctrination” of a sense of duty to mission and comrades. Impressed by Communist successes against the Japanese, he adopted the Chinese slogan “Gung Ho” (Work Together) as his own. He also gained a lasting reputation as a Communist sympathizer.

After another civilian interlude, Carlson rejoined the Marines in 1941. With White House blessings and FDR’s son James as his executive officer, he took command of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, one of two such outfits. Carlson’s methods ruffled feathers: the Marines balked at his tinkering with standard operating procedure and disputed the need for a special raiding or “commando” unit.

Schultz spends more than half of his book on the Raiders in combat—the Makin Atoll raid and the Guadalcanal campaign. The August 1942 Makin action had scant military use but loomed large in an America desperate for victory. Carlson, wrongly fearing himself outnumbered, decided to surrender part of his command—a bad call fate helped reverse when a bullet claimed the Japanese soldier carrying his surrender letter. The Raiders withdrew from Makin in confusion, leaving men behind. Still, the raid made heroes of the Raiders.

On Guadalcanal, in a semi-independent patrol, the Raiders grabbed more headlines, irking less heavily chronicled Marines and their commanders.

The Raider aura was short-lived. Expanded to a regiment with Carlson as executive officer, the battalion lost its original character. In later operations, Carlson was only an observer. He died in 1947, branded a Red, health broken, old allies staying at arm’s length.

Schultz leans more heavily on previous biographies than original research, and skimps on context. He barely addresses the significance of units like the Raiders in a global war, and largely skirts the enmity between Carlson and fellow Raider chief Colonel Mike Edson. Events often unfold only through Carlson’s eyes; Schultz scorns Station HYPO, the Navy signals intelligence unit in Hawaii, as “desk-bound,” but at critical moments HYPO got more right than wrong. He casts every Raider setback as a dig at Carlson. But he does frame a lively portrait of a key founder of what became today’s special operations forces.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.