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In August 1942, marine special forces raided a tiny Pacific atoll. Little was gained and much was lost. So why does the legacy of the Makin Raid live on?

Two hundred marines swarmed onto the decks of the submarines USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut that squally, moonless morning, their uniforms dyed black, their faces daubed with green paint. They were uneasy about their mission; this would be their first taste of combat. But they went about their deadly business with quiet determination. They were marines. They were raiders. They were the best.   

The objective of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion that day was Butaritari Island, part of Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands—7,000 square yards of coral stretched like taffy around an azure lagoon; barely a pinprick on 64 million square miles of Pacific Ocean. Their mission: to “destroy enemy troops and installations and obtain prisoners and documents.” War planners knew the isolated Japanese seaplane base held little strategic value, but hoped the raid would divert enemy resources away from the desperate fighting on Guadalcanal, which the United States had assaulted 10 days earlier. Those men hoped, too, that a swift success on Makin would become a rallying point for Americans weary of defeat.

When the 20 rubber boats were loaded, a lanky officer with a hawk nose and piercing blue eyes shouted above the din, “Ahoy raiders!” Came the response in unison, “Gung Ho!” Lt. Col. Evans Fordyce Carlson, the battalion’s leader, jumped into the last boat. It was before dawn on the morning of August 17, 1942; if all went as planned, the raiders would be back on board the subs shortly after dark that evening.

The trip to the beach was supposed to be quick. But the nasty chop drowned many of the outboard motors. The marines had to switch to wooden paddles and muscle power, which made getting through the breakers a difficult, dangerous task. Pvt. Ben Carson’s trip was downright scary. The rifleman’s boat spun uncontrollably when it hit the heavy surf, tossing him and two others overboard. Luckily, the water was shallow; otherwise their heavy packs would have dragged them to the bottom.

It was eerily quiet when the raiders finally got ashore. They figured their arrival must have gone undetected by the Japanese garrison. That was the good news. But the stormy seas had strewn the boats along a broad front of beach. Two had landed a mile to the north, another a mile to the south; the marines were in complete disarray. As the eastern sky brightened, the colonel tried to fashion order from chaos. As he did, squads of raiders began to fade into the dense jungle, intent upon completing their assigned tasks.

It would be a long day for these untried marines—one that would stretch into an interminable night, another day, and still another night. In the confusion of war, much would go wrong with the mission, which would turn out to be of questionable strategic value. But Carlson’s raiders would capture the fancy of a public hungry for heroes, ensuring its marines a share of immortality, and giving the phrase “Gung Ho”—even today an unofficial motto of the U.S. Marine Corps—a place in the American lexicon.

The 2nd Raider Battalion was one of two special forces units created by the Marine Corps in the first few weeks of the war, as a strategy for engaging a stronger foe. Trained to strike anywhere, anytime, the 2nd was forged by Carlson, a 25-year veteran with controversial views on how to lead men into battle.

During a tour in China in 1937 and 1938, Carlson twice took the opportunity to observe the Communist Eighth Route Army and its leader, Mao Zedong. Curious about its unorthodox methods of fighting the Japanese, the American set out on a thousand-mile march with Mao. What most intrigued Carlson was how the Communists applied political principles to lead their soldiers. He asked party political boss Jen Peh-his how Mao motivated his troops. “The Army and the people must work together in harmony,” Jen told him. “Work together…Gung Ho.” Carlson was fascinated by the concept. He was fascinated too by the way Mao’s army employed small, agile raiding parties to engage the enemy in guerrilla-style fighting, and resolved to adapt the tactics to the Marine Corps.

Carlson, a confidant of President Roosevelt, sought to imbue his unit with the sort of “honesty, humility and co-operation” that had succeeded so well in Mao’s army. With a small team of officers, including Maj. James Roosevelt, the president’s eldest son and Carlson’s executive officer, Carlson interviewed thousands of marines who had volunteered to be raiders. Most were rejected. Pfc. Brian Quirk—one of the chosen—remembers the vivid “sales pitch” Carlson used to hook him: “All I can promise you is rice, raisins, wet blankets…and glory.”

Once Carlson had his thousand men, he went to work training them. “It was rugged,” Sgt. Kenneth “Mac” McCullough recalled. “There was lots of marching—30 to 40 miles a day— running, climbing, bayoneting, learning how to handle the BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle]. God it was strenuous.” Also rugged was the “ethical indoctrination” Carlson laid on his marines, a curious blend of democracy, patriotism, and paternalism intended to instill in each man a sense of responsibility to his teammates and to the outcome of the mission.

Thus, Evans Carlson and his team introduced the trainees to “Gung Ho”—work together. “They beat it into our dumb heads,” said McCullough. Carlson wanted the raiders not just to understand the concept, but to internalize it—to live it every day. He held weekly meetings, opening each by pulling out his harmonica and leading his men in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He would then discuss the purpose of the fight to come. To keep raiders abreast of world affairs, Major Roosevelt gave a news summary. In an open forum the men were encouraged to speak their minds, even if it meant criticizing Carlson himself. In the field, officers had no special privileges. They marched with their men, ate the same rations, shared the same quarters. The meetings closed with another song, often “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

On August 8, 1942, 219 of these men, selected from the 2nd Raider Battalion’s A and B Companies, left Pearl Harbor for Makin aboard two old U.S. Navy minelaying submarines, the Nautilus and the Argonaut. The day before, 10,000 marines from the 1st Marine Division—including members of the 1st Raider Battalion—had assaulted Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Their goal was to stop further Japanese expansion south, toward Australia. The battle for the Solomons would be a close-run thing for many months. Carlson’s raiders fit into this grand picture largely as a diversionary feint.

Following the confused landings on Butaritari—and with all hell about to break loose—Colonel Carlson urgently needed to know the enemy’s disposition. He sent elements of A Company across the island, toward the lagoon side, to reconnoiter. The commander was Lt. Wilfred “Frenchie” LeFrancois, and Sgt. Clyde Thomason’s squad took the lead. The raiders quickly reached the abandoned Government House, where Makin’s British governor had lived and worked, and secured the long, decrepit wharf connecting it to the lagoon. The patrol then advanced southwest along the island’s beach road, following orders to make contact with the enemy.

Thomason spotted a truck careening down the road a few hundred yards away. It skidded to a dusty stop and Japanese soldiers piled out, one planting a large rising sun flag, the others spreading through the dense brush to advance on the Americans. LeFrancois deployed his men into the bushes to await the next move. Oblivious to his own safety, Sergeant Thomason moved down his line of marines, assigning positions to each man. “Get down, Sarge,” his men implored.

Frenchie set a trap, creating a pocket of marines into which he hoped the Japanese would stumble. When the enemy troops got within range, Thomason, armed with a shotgun, preempted his lieutenant by shouting, “Let ‘em have it!” As soon as his 12- gauge roared, the entire line of raiders opened up, cutting down the enemy almost to a man. In an instant the serene quiet of Makin Atoll became a maelstrom of staccato reports. To Sgt. Howard “Buck” Stidham, the scene was reminiscent of the Old West: “It was just two skirmish lines across the island…a military version of the gunfight at the O. K. Corral.”

During a lull, the Japanese moved a heavy machine gun into the bushes some 200 yards behind their flag. It soon began spitting bullets at the American positions. If that was not enough to rattle the marines, deadly fire began raining down from above, as snipers hidden in the fronds that crowned the coconut palms began to pick them off. And they were the devil to spot. Among the snipers’ favorite targets were leaders (officers or NCOs, it didn’t matter to the shooters), medical corpsmen, and radio operators. Of the five marine radiomen on the island, only Mac McCullough would survive the day.

As Clyde Thomason continued to direct his squad’s fire, a Japanese sniper centered the American in his cross hairs, following his every move until the sergeant paused briefly. With one squeeze of the trigger Thomason went down, dead before he hit the ground.

Cpl. Edward “Killer” Wygal decided he had had enough. Taking matters into his own hands, he grabbed an idle BAR and began raking the treetops. Wygal must have had some success, for the sniping eased. Then he went after the machine gun nest, working his way toward the lagoon, trying to outflank the Japanese. He started his assault with hand grenades. When he had stunned the enemy, Wygal switched to his .45-caliber pistol. Finally, on the ramparts of the nest, the sergeant pulled out his raider stiletto knife and finished the job.

In another demonstration of raider enterprise, some of Carlson’s marines wreaked havoc in the Japanese rear after one of the rubber boats landed there quite unintentionally. Led by Lt. Oscar Peatross, the 12 men managed to destroy a radio station, disrupt enemy communications, kill several soldiers, and generally raise hell. Carlson later proudly cited this as “an example of the initiative his force had been so intensively trained to exercise, when needed, without direction from a central commander.”

Back at his command post on the ocean side of the island, Evans Carlson was struggling to make sense of the situation. He could hear the fierce fighting in the interior, but could not talk with his field commanders: most of the walkie-talkies, soaked during the stormy trip to the beach, no longer worked. Instead, runners brought information indicating that the Japanese defense was built around four machine guns, two small mortars, and automatic rifles. Island residents (there were nearly 2,000) told the colonel that the enemy had 150 soldiers— about what navy intelligence had predicted.

Before midmorning there came the startling, shrill blare of a bugle and the sight of enemy troops pouring out of the brush less than 100 yards away from the command post, firing their weapons and shouting “Banzai!” The marines let loose with a veritable fusillade, dropping most of the Japanese in their tracks. The action was over in less than a minute.

Another unwanted surprise arrived around 11:30; two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft from the 14th Air Group flew overhead in response to a flood of urgent radio messages sent by the Makin garrison commander. They wheeled around the island a couple of times, dropped a pair of bombs that caused no damage, then flew back to their base in the Marshall Islands.

Shortly after 1 p.m. a second flight of planes—a dozen of them this time, including two big Type 97 flying boats—came in low over Makin. The air armada spent the next hour bombing and strafing the island, making things miserable for the raiders but inflicting no casualties. Running low on fuel, most aircraft departed. But one flying boat and a small Type 95 floatplane landed on the lagoon. They taxied toward Stone Pier, not realizing it was in the hands of the United States Marines.

The four-engine behemoth became a target for every marine along the leeward beach. They fired everything they had, from M1 rifles to BARs to a pair of powerful Boys .55-caliber antitank guns. Just as it rose into the air again the riddled seaplane began to smoke. Nosing down, it cartwheeled into the sea. “Men spilled out of it and we concentrated on the men in the water until there was no further movement,” Cpl. Howard Young recalled.

By late afternoon organized resistance seemed all but over, but Carlson worried that his men might still be outnumbered. Reports from some islanders suggested that the seaplanes, as well as two boats in the lagoon that had been sunk by gunfire from the Nautilus, had delivered reinforcements. Even though several of the mission’s objectives—destroying facilities, gathering documents, capturing prisoners—remained uncompleted, he decided to withdraw to the landing beach to prepare for the planned 7:30 rendezvous with the submarines.

Both subs had surfaced at dusk after spending the afternoon submerged, and were now standing about 2,000 yards offshore. But sea conditions were even worse than in the morning, with bigger breakers rolling over the reef with greater frequency. The raiders hauled the rubber boats from under the palms and lined them up on the sand. More than a dozen wounded men were strapped to the gunwales. In pairs, the boats took off.

The first 100 yards were easy; the surrounding reef dissipated the power of the surf. But their hopes faded when they saw the mountainous waves. “You’d just about get through one, when you’d get hit by the next,” Brian Quirk recalled. As Carlson wrote in his official report, “The following hour provided a struggle so intense and so futile that it will forever remain a ghastly nightmare to those who participated.”

Many of the boats flipped, dumping men and their weapons into the water. Time and again, the raiders tried to push through the sea barrier, only to be shoved back to the beach, utterly exhausted.

Quirk’s boat was one of the few that night to get past the waves and into the open ocean. Far off in the distance he could see the dim running lights of a submarine: “Boy, it was like heaven when I saw that.” Minutes later he reached the safety of the Argonaut.

By midnight, just seven boats had returned to the subs. That left over 120 raiders—including the son of the president— stranded on the island, most of them now dissipated, disheartened, and disarmed by the heavy seas. Carlson threw up a perimeter defense, in case the enemy staged a night attack. It was a good decision. Around midnight, Pfc. Jess Hawkins heard a noise in the bushes. Wheeling around he found himself face-to-face with a half-dozen armed Japanese. The marine opened up with his Thompson submachine gun, killing three. But the enemy fired back; a bullet slammed into Hawkins’s chest—his third wound of the day, and by far the most serious. The other marines, Carlson included, joined in the brief but violent skirmish. After a few more outbursts of sporadic gunfire, Makin quieted down for the night. Marines sought cover under the trees, from the wind and rain as much as from the enemy.

It was an uneasy night. Carlson remained convinced that the Japanese had sufficient men and firepower on the island to overpower the raiders; the skirmish did nothing to alleviate his worries. “This was the spiritual low point of the expedition,” he later wrote. “The situation was extremely grave.” Perhaps it was the cumulative impact of all the day’s hardships, but a feeling of hopelessness seemed to overpower him late that night. After discussing his concerns with some of his men and officers, Evans Carlson made an agonizing—and to some a shocking—decision. He decided to surrender his remaining forces to the Japanese.

He ordered Capt. Ralph Coyte to seek out the enemy commander to arrange terms. At 3:30 a.m., the captain set off into the bush, unarmed. He eventually came across an enemy soldier. “He kept threatening to shoot me and was sticking the end of his rifle in my stomach. I would push it aside and demand he take me to his commanding officer,” Coyte recalled. Finally the soldier agreed to carry a message. Coyte wrote out a brief surrender note and handed it to the man, who then disappeared into the jungle.

Not long after, the captain heard a shot ring out. Coyte had a sudden sinking feeling. He ran out to investigate and came upon a marine patrol; they told him they had just shot a Japanese soldier headed in the opposite direction. The captain winced. He returned to Carlson’s command post and reported that he “had been unable to locate the Japanese commandant.”

When word of the attempted surrender spread to the marines on the beach, they were stunned. “This didn’t sit so very good with anyone,” Sgt. Mel Spotts wrote in his diary. To Ben Carson, “it was the most terrible news I’ve ever been given.” He decided that, for himself, surrender was not an option. He and five other men of the perimeter guard asked Carlson if they could take a shot at getting a boat through the surf. At 7:19 a.m., shortly after dawn broke, they reached the sub. Three other boats made it as well, one with Major Roosevelt aboard.

With the coming light of dawn, Carlson’s worries seemed to ease. Keenly aware of the desperately low morale of his men— approximately 70 remained on the island—the leader began barking orders, busying them with mostly mundane tasks to keep their minds off their plight. Telling them to arm themselves with Japanese weapons, which lay scattered all around, he sent patrols out to hunt down the remaining enemy soldiers; they found only three. Others went to Government House in search of documents and maps. One group scrounged for food and water. Another blew up the last of the three radio stations on the island. And one patrol set fire to a huge fuel dump, sending thick black smoke thousands of feet into the sky.

Sundown on the second day brought a flurry of activity. Marines began to gather near Government Wharf, where the finishing touches were being made on a makeshift raft cobbled together from a native outrigger and four rubber boats. A runner from the other side of the island reported that the submarines had surfaced after another day submerged. Carlson now needed to contact the ships—urgently—to tell them to move around to the leeward side, where the surf was calmer, to pick up the remaining marines outside the lagoon.

By now, however, the few walkie-talkies that had been working were at the bottom of the ocean. Luckily, Mac McCullough, the only surviving radioman, knew Morse code. And, luckily, the raiders still had one working flashlight. Mac accompanied Carlson to the beach. There the sergeant began flashing a series of dits and dahs: “MEET US OFF FLINK POINT AT 2130. CARLSON.”

As soon as word of the impending evacuation reached the pier, the wounded were laid across the center of the makeshift raft, followed by the able-bodied, who clambered in wherever they could find space. Slowly, the vessel began to slide across the lagoon on its five-mile journey out to sea and, all hoped, to safety. It took nearly two hours for the ungainly craft to reach the two submarines. The injured were handled gingerly as they were passed through the hatches and into the waiting hands of the surgical teams. With the raft unloaded just before midnight on August 18, the lead sub commander gave the order to head back to Pearl Harbor.

“It felt like Christmas,” said McCullough. “We were all jumping up and down, we were so happy to be there. The whole mission felt like such a success.”

A preliminary action report was radioed to Pearl three days later, while the subs were en route. Adm. Chester Nimitz directed his staff to issue an official communiqué for distribution to the press. It was exciting news to a war-weary nation. Robert Trumbull, a reporter for the New York Times in Honolulu, phoned it in, rather than sending the customary and cheaper) telegram: “FOE BELTED ON ISLE—ATOLL IS LEFT A SHAMBLES—OUR LOSSES MODERATE.”

On August 25 the Nautilus arrived at Pearl Harbor, followed the next day by the slower Argonaut, each to a tumultuous welcome. Sailors and marines on shore saluted as the boats docked. A band struck up the “Marines’ Hymn” followed by “Anchors Aweigh.” To McCullough, the reception “was wild. The brass were six deep, led by Adm. Nimitz himself.” Nearly overnight, Evans Carlson and the men of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion had become national heroes.

Carlson was initially uncomfortable with all the publicity. He asked Nimitz, “Could I skip the interviews?” The admiral shook his head. “Makin has made you and your Raiders famous,” he told Carlson, who then recognized it as an opportunity to spread the gospel of Gung Ho. The next day the colonel gave a press briefing, where he elaborated on the “moderate” American losses. He told reporters, “Our casualties were light. We took more than ten Japanese to one of ours.”

In his original report to Admiral Nimitz, Carlson said his marines had counted 83 enemy dead on the island. In Nimitz’s own report, that number was increased to “100 to 150 men,” to account for sailors lost on the two Japanese ships the Nautilus had sunk in the lagoon. At the press conference the number was increased again—to 200. Before the end of the war, various sources were citing 300 to 400 Japanese casualties.

As for American losses, Carlson knew when he left Makin that 14 of his marines lay dead—he had counted their bodies himself. Another five were believed to have died in a boat strafed by the enemy. And finally, in the chaos of the second night, no one on the Nautilus or the Argonaut got an accurate count of the raiders on board. Only after the subs had returned to Pearl did a roll call reveal that 12 marines were missing. In 1946, it was discovered—horrifyingly—that nine of them had been captured, taken to Kwajalein, and beheaded in October 1942. The bodies of the remaining three had been found on Butaritari by islanders and buried. “We had no reason to think anybody had been left behind,” Brian Quirk sadly recalled.

It wasn’t “ten Japanese to one of ours.” It was more like three to one.

A few days after returning to Hawaii, Evans Carlson gave a eulogy to the marines that had died at Makin: “With the memory of their sacrifice in mind,” he told the remaining raiders, “let us here dedicate ourselves to the task of bringing into reality the ideals for which they died; that their sacrifice will not have been in vain. We salute you as comrades. We salute you as Raiders, as Marines, as Americans, as men.”

But what of the mission itself? The Makin Raid had no lasting effect on the course of the war. There is no evidence that the Japanese diverted any forces away from the battle then raging in the Solomons, as Nimitz had hoped. In fact, the strategy behind the raid might have backfired: there is evidence that Japan immediately began to reinforce the Gilberts, and in the process greatly strengthened shore defenses throughout Oceania. This response would have tragic results for marines in the coming assaults on Tarawa and other Pacific islands.

Even at the time, the idea of these special forces was already being questioned within military circles, as the original mission of the raiders was made obsolete by the sweeping scale of amphibious warfare in the Pacific theater. Though two more raider battalions were formed, by March 1943 all four had been folded into the 1st Raider Regiment, which existed only nine months before being disbanded to create a conventional unit, the 4th Marine Regiment. Carlson was relieved of command of the 2nd Raiders around this time, served as an observer in Tarawa and Saipan, and spent the remainder of the war as a desk jockey. It would be years before the U.S. military created similar elite units, such as the army’s Rangers, and navy’s SEALS.

But the raiders certainly caught the fancy of the public and held it throughout the war, culminating in the late 1943 release of a feature film about the raid, Gung Ho!. As the New York Times reported, “American successes in the Pacific at that time were so rare that the name of Carlson’s Raiders became endowed with a magic quality.”

The story of the surrender attempt came out only relatively recently. Although the Japanese recovered Captain Coyte’s note, and the radio propagandist Tokyo Rose made a big deal of it on the air, American audiences had shrugged it off as another lie. Oscar Peatross finally made the full story public in his well-regarded 1995 raider history, Bless ’Em All. (Other raiders have continued to question, however, whether Carlson ever actually attempted to surrender.)

But there was no question about the bravery shown by individual raiders during the mission. Twenty-three were awarded the Navy Cross. They included Evans Carlson, James Roosevelt, Frenchie LeFrancois, Oscar Peatross, and Killer Wygal. Clyde Thomason was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor— the first marine enlisted man to be so honored in World War II.

As marine historian Maj. Jon T. Hoffman wrote, “The 2nd Raiders had proven themselves in direct combat with the enemy. Their greatest difficulties had involved rough seas and poor equipment; bravery could not fix those limitations.”


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here