FROM MAKIN TO BOUGAINVILLE: Marine Raiders in the Pacific War
by Major Jon T Hoffman, USMCR
During the summer of 1942 Admiral Nimitz decided to
employ Carlson's battalion for its designated purpose. Planners selected
Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands as the target. They made available
two large mine-laying submarines, the Nautilus and the
Argonaut. Each one could carry a company of raiders. The force
would make a predawn landing on Butaritari Island, destroy the garrison
(estimated at 45 men), withdraw that evening, and land the next day on
Little Makin Island. The scheduled D-day was 17 August, 10 days after
the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Raiders assaulted the lower
Solomons. The objectives of the operation were diverse: to destroy
installations, take prisoners, gain intelligence on the area, and divert
Japanese attention and reinforcements from Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Companies A and B drew the mission and boarded the
submarines on 8 August. Once in the objective area, things began to go
badly. The subs surfaced in heavy rain and high seas. Due to the poor
conditions, Carlson altered his plan at the last minute. Instead of each
company landing on widely separated beaches, they would go ashore
together. Lieutenant Oscar F. Peatross, a platoon commander, did not get
the word; he and the squad in his boat ended up landing alone in what
became the enemy rear. The main body reached shore in some confusion due
to engine malfunctions and weather, then the accidental discharge of a
weapon ruined any hope of surprise.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
First Lieutenant Merwyn C. Plumley's Company A
quickly crossed the narrow island and turned southwest toward the known
enemy positions. Company B, commanded by Captain Ralph H. Coyt, followed
in trace as the reserve. Soon thereafter the raiders were engaged in a
firefight with the Japanese. Sergeant Clyde Thomason died in this
initial action while courageously exposing himself in order to direct
the fire of his platoon. He later was awarded the Medal of Honor, the
first enlisted Marine so decorated in World War II.
The raiders made little headway against Japanese
machine guns and snipers. Then the enemy launched two banzai attacks,
each announced with a bugle call. Marine fire easily dispatched both
groups of charging enemy soldiers. Unbeknownst to the Americans, they
had nearly wiped out the Japanese garrison at that point in the
Clyde Thomason was posthumously decorated with the Medal of Honor for
his leadership in turning back a Japanese counterattack during the Makin
raid. He was the first enlisted Marine so decorated in World War
II. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 310616
At 1130 two enemy aircraft appeared over the island
and scouted the scene of action. Carlson had trained his men to remain
motionless and not fire at planes. With no troops in sight and no
contact from their own ground force, the planes finally dropped their
bombs, though none landed within Marine lines. Two hours later 12 planes
arrived on the scene, several of them seaplanes. Two of the larger
flying boats landed in the lagoon. Raider machine guns and Boys antitank
rifles fired at them. One burst into flame and the other crashed on
takeoff after receiving numerous hits. The remaining aircraft bombed and
strafed the island for an hour, again with most of the ordnance hitting
enemy-occupied territory. Another air attack came late in the
The natives on the island willingly assisted the
Americans throughout the day. They carried ammunition and provided
intelligence. The latter reports suggested that enemy reinforcements had
come ashore from the seaplanes and from two small ships in the lagoon.
(The submarines later took the boats under indirect fire with their deck
guns and miraculously sunk both.) Based on this information, Carlson was
certain there was still a sizable Japanese force on the island. At 1700
he called several individuals together and contemplated his options.
Roosevelt and the battalion operations officer argued for a withdrawal
as planned in preparation for the next day's landing on Little Makin.
Concerned that he might become too heavily engaged if he tried to
advance, Carlson decided to follow their recommendation.
This part of the operation went smoothly for a time.
The force broke contact in good order and a group of 20 men covered the
rest of the raiders as they readied their rubber boats and shoved off.
Carlson, however, forgot about the covering force and thought his craft
contained the last men on the island when it entered the water at 1930.
Disaster then struck in the form of heavy surf. The outboard engines did
not work and the men soon grew exhausted trying to paddle against the
breakers. Boats capsized and equipment disappeared. After repeated
attempts several boat loads made it to the rendezvous with the
submarines, but Carlson and 120 men ended up stranded on the shore. Only
the covering force and a handful of others had weapons. In the middle of
the night a small Japanese patrol approached the perimeter. They wounded
a sentry, but not before he killed three of them.
With the enemy apparently still full of fight and his
raiders disorganized and weakened, Carlson called another council of
war. Without much input from the others, he decided to surrender. His
stated reasons were concern for the wounded, and for the possible fate
of the president's son (who was not present at the meeting). At 0330
Carlson sent his operations officer and another Marine out to contact
the enemy. They found one Japanese soldier and eventually succeeded in
giving him a note offering surrender. Carlson also authorized every man
to fend for himself those who wished could make another attempt
to reach the submarines. By the next morning several more boatloads made
it through the surf, including one with Major Roosevelt. In the
meantime, a few exploring raiders killed several Japanese, one of them
probably the man with the surrender note.
With dawn the situation appeared dramatically better.
The two-man surrender party reported that there appeared to be no
organized enemy force left on the island. There were about 70 raiders
still ashore, and the able-bodied armed themselves with weapons lying
about the battlefield. Carlson organized patrols to search for food and
the enemy. They killed two more Japanese soldiers and confirmed the lack
of opposition. The raider commander himself led a patrol to survey the
scene and carry out the demolition of military stores and installations.
He counted 83 dead Japanese and 14 of his own killed in action. Based on
native reports, Carlson thought his force had accounted for more than
160 Japanese. Enemy aircraft made four separate attacks during the day,
but they inflicted no losses on the raider force ashore.
The Marines contacted the submarines during the day
and arranged an evening rendezvous off the entrance to the lagoon, where
there was no surf to hinder an evacuation. The men hauled four rubber
boats across the island and arranged for the use of a native outrigger.
By 2300 the remainder of the landing force was back on board the
Nautilus and Argonaut. Since the entire withdrawal had
been so disorganized, the two companies were intermingled on the
submarines and it was not until they returned to Pearl Harbor that they
could make an accurate accounting of their losses. The official tally
was 18 dead and 12 missing.
Nautilus (SS 168) enters Pearl Harbor on 26
August 1942 following the 2d Raider Battalion raid on Makin. On deck
besides the crew are members of Companies A and B, some wearing
Navy-issue clothing to replace that which was lost in the surf
attempting to return to the sub. A number of raiders are dressed in
black-dyed khaki that they wore in the raid.
Only after the war would the Marine Corps discover
that nine of the missing raiders had been left alive on the island.
These men had become separated from the main body at one point or
another during the operation. With the assistance of the natives the
group evaded capture for a time, but finally surrendered on 30 August. A
few weeks later the Japanese beheaded them on the island of
The raid itself had mixed results. Reports painted it
as a great victory and it boosted morale on the home front. Many
believed it achieved its original goal of diverting forces from
Guadalcanal, but the Japanese had immediately guessed the size and
purpose of the operation and had not let it alter their plans for the
Solomons. However, it did cause the enemy to worry about the potential
for other such raids on rear area installations. On the negative side,
that threat may have played a part in the subsequent Japanese decision
to fortify heavily places like Tarawa Atoll, the scene of a costly
amphibious assault later in the war. At the tactical level, the 2d
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. Despite the trumpeted success
of the operation, the Navy never again attempted to use submarines to
conduct raids behind enemy lines.
Carlson received the Navy Cross for his efforts on
Makin, and the public accorded him hero status. A new of those who
served with him were not equally pleased with his performance. No one
questioned his demonstrated bravery under fire, but some junior officers
were critical of his leadership, especially the attempt to surrender to
a non-existent enemy. Carlson himself later noted that he had reached "a
spiritual low" on the night of the 17th. And again on the evening of the
18th, the battalion commander contemplated remaining on the island to
organize the natives for resistance, while others supervised the
withdrawal of his unit. Those who criticized him thought he had lost his
aggressiveness and ability to think clearly when the chips were down.
But he and his raiders would have another crack at the enemy in the not
too distant future.