Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Creating the Raiders
Shaping the Raiders
Getting to the Fight
Edson's Ridge
The Long Patrol
Reshaping the Raiders
New Georgia
The Raider Legacy
Major General Merritt A. Edson
Brigadier General Evans F. Carlson
Special Subjects
Destroyer Transports
Raiders Weapons and Equipment
The Raider Training Center
The Raider Patch

FROM MAKIN TO BOUGAINVILLE: Marine Raiders in the Pacific War
by Major Jon T Hoffman, USMCR


The depleted parachutists (55 per cent casualties in the campaign) left Guadalcanal on 17 September on board the convoy that brought in the 7th Marines. The 1st Raiders (33 per cent casualties) remained, and received precious little rest. Just six days after the battle, Vandegrift ordered them to make a reconnaissance south of Edson's Ridge and destroy any Japanese stragglers. The raiders passed through their old position, now strongly defended by the 7th Marines, and followed the track of their beaten foe, a trail marked by abandoned weapons and bodies. Edson made liberal use of artillery and his crew-served weapons against the slightest sign of resistance. At a cost of three wounded, the raiders captured a single dismantled howitzer and killed 19 enemy soldiers. The greatest point of danger in the operation turned out to be the return trip. As the battalion neared friendly lines, the jittery new arrivals of the 7th Marines opened fire on the raiders. Luckily no one was hit.

That same day Vandegrift shipped out several excess colonels and reorganized the senior ranks of the division. Edson took command of the 5th Marines and Griffith succeeded him as head of the 1st Raiders. Red Mike's departure did not take the raider battalion out of the spotlight. Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. "'Chesty" Puller's 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, departed the perimeter on 23 September with the mission of clearing enemy units from the vicinity of the Matanikau River. Once that was accomplished, division wanted to place the raiders in a patrol base near Kokumbona to prevent the enemy's return. That would keep Japanese artillery out of range of the airfield.

On the 24th Puller's men surprised a Japanese unit and routed it, but lost seven killed and 25 wounded in the process. Division sent out the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, as a relief force, since Puller had to use most of his battalion to get the casualties safely back into the perimeter. Puller then continued on with his one remaining rifle company and the 2d Battalion. The combined force reached the Matanikau on 26 September, proceeded down the east bank, then tried to cross the sandbar at the river's mouth. A Japanese company blocked the way and drove the Marines back with heavy fire. Mean while another enemy company moved into defensive positions on the eastern end of the single-log bridge that served as the only crossing upstream. The Marines remained ignorant of that move. That afternoon Vandegrift ordered Edson to take charge of the operation, and sent the raiders along to assist him.

Puller and Edson jointly devised a new plan that evening. In the morning the raiders would move upriver, cross at the bridge, and then come back downriver on the far bank to take the Japanese at the river mouth in the flank. To ensure that the enemy force did not retreat out of the trap, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, would pressure them with its own attack across the sandbar. Finally, the bulk of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, then in the perimeter after the casualty evacuation, would make an amphibious landing beyond Point Cruz to slam shut any possible escape route. The ambitious plan received division's blessing.

After a night of heavy rain, the 2d Battalion launched its assault at the river mouth, but made no progress against continuing strong opposition. The raiders, reinforced by Puller's lone company, advanced upriver, but soon found themselves wedged into a narrow shelf between the water and a steep ridge. The Japanese had placed a tight stopper in this bottle with infantry supported by machine guns and mortars. Bailey responded in his typical fashion and tried to lead the assault — he soon fell mortally wounded. Griffith ordered Company C up the ridge in an effort to out flank the enemy. The Japanese had this approach covered too. When the battalion commander appeared on the ridgeline to observe the action firsthand, a sniper put a bullet in his shoulder. With no outside fire support, the raiders could make no head way against the dug-in Japanese.

Poor communications made things worse. Edson misinterpreted a message from the raiders and thought they were across the river. He launched the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, in yet another assault, this time with help from additional mortars and 37mm antitank guns, but it met the same fate as all previous attempts. Upon landing in the enemy's rear, the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, was surrounded by a large-force enemy bivouaced in the vicinity. The unit had brought no radios ashore and consequently could not immediately inform division of its plight. Eventually the Marines used air panels to signal supporting aircraft. When that word reached Puller, he wanted the 2d Battalion to renew the assault to take pressure off his men, but Edson refused to incur further casualties in a hopeless frontal attack.

Puller eventually extricated his be leaguered force with naval gunfire and messages passed by semaphore flags. Red Mike then ordered the raiders to pull back to the river mouth to join 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, after which both units withdrew to the division perimeter. The units engaged had lost 67 dead and 125 wounded in the course of the operation. This aborted action along the Matanikau was the only defeat the Marines suffered during the Guadalcanal campaign.

Raider casualties during the all-day action had been comparatively light — two killed and 11 wounded — but that total included both senior officers in the battalion. Command now devolved upon Captain Ira J. "Jake" Irwin. The battalion was worn down by two months of steady fighting, and by the ravages of the tropics. Large numbers of men were ill with malaria and other diseases. The battalion had seen more action than any other on the island, and rumors persisted that they would soon ship out like the parachutists. One raider later recalled that "a more sickly, bedraggled, miserable bunch of Marines would have been hard to find."

The 1st Raiders had one more battle to go on Guadalcanal. In early October intelligence indicated that the Japanese were building up their forces west of the Matanikau in preparation for another offensive against the perimeter. Division headquarters decided to strike first to secure the crossings over the river. In a plan reminiscent of the beginnings of the previous operation, two battalions of the 5th Marines would move down the coast road, seize the near bank of the Matanikau, and fix the attention of the Japanese forces on the far side. Three other battalions would cross the Matanikau at the single-log bridge and attack north toward the sea. Once they cleared the far side of the river, a force would garrison Kokumbona and prevent further enemy operations in the vicinity. In addition to strengthening the assault forces, this time division provided ample fire support. All units were to move into position on 7 October in preparation for launching that attack the next morning.

Raider Weapons and Equipment

Given their special priority early in the war, the raider battalions had ample opportunity to experiment with weapons and equipment. The result was an interesting collection of items that were often unique to the raiders. The most famous of these were the various models of raider knives. One was a heavy Bowie-type knife with a blade more than nine inches long. These were manufactured specifically for the 2d Raiders and consequently came to be known as "Gung Ho" knives. An entirely different version, a lighter stiletto-type, was modeled on the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife used by the British commandos. These raider stilettos were issued to all four battalions for the later campaigns.

The emphasis on rapid movement on foot drove both Carlson and Edson to emphasize the acquisition of light weapons with a lot of firepower. Both men rejected the standard heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars carried by regular infantry and adopted lighter models. The 2d Raider Battalion was one of the first Marine units to receive the semiautomatic M1 Garand .30-caliber rifle as standard issue; most units, including the 1st Raiders, started the Guadalcanal campaign with the old bolt-action Springfield M1903. The Browning automatic rifle, the reviled Reising sub-machine gun, and the more dependable Thompson sub-machine gun, were favored weapons, particularly in the 2d Raiders, where each fire team boasted a BAR and a Thompson.

antitank rifle crew
A two-man Boys antitank rifle crew mans their weapon during a training exercise in 1943. Two other raiders provide flank protection against enemy infantry. The Boys rifle fired a .55-caliber round guaranteed to penetrate armor. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 56107

Perhaps the oddest weapon carried by the raiders was the Boys antitank rifle, a 35-pound behemoth firing a .55-caliber round. Edson adopted these Canadian weapons to provide his men with a light but serviceable capability against enemy armor. The rifle eventually saw use with other raider battalions. The heavy round was accurate at more than 1,000 yards, and the 2d Raiders used a Boys on Makin to destroy two Japanese seaplanes.

The raiders experimented with a number of odd items of equipment, everything from collapsible bicycles to belly bands. Carlson introduced the latter, a cloth rectangle that could be wrapped around the midsection, where it supposedly prevented intestinal disorders. The 2d Raiders also employed a hunting jacket that could double as a pack — inevitably it was dubbed the "Gung Ho" jacket. Edson's men tried out portable individual field stoves, toggle ropes, and other innovative items. The eight-foot toggle ropes had a loop at one end and a peg at the other; they were helpful when it came time to scale cliffs. The raiders also pioneered the use of camouflage-patterned uniforms and of burlap strips to break up the distinctive outline of their helmets.

When the 5th Marines deployed forward on 7 October, they ran into a Japanese company dug in on the near side of the river just inland from the sandbar. Edson's 2d Battalion managed to secure most of its assigned frontage farther upriver, but his 3d Battalion was unable to break the enemy resistance centered on a well-fortified defensive position. He committed Company L to the battle and then radioed division for reinforcements so he could reconstitute a regimental reserve. Division as signed Company A, 1st Raiders to the task and the unit marched off down the coast road to bivouac next to Red Mike's CP.

That night the Japanese on the near side of the river probed the lines of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, and mauled the company nearest the sandbar. Early in the morning of 8 October, Edson decided to commit the raiders of Company A to the task of reducing the Japanese pocket. He placed Major Lewis W. Walt in charge of the effort. (Walt had been Company As commander until Edson had brought him over as operations officer for the 5th Marines.) The raiders drove in a few enemy outposts, but could make little head way against the interlocking fires of the concealed Japanese positions. Meanwhile, heavy rains during the night had continued into the day, and division delayed the move across the river for 24 hours. Vandegrift also decided to alter his original plan to a quick envelopment of the west bank and a return to the perimeter.

Based on these changed circumstances and his own observation at close range of Company As predicament, Edson halted the attack on the strongpoint. His 3d Battalion would continue to encircle most of the enemy position, while Company A went into the defense on their right flank. The latter's position was shaped like a horseshoe, with the left linking up with the 3d Battalion and facing south toward the bunker complex, the center facing west toward the sandspit, and the right on the beach facing north toward the sea. To fill out the thin line, mortarmen and company headquarters personnel occupied the left flank positions. The raiders expected a Japanese assault across the river mouth to relieve the surrounded bridgehead, so the Marines strung barbed wire at the friendly end of the sandbar. The remainder of the raider battalion came up the coast road and went into reserve.

Just after dusk the Japanese in the strongpoint rushed from their positions in an effort to break through to their own lines. They quickly overran the surprised left flank of Company A and hit the center of the raider line from the rear. The enemy who survived the close-quarters fighting in both locations then ran headlong into the wire, where fire from the remaining Marines cut them down. The lieutenant commanding the raider company tried to recover from the confusion and establish a fresh line farther back along the coast road. In the morning there was some more fighting with a handful of Japanese who had sought refuge in Marine foxholes. Company C of the raiders moved up to occupy the abandoned enemy position and killed three more Japanese still holed-up there. They found an elaborate complex of trenches and bunkers connected by tunnels to an underground command post. The Marines count ed 59 bodies stacked up against the wire or strewn about the perimeter. The battalion lost 12 dead and 22 wounded during this stint on the Matanikau.

The raiders suffered one additional casualty during the operation. When Red Mike had gone over to the 5th Marines, he had taken with him his longtime runner, Corporal Walter J. Burak. While carrying a message along the river on the afternoon of 9 October, Japanese machine-gun fire killed the former raider. He was the last member of the 1st Raiders to die in action on Guadalcanal. On 13 October a convoy delivered the Army's 164th Infantry to the island and embarked the raider battalion for transport to New Caledonia. There were barely 200 effectives left in the unit — just a quarter of the battalion's original strength.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division