Meet the Marine Raiders: America’s Amazing World War II Special Forces

 In E3, UK, Japan, Forces & Capabilities

Major Evans Carlson stood on a rick­ety plat­form built from wooden crates, the kind their rations came in. He said noth­ing for a moment as he looked out over the young Marines he and his exec­u­tive offi­cer had per­son­al­ly select­ed after gru­el­ing inter­views. These were the elite, the tough­est and most adven­tur­ous of the already tough and daring Marines. These were the men of the newly formed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, America’s first spe­cial oper­a­tions team, trained to strike back at the Japanese in the hit-and-run style of the British com­man­dos.

It was 3 pm on a chilly, rainy day in the second week of February 1942. The Marines were assem­bled in the middle of a muddy field sur­round­ed by euca­lyp­tus trees, which made the whole camp smell like men­thol cough drops. This dismal place was called Jacques Farm, five miles south of Camp Elliott, a rapid­ly expand­ing part of the Marine Training Center near San Diego, California.

In the two months since the Pearl Harbor Attack, U.S. forces in the South Pacific were being beaten back in one battle after anoth­er; Wake Island, Guam, and Bataan were no longer unknown names. Throughout the nation cries arose for America to strike back against the Japanese.

Carlson’s Raiders, as the media called them, would thrill Americans with the first vic­to­ry against Japanese-held ter­ri­to­ry, tiny Makin Island, some 2,000 miles west of Pearl Harbor. Evans Carlson and his men became instant nation­al heroes on a huge scale, celebri­ties fill­ing the head­lines of every news­pa­per in the coun­try with two Hollywood movies glam­or­iz­ing their exploits. Everyone knew about Evans Carlson and his Marine Raiders.

Carlson did not look much like a hero that day at Jacques Farm. He was 46 years old and rail thin; although he stood tall and straight, he appeared frail. He had pierc­ing blue eyes, a long nose, and a pro­nounced, chis­eled jaw. Historian John Wukovits described him as “an intel­lec­tu­al who loved combat; a high school dropout who quoted Emerson; a thin, almost frag­ile look­ing man who rel­ished 50-mile hikes; an offi­cer in a mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion who touted equal­i­ty among offi­cers and enlist­ed; a kindly indi­vid­ual with the capac­i­ty to kill.” The first thing he did at Jacques Farm was take out his har­mon­i­ca and lead his men in singing the nation­al anthem.

When the last words of the nation­al anthem rang out, Carlson put away his har­mon­i­ca and announced that he had a lot to tell the men about their lives as Raiders. They would train and fight like no other outfit had ever done; he was not exag­ger­at­ing. He talked about his years in China, where he learned from Mao Tse-tung how to fight the Japanese, and about his months with the Chinese Communist Army oper­at­ing behind Japanese lines. He said that the Raiders would work togeth­er — offi­cers and men as one — the way the Chinese Communists did. There would be no dis­tinc­tion by class or rank; every man would eat the same rations, sleep on the ground, and have the same rights and priv­i­leges. No one was better than anyone else.

Then Carlson gave them their battle cry: “Gung Ho!” The Chinese phrase meant “work togeth­er,” which was how the Raiders would learn to fight.

Six months later, Evans Carlson and his Raiders had become instant celebri­ties. Anyone in the States who read a news­pa­per, lis­tened to the radio, or watched a Movietone news­reel knew about them. Banner head­lines screamed the story of the small group of Marines, only 221, who went by sub­ma­rine to attack the Japanese-held island of Makin. Now Americans had a vic­to­ry to cheer and heroes to praise.

An Overnight Media Sensation

“Marines Wiped out Japanese on Makin Isle in Hot Fighting,” wrote a New York Times reporter. The press report­ed that the Raiders cleaned out the Japanese troops. Carlson was quoted as saying, “We wanted to take pris­on­ers, but we couldn’t find any. Our casu­al­ties were light. We took more than ten for one. The Japs fought with typ­i­cal Japanese spirit — they fought until they died. It was a sight to see. There were dead all over the place.”

Overnight Carlson and his Raiders had become a sen­sa­tion. When the first sub­ma­rine bring­ing them back from Makin reached Pearl Harbor, James Roosevelt recalled, “We were sur­prised to find bands play­ing and the piers lined with cheer­ing people. We had not shaved or bathed or washed our clothes for two weeks, so I sent my men to clean up as best they could. It turned out to be a hero’s wel­come.”

Sailors in dress uni­forms, stand­ing at atten­tion, lined the decks of every ship the Raiders passed. Bands played the Marines’ Hymn. As the sub­ma­rine eased up to the dock, a huge cheer rang out. A bat­tal­ion of Marines in dress blues stood at the ready along with Admiral Raymond Spruance and his boss, Admiral Chester Nimitz, com­man­der in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Behind them waited a crowd of reporters and cam­era­men.

As Nimitz led a mil­i­tary del­e­ga­tion on board, he stepped up to Carlson, returned his snappy salute, and shook his hand to offer con­grat­u­la­tions on a suc­cess­ful mis­sion.

“Makin has made you and your Raiders famous,” he said.

Sergeant Howard E. “Buck” Stidham recalled 50 years later, “The real­iza­tion was slowly sink­ing in that we had gone from the status of a coura­geous and for­tu­nate bunch of dumb-dumbs to what Kipling would prob­a­bly call ‘a bloody bunch of heroes.’ We had no con­cept of the hunger the American people had for some good war news and that this oper­a­tion had attract­ed the atten­tion of every cit­i­zen in the coun­try.”

Carlson’s Last Fight

Three months later, Carlson and his Raiders were back in action, this time on Guadalcanal. They were sent behind Japanese lines where, in what came to be called the Long Patrol, they fought in close combat for 30 days and cov­ered over 120 miles in the steam­ing jungle. The Raiders killed nearly 500 of the enemy, losing 16 killed and 18 wound­ed. The press once again lav­ished praise on “Carlson’s Boys,” the most famous outfit in the Marine Corps, and for a time they were the most glo­ri­fied group among all of the mil­i­tary ser­vices.

Carlson was sent back to the States to be treat­ed for malar­ia and jaun­dice. He did not yet know it, but he would never again be allowed to lead men in combat or to serve with his beloved Raiders.

On May 27, 1947, Carlson died of a heart attack at the age of 51. General Alexander Vandegrift, then Marine Corps Commandant, attend­ed the funer­al at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but few others were present. The Marine Corps had made no public announce­ment of the ser­vice. When it was over, before the small group of mourn­ers left, a Marine who had served with Carlson in China over­heard General Vandegrift say, “Thank God, he’s gone.”

At great per­son­al cost, Evans Carlson had achieved what he set out to do — create an elite spe­cial oper­a­tions force that helped boost the morale of the American people when it was at its lowest point. And he accom­plished this on his own terms, in his own way, in defi­ance of the estab­lish­ment and its rules.

This arti­cle by Duane Schultz first appeared in the Warfare History Network on January 14, 2015.

Image: Wikimedia.

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