February 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the Marine Raider Battalions, a brief but glorious episode in the long history of the Corps. Because they existed only two years, one might downplay their influence on the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) U.S. special operations forces (SOF). However, as we look back on the Marine Raiders seven decades later, one can see that they were simply a good idea whose time had not yet come. Their story is a compelling one that deserves to be told.
Facing similar pressure after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill had ordered the creation of the British Commandos, elite volunteer units designed to conduct coastal raids on Nazi-occupied Europe, and which were the origin of the British Royal Marine Commandos, the Parachute Regiment, the Special Air Service, and the Special Boat Service.
The senior leadership of the U.S. Marine Corps was initially skeptical of the idea of creating similar units, feeling that all Marines were already elite volunteers. They were reluctant to see their best riflemen, senior NCOs and junior officers pulled out of regular USMC rifle units for high-risk adventures. Nevertheless, the idea of Marine commando units found supporters in the United States.
Among those intrigued by the idea of forming an American version of commandos were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his eldest son, Capt. James Roosevelt, USMC Reserve. One serious proposal was to appoint William J. Donovan, a prominent Republican, Army colonel and World War I hero, as a Marine brigadier general to lead the new units. This proposal came to nothing, though Donovan would go on to form and lead the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Eventually, the Corps chose two very different lieutenant colonels with experience observing the Japanese army in action in China: Evans F. Carlson (1897-1947) and Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson (1897-1955). Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the 17th commandant (1936-1943), chose the name “Raiders.”
Carlson was a visionary, deeply influenced by the months he spent in the field with Chinese Communist guerrillas and their leaders, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. When he took command of the 2nd Raider Battalion, he implemented an unorthodox style of egalitarian leadership, breaking down the sharp class distinctions between officers and enlisted men, and introducing “ethical indoctrination.” An expert marksman, he led Marine rifle and pistol teams that won national competitions.
Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion stood up as part of the Atlantic Fleet on Feb. 16, 1942, initially with a headquarters company and four rifle companies. Carlson’s 2nd Raider Battalion stood up in the Pacific Fleet three days later, with Maj. James Roosevelt as executive officer. By summer 1942, both units were deployed to the South Pacific, ready for action.