The Makin Raid in August 1942 by the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion — “Carlson’s Raiders” — was one of the most famous special operations missions of World War II. Twenty-three men were awarded the Navy Cross — five posthumously — and one Marine, Sgt. Clyde Thomason, would be the first enlisted man to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor. It boosted home front morale and inspired the successful 1943 movie Gung Ho (taken from the 2nd Raiders’ motto, Chinese for “Work Together”) starring Randolph Scott as the 2nd Raiders’ commander, Col. Marion Carlson.
Decision for the Makin Raid came in the wake of the U.S. Navy’s victory at Midway in June 1942, and as an adjunct to the first American offensive in the war, Operation Cactus — the invasion of the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal in August 1942. Though Carlson wanted his unit to be included in Operation Cactus, Adm. Chester Nimitz, CINCPAC/CINCPAO (Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief Pacific Ocean Area) and his staff decided that Carlson’s Raiders would be more usefully employed as a diversionary force in a small-scale, submarine-launched amphibious operation. Striking deep in Japanese-held territory at or near the same time as the landing on Guadalcanal, it was hoped that the raid would divert and/or delay the movement of Japanese reinforcements and supplies to the island. The challenge was to find the right target. This was no easy feat, as Nimitz and his staff had a wealth of targets available. They included Wake Island and Attu Island — even the Japanese home island of Hokkaido was considered. Despite the strong emotional appeal of avenging the gallant Marine defenders captured when Wake fell to a Japanese invasion at the end of December 1941, Wake was crossed off as being too strongly garrisoned. Attu and Hokkaido were also rejected as being both too remote and too strongly defended. In mid-July, Makin Atoll in the Gilbert archipelago was selected. The raid was scheduled for Aug. 17, 1942, only 10 days after the start of Operation Cactus.
The challenges facing Carlson’s Raiders were daunting. It was believed that Makin was lightly defended, but in truth, intelligence of the atoll and the Japanese garrison there was thin to non-existent. Estimates of the Japanese garrison ranged from that of a token force to as high as 350 on the atoll’s main island of Butaritari. After being told by Nimitz, “We’re short of men, short of ships, and short of planes,” Carlson was informed he would only have two submarines, the Argonaut and the Nautilus, assigned to the mission. Carlson faced significant mission-training challenges as well. His Raiders would have less than a month to train, and the submarines would not be available for training until a day or two before the launch of their mission. Most troubling of all, though they were the largest in the Navy’s fleet at that time, the submarines did not have sufficient space for the battalion and its gear and supplies. The Argonaut could accommodate 134 passengers and gear. The Nautilus was even more restricted, capable of accommodating only 85 extra men and equipment. This meant that 55 Raiders would have to remain behind at their base at Pearl Harbor.
It was later reported that President Roosevelt called Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest J. King and told him, “Look, my son’s an officer in that battalion. If he doesn’t go, no one goes.” Maj. Roosevelt would lead the group of Raiders assigned to the Argonaut.
One of the few things definitely known about Makin was the existence of rough surf. Training in the standard, 11-man inflatable rafts was done off Barber’s Point, where the conditions were reckoned to match what the Raiders would encounter at Makin. One of the most difficult decisions Carlson had to make at this stage was deciding who would go and who would remain behind. Carlson’s dilemma was complicated by the one Raider who steadfastly refused to stay at Pearl Harbor, Maj. James “Jimmy” Roosevelt, his executive officer and son of President Franklin Roosevelt. Because of the high risk, Nimitz and Carlson had agreed not to include Maj. Roosevelt on the mission. Jimmy Roosevelt vigorously protested, arguing that his place was with his men. When his protest was rebuffed, he did something that he rarely ever did in the war – he phoned his father. It was later reported that President Roosevelt called Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest J. King and told him, “Look, my son’s an officer in that battalion. If he doesn’t go, no one goes.” Maj. Roosevelt would lead the group of Raiders assigned to the Argonaut.
Butaritari, which forms the southern base of Makin, is the largest island in the atoll. Carlson’s mission was to stage a one-day raid on Butaritari lasting 13 hours starting just before dawn. They were to kill any Japanese troops encountered, destroy Japanese buildings and facilities, and gather anything of intelligence value.
On Aug. 8, the Argonaut and Nautilus departed Pearl Harbor on independent, zigzag courses designed to confuse the enemy if they were spotted. They would meet again at the rendezvous site the morning of the raid.
The natives gave Carlson his first real intelligence about the Japanese garrison, telling him in broken English that a force ranging from 80 to 150 men was located southwest of his position.
The trip to Makin was cramped and stifling, but uneventful. Not so, however, was the amphibious assault. When the submarines surfaced at about 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 17, the men discovered a gale blowing in full force. In swells reaching 15 feet, the Raiders clambered out into the stormy, tropical night and onto the slick, weaving decks of the submarines, struggled to pull boats from their storage berths, inflate them, and drag them to the debarkation stations. It was only with great difficulty that the Marines were able to launch and board their boats, timing their leaps when the boat was at the peak of a swell. Because of a faulty design that left the sparkplugs of the boats’ outboard motors unprotected (a situation the Raiders were unable to correct even after jury-rigging a shield), almost all the outboard motors shorted out, forcing the Marines to employ what they wryly called the boat’s “auxiliary power source” — the paddles.
At about 4:30 a.m., with the storm beginning to abate, 32 rubber boats with an average of 11 men in each headed toward the beach. The original plan called for the two companies, A and B, to reach separate beaches on the southern shore of Butaritari in a coordinated landing. But because of the chaos of the launch and the difficulty in reaching the beach, Carlson changed the plan so everyone would land together at one site. There were some hair-raising moments caused by the heavy surf flipping over some boats upon landing. But as dawn was breaking Carlson was able to radio back to the submarines that all the Marines were safely on the beach. Because of the chaos of the landing, he was unaware until much later that three boats had become wildly separated. These crews would only much later be reunited with the main force.