Almost 80 years ago, U.S. special operations forces conducted the first-ever submarine-born commando raid. On August 17, 1942, Marine Raiders exited two submarines and took the fight to the Japanese at Makin Atoll. Although the operation produced mixed results, the raid still informs special operations doctrine to this day.
America Strikes Back
Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Southeast Asia, the Allies were on the retreat in the Pacific. American, British, Dutch, and French territories came under attack by the Japanese version of Blitzkrieg. Over the span of a few months, Imperial Japan had conquered much of the Pacific. And now Australia, New Zealand, and even the U.S. seemed to be in danger of invasion or attack.
But after the pivotal Battle of Midway in June 1942, where U.S. intelligence enabled the Navy to sink three and damage an additional Japanese aircraft carriers, the U.S. started a counterattack that would become known as “island hopping.” The Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal and Tulagi, came first. But to divert Japanese attention from the amphibious landings there and also prepare the environment for later operations, U.S. planners decided to conduct a commando raid on the small Makin Atoll.
Approximately 200 Marine Raiders from the Second Raider Battalion would attack Makin Atoll and destroy the Japanese positions, including any aircraft they could find. Two submarines, USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut, would carry the special operations forces to the target and wait to exfiltrate the Marine Raiders.
The Raiders had four objectives. First, destroy the Japanese garrison and installations; second, capture prisoners for interrogation; and third, conduct reconnaissance on the nearby Gilbert Islands. A fourth, indirect objective of the operation was to divert Japanese attention and reinforcements from the Allied amphibious landing at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Raid at Makin Atoll
The raid was scheduled for the morning hours of August 17. On the scheduled time, the two submarines were in position off the Makin Atoll and the Marine Raiders boarded several rubber boats with small outboard engines. As dawn was approaching, the American commandos reached the island and landed with some difficulty because of the high surf.
Because of the adverse sea conditions, Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, the overall commander of the operation, decided to land his entire force on the same beach in the north instead of the originally planned two beaches. Most of the Marine Raiders got the order and landed on the single beach but a squad of 12 Marine Raiders didn’t, and landed on the initial point.
By now day had come as the Marine Raiders advanced from the beach towards the Japanese installations. But the defenders were aware of their approach and greeted them with machine gun and sniper fire. The Japanese fire pinned the American commandos down and allowed for two Banzai attacks on their positions. But the Marines repelled both mass front charges and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese.
Related: Who are the Marine Raiders?
In addition, the squad that had landed on the other beach, and which still hadn’t made contact with the other elements of the raid force, now came into place behind the Japanese and poured accurate fire on them, killing the Japanese commander and destroying a machine gun nest and the garrison’s radios before withdrawing to the exfiltration point.
In the early afternoon, a dozen Japanese aircraft, including two flying boats packed with troops, arrived to reinforce the defenders. The Marine Raiders prevented them from landing, using every weapon they had, including anti-tank rifles, to destroy or damage the aircraft. The account by one Marine survivor is telling.
“We landed about 100 to 150 yards from the main landing point. We hid the boat as best we could and crossed a road, contacting B Company in the village. The Japanese were in trenches outside the village and were manning several machine-gun nests. There was a lot of small-arms fire. I had the Boys [antitank] gun along with Tiny Carroll. A truck was coming down the road, so I hit the deck, braced myself, and fired, hitting the truck in the radiator. Steam poured out and several Japs tumbled out.
I also used the gun on two seaplanes that landed in the bay. All of us were firing at them. The smaller one caught fire and burned. The bigger plane was a four-engine seaplane. I remember firing about 20 rounds. It took off, and flames came up on it, and then it went down,” Marine Raider Dean Winters recalled.
Already running low on ammunition and having suffered a number of casualties, the Marine Raiders began withdrawing. The evacuation wasn’t easy.
Under pressure from the Japanese, the Marine Raiders had to coordinate in the dark and exfiltrate back to the submarines. The weather didn’t help and a rocky sea made the trip back to the submarines tricky, with several rubber boats capsizing multiple times before managing to get out to the open sea.
On a side note, the surf passage evolution that Navy SEAL candidates go through today is a direct result of the lessons learned for operations such as the raid on Makin Atoll.
“It was dark. [The Japanese] were surrounding our perimeter. There was a lot of confusion and a discussion on how we should leave the island. We got in the rubber boats. Doc Stigler was carefully holding a wounded man at the prow of our boat; he was shot in the head.”
“How I remember that scene. There were about 10 of us, paddling out over the breakers, and we were tipped over three times before we got past them. We lost all of our weapons. The boat was full of water about up to our waists. It was miserable. After we passed the breakers we were paddling and paddling. We were so exhausted paddling, yet we kept on. You can’t believe when there is danger how you respond to it. The current was pulling us back but we somehow made it to the sub,” Marine Raider Ray Bauml recalled.
Japanese aircraft were now coming into the area en masse, and the two submarines had to descend and remain at the bottom of the sea for hours. It took several trips for the survivors to reach the submarines, with the last ones boarding the day after. However, in the confusion, nine men were left behind. They were later executed by the Japanese. In total, 28 Marines were killed, 17 wounded, and two went unaccounted for.
Although the raid was successful, the mission was a failure. The Marine Raiders managed to kill almost half the Japanese garrison but failed to destroy the installations, capture any prisoners, or gain any intelligence on the nearby Gilbert islands. Moreover, not only did Japanese forces stay at the Solomon Islands, but additional Japanese reinforcements also strengthened the Gilbert Islands after the Marine commando raid revealed vulnerabilities. The raid, though, was valuable in informing special operations tactics and doctrine, something that would prove extremely valuable in the years–and conflicts–to come.
The spirit of the Makin Raiders lives today in the form of the Marine Raiders, the primary special operations force of the Marine Corps. The name of the modern Marine commandos—which was only recently reestablished—is a direct reference to their World War Two forefathers.