The US Marine Raiders were formed in February 1942 as the Allied war in the Far East reached a difficult phase. The Marine Raiders were meant to replicate the work done by the British Commandos and other special forces units within the Pacific theatre of war. However, the Pacific presented its own unique problems and the Marine Raiders proved most useful when fighting alongside other regular units.
By the Spring of 1942, the Japanese military had made great gains in the Far East. Military leaders in America believed that small groups of highly trained men could raid the growing number of Japanese bases in that theatre of war with devastating consequences.
Two men were charged with creating two battalions of US Marine Raiders – men who could perfect the art of hit-and-run tactics. Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt Edson of the US Marine Corps and Major Evans Carlson of the US Marine Corps Reserves. Each man was to have his own ideas as to what his battalion should be, so both of the newly formed battalions were quite different from the other. F D Roosevelt’s son, James (‘Jimmy’) joined Carlson’s unit as its executive officer. Major Samuel Griffith II, who had trained with the British Commandos, was Edson’s executive officer.
Edson’s unit was designated the 1st Raider Battalion and by July 1942, they were in New Caledonia preparing for the Guadalcanal operation.
Carlson’s unit was designated the 2nd Raider Battalion. The battalion’s rallying call was ‘Gung Ho’ – Chinese for ‘Work Together’. Carlson decided to relax the traditional methods of military discipline to develop greater esprit de corps. In May 1942, the 2nd Battalion moved from its base in San Diego to Hawaii.
Ironically, for a special forces unit, neither battalion was initially well received. There were those in the Marine Corps who argued that the Corps already specialised in amphibious raids and that the two new battalions were not needed as they did not offer anything new. When the 2nd Battalion got to Hawaii, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, later said:
|“Here I was presented with a unit which I had not requested and which I had not planned for.”|
It was decided that the 2nd Battalion would operate using submarines to land them near a target – but no suitable subs were available at Hawaii. Two companies of the 2nd Battalion were sent to reinforce the Marine garrison at Midway in lieu of nothing else to do.
The 1st Battalion saw its first combat at Tulagi in August 1942. Transported to their landing zone by four converted World War One destroyers, the Raiders landed with few problems and made gains against the Japanese.
At the same time, the 2nd Battalion left Hawaii in two mine laying submarines – ‘Nautilus’ and ‘Argonaut’. In all, Carlson took 222 men to attack Makin atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Their task was intelligence gathering, the destruction of military installations and also to divert attention away from a landing at the Solomons. The men in the battalion left the two submarines offshore and got to Makin using rubber boats.
Once on land they had to confront the problems that many special forces units have to – poor communications. Before leaving the submarines, Carlson changed his landing plan. However, such information did not reach the men of 1st Platoon, Company B, who proceeded with what they thought were the landing orders. The other units fought with the 43 Japanese soldiers on the atoll. However, the Japanese defenders were given aerial support throughout the day and by 17.00 on August 17th, Carlson decided that it would be best to withdraw his men and meet up with his submarines. This did not work as the swell of the sea was too much for the rubber boats. The surf swamped the motors of most of the boats and only six boats reached the two submarines with seventy men. Over 100 Raiders were forced to return to the beach at Makin. Carlson left the decision as to what to do with each individual. Some decided to risk using the rubber boats again – this proved successful for 20 men. Carlson then decided that the rest of the men left on the beach would offer to surrender to the Japanese. However, they could find no Japanese to surrender to and Carlson decided, correctly, that they must have evacuated the island. He and his men scouted the island and found that the lagoon on the atoll was not defended by an artillery battery as was thought. Carlson called in the two submarines into the lagoons and used makeshift rafts to get out to them. However, in the general confusion of war, nine Raiders were left behind once the submarines had set sail. When the Japanese returned to the island, the men were caught and sent to a military base at Kwajalein. Here, in October, Vice-Admiral Koso Abe sentenced the nine men to be beheaded. After the war, Koso Abe was put on trial for war crimes and was subsequently hanged.
On August 25th, ‘Nautilus’ arrived in Pearl Harbour and ‘Argonaut’ arrived a day later. When news of the raid was released to the American public, it was greeted with great enthusiasm.
In September, Edson’s Battalion raided Tasimboko. Here they were successful as well – but their greatest success was the discovery of a great deal of intelligence documents. These documents confirmed that the Japanese were about to launch a major attack on Guadalcanal. In response to this, Edson with men from the Parachute Marines, were ordered to defend a ridge one mile from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. On September 12th, the Japanese attacked with ferocity. On several occasions, it seemed as if the Raiders line might fall but on each occasion it held out. When the Japanese had stopped their attack on September 13th, 600 Japanese soldiers were found dead and captured records later showed that 1500 others later died of their wounds – such was the ferocity of fighting. Known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, the Raiders and associated units, lost 40 dead and 130 wounded. Edson was awarded the Medal of Honour.
On September 21st, 1942, Edson was given the command of the 5th Marines and the leadership of the 1st Battalion passed to Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Griffith. On September 27th, the Americans launched a major attack on Matanikau and the 1st Battalion was involved in this. However, due to a breakdown in communications, the Raiders faced heavy Japanese defences and Griffiths himself was wounded. General Archer Vandegrift, who commanded the attack, withdrew the Marines. Not only had the 1st Battalion taken casualties, many of the survivors had malaria. The 1st Battalion was withdrawn to New Caledonia, arriving there on October 7th, to recuperate and was replaced by the 2nd Battalion.
On March 15th, 1943, the 1st Marine Raider Regiment was formed incorporating all the battalions of the Raiders. Colonel Liversedge was appointed commander of the regiment. However, by now they were fighting in small groups on a variety of missions. The regiment was effective in New Georgia – where it fought with men from the US Army (3rd Battalion 145th Infantry and 3rd Battalion 148th Infantry).
All the Raider battalions were brought together at Guadalcanal. However, the Marine Raiders were dissolved in February 1944 and re-designated the 4th Marines – the start of its conversion into a regular Marine infantry regiment.
The Marine Raiders had lasted just two years. Senior commanders in the Marine Corps never fully supported the specialised purpose of the Raiders. There were many in the Marine’s hierarchy who believed that ‘normal’ Marines could do the work that the Raiders did. It was also believed that the Raiders had done their best work with infantry units – and not as a small amphibious unit.