1942 Raid on Makin Atoll

The August 1942 raid on Makin Atoll by the 2nd Raider Battalion ("Carlson's Raiders") was staged as a diversion to the invasion of Guadalcanal. Two companies of Raiders traveled eight days by submarine from Pearl Harbor to Makin, then made one of the most daring attacks of World War II.

A battle-weary LT. Col Evans Carlson, USMC, back onboard Nautilus after the first blooding of Carlson's Raiders at Makin Atoll
A battle-weary LT. Col Evans Carlson, USMC, back onboard Nautilus after the first blooding of "Carlson's Raiders" at Makin Atoll.

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The Raid on Makin Atoll: Prelude

The Gilbert Islands had been occupied by the Japanese early in the war, on 10 December 1941, when they established an auxiliary seaplane base on Makin Atoll's largest island, Butaritari, held by a small garrison of 43 Japanese soldiers. In August of 1942, as Allied forces on Guadalcanal were beginning the effort to eject the Japanese from the Solomons, Admiral Nimitz ordered a diversionary raid on Makin Atoll, over 1000 miles to the northeast.

Selected to make the attack were Companies A and B of the Marine Corps' 2nd Raider Battalion - "Carlson's Raiders" - under then-Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, USMC (top photo). President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son, Major James Roosevelt, USMCR, was the operation's Executive Officer, second-in-command. Carlson and his men were to be transported from Pearl Harbor to Makin onboard two large submarines, USS Nautilus (SS-168) and USS Argonaut (SS-166). Their objectives were to destroy enemy installations, gather information, and divert Japanese attention from the Solomons. The submarines departed Pearl Harbor in great secrecy on 8 August 1942.

Landings and the Raid on Makin Atoll

Nautilus arrived off Makin early on 16 August 1942, and spent most of the daylight hours in periscope reconnaissance. After rendezvousing with Argonaut at dusk, preparations were made to disembark the 211 Marines -- 13 officers and 198 enlisted Marines -- into rubber boats at 0300 the next morning. However, the effects of the swell on the submarines and the rubber boats, the noise of the surf, and the need to transfer some of the Nautilus' troops into the Argonaut's boats all conspired against Carlson's original scheme for two separate landings, and he ordered all of his forces to head for the same landing spot. Despite the swamping of many of their outboard motors, 18 of the 19 boats made it to shore near the intended location by 0500 on 17 August 1942. The remaining boat, which had not received word of the change in plans, landed a mile to the southwest.

Fighting broke out soon after Carlson's men came ashore, but the Marines succeeded in reaching the opposite shore, seizing a building, and advancing along the island to the southwest, where a radio station was located on a pier in the lagoon. Japanese resistance increased, with soldiers arriving on bicycles and trucks and snipers engaging the Americans from the tops of palm trees. Carlson called for fire support from the submarines lying offshore; Nautilus brought her 6-inch guns to bear on Japanese positions as well as sinking a small transport and a patrol boat in the lagoon.

By noon, Japanese aircraft were in the fight and the subs had submerged. The Japanese bombed and strafed the Marines, while covering the landing of two large "Mavis" flying boats in the lagoon. They were sunk but not before about 35 reinforcements joined the battle. At this point, the 11 men from the boat that had landed mistakenly to the southwest now found themselves in the enemy rear, able to decimate the Japanese from behind, to destroy the radio station, burn enemy buildings and equipment, and then escape back to their submarine that evening with only three men lost.

In the late afternoon, Carlson withdrew to the original landing site and launched his boats at 1900. The surf had kicked up considerably, however, and relatively few of the boats could make it out through the breakers. Many capsized, equipment was lost, and most of the Marines were cast back onto the beach. Seven boats with fewer than 100 men made it back to the submarines that night, leaving half the force, including wounded, on the hostile Makin shore.

In the morning, Major Roosevelt led four more boats out to the submarines. Nautilus sent a boat with five Marine volunteers toward the beach with a tow line, but the boat was strafed and lost. Further evacuation efforts were put off until nightfall on 18 August.

The Japanese disappeared during the day on the 18th so the remaining Marines spent the afternoon searching offices, collecting intelligence, and destroying Japanese installations. After dark, four rubber boats were lashed to a native outrigger in the lagoon and sailed out to meet the submarines before midnight. Convinced that all the surviving Marines were on board, the two submarines departed for the long return to Pearl Harbor. Thirty men who did not make it back were all assumed to have been killed in action.

Aftermath of the Raid on Makin Atoll

At the time, the Makin Raid was celebrated as a great success and its participants were decorated. Sergeant Clyde Thomason, lost on Makin, was the first enlisted Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. Twenty-three Navy Crosses were awarded for actions during the raid, including to Lt. Col. Carlson and Maj. Roosevelt. With time however, it was realized that little damage was done to the Japanese war effort and the raid alerted them to the strategic importance of the Gilberts to the Americans. As a result, the Gilberts were heavily reinforced and required a bitter struggle in November 1943 when Tarawa and Makin were finally captured.

The thirty men unaccounted for turned out to include nine who were captured alive by the Japanese. They were transferred to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. The commander there executed the Marines, one of the war crimes that led to his hanging after the war. The other Marines left behind were listed as missing in action from August 1942 until their remains were discovered, identified, and recovered for proper burial in 1999.

Carlson's Raiders went to the Solomons where they fought again on Guadalcanal.

Recommended Books about the Raid on Makin Atoll

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