A battle-weary LT. Col
Evans Carlson, USMC, back onboard
"Carlson's Raiders" at Makin Atoll
by Edward C. Whitman
After the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway brought a halt to the Japanese advance into the central and southern Pacific in mid-1942, the Allies were keen to seize the initiative and strike back. Since securing the eastern approaches to Australia remained a key imperative, the threat to Port Moresby from a southerly, overland thrust across Papua, with covering support from Japanese bases in the eastern Solomons, suggested a counter-move in that direction. The Allied high command was particularly concerned about the tenacious Japanese seaplane base at Tulagi and positively alarmed by an enemy initiative to build a new airstrip on Guadalcanal in late June. These developments provided the impetus for the first American offensive of the Pacific war, the amphibious assault on Guadalcanal and Tulagi by U.S. Marines on 7 August 1942.
Guadalcanal was not fully secured until February 1943, and a key theme of the Solomons campaign was the seesaw struggle between the two sides to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing their island garrisons. Thus, to distract the Japanese resupply effort, Admiral Nimitz ordered a diversionary raid on Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands over 1000 miles to the northeast. The Gilbert Islands had been a British colony since 1915, but the Japanese occupied them early in the war, established an auxiliary seaplane base on Makin's largest island, Butaritari, and installed a small garrison to defend it - 43 Japanese soldiers under the command of Sergeant Major Kanemitsu.
Selected to make the attack in mid-August 1942 were Companies A and B of the Marine Corps' 2nd Raider Battalion - "Carlson's Raiders" - under then-Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, USMC. 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), and their objective was to destroy enemy installations, gather information, and divert Japanese attention from the Solomons.
Argonaut and Nautilus and were both unusual boats. [Ed. Note: See accompanying sidebar.] Laid down originally as V-4 and V-6, respectively, the two submarines were second-generation members of the V class, conceived originally in the years after World War I as "fleet submarines" with sufficient speed and endurance to enable them to operate with the battle fleet. In the mid-1920s, the fleet submarine idea metamorphosed into the long-endurance submarine "cruiser," and the V-class design changed accordingly. V-4 and V-6 were thus very large ships for that time, with displacement in excess of 2,700 tons surfaced - 4,000 tons submerged - and an overall length of approximately 375 feet. Built originally as a minelayer, V-4 was commissioned in April 1928, but later re-named USS Argonaut and redesignated, successively, SM-1 and SS-166. V-6 was commissioned in July 1930 but renamed USS Nautilus a year later. Both were armed with two 6-inch deck guns and had been converted in the months preceding the raid to troop-carrying submarines by removing all torpedoes except those in the tubes and installing tiers of wooden bunks.
The Makin raid was intended to draw Japanese forces away from the American attack on Guadalcanal in August 1942.
Carlson's Raiders landed near the Japanese seaplane base on Butaritari, the largest island of Makin Atoll.
Similarly, Carlson was an unusual officer. He lied about his age to enlist in the Army in the First World War and won a commission, but he arrived in Europe too late to see combat. Finding civilian life uncongenial, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1922, earned a second commission, fought guerillas in Nicaragua, and spent several tours in China. During the last of these, in 1937, he was an eye-witness to the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, and - detailed as an observer - he accompanied the Chinese Communist Eighth Route Army in their battles with the invader. During this time, he developed his own distinctive ideas about guerilla warfare, small-unit operations, and the importance of ethical indoctrination for cohesion in combat. Eventually moved to resign his commission because of his impolitic - but strongly-expressed - view that the United States should aid China in resisting the Japanese, he spent two years speaking and writing on the subject, until six months before Pearl Harbor when he was permitted to rejoin the Corps as a major. Ten months later - amid some controversy within headquarters - he created the 2nd Raider Battalion, adopting as his unit's motto the Chinese phrase, "Gung Ho" - meaning roughly, "work together."
Nautilus and Argonaut departed Pearl Harbor in great secrecy on 8 August 1942 and proceeded separately to the Makin Atoll. In command of Nautilus was LCDR John Brockman, and commanding Argonaut was LCDR Jack Pierce, with the task force commander, CDR John Haines, riding the former. Between them, the two boats carried 211 Marines - 13 officers and 198 men - with 90 on Nautilus and 121 on Argonaut, all in addition to the ships' crews. With so many men and their equipment crammed into so little space, living conditions for the eight-day transit were barely tolerable. Crowding was so severe that the troops could do little more than stay in their bunks except for brief exercise periods on deck. Ventilation was inadequate, the heat and smell were stifling, and seasickness took a heavy toll. Even so, with so many mouths to feed, the galleys had to work around the clock to keep up.
Nautilus arrived off Makin early on 16 August, and spent most of the daylight hours in periscope reconnaissance. After rendezvousing with Argonaut at dusk, Haines ordered preparations to disembark the Marines in their rubber boats at 0300 the next morning. The initial plan called for landing at two points on the seaward side of narrow Butaritari Island, about five miles northeast of Ukiangong Point and just opposite the principal settlement, which faced the lagoon.
Despite repeated practice in Hawaii, the disembarkation quickly deteriorated into confusion. The effects of the swell on both 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 spot. In the event, 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. The remaining unit, which had not received word of the change in plans, landed a mile to the southwest.
In the week before Carlson's raid, Sergeant Major Kanemitsu had not been idle. In response to a general alert from the Japanese high command, he had been preparing defensive positions - machine gun nests and sniper posts - and drilling his small garrison. Thus, he was not entirely surprised when fighting broke out soon after Carlson's men came ashore quietly on the morning of the 17th. (One account notes that it was the accidental discharge of one of the Marines' rifles that gave the alert.) Moving rapidly, Carlson's advance guard succeeded in reaching the opposite shore, seizing a building, and advancing along the island to the southwest, where an enemy radio station was located on a pier in the lagoon. Japanese resistance soon stiffened, however, with soldiers arriving on both bicycles and trucks and snipers engaging the Americans from the tops of many of the coconut palm trees.
At this point, Carlson called for gunfire support from the submarines lying offshore, and although Argonaut never received the message, Nautilus put her big 6-inch guns to good use bombarding Japanese positions toward Ukiangong Point. When the Marines ashore spotted a small transport and a patrol boat heading southward in the lagoon, Nautilus shifted fire to them, and even though shooting practically blind with only minimal spotting, managed to sink both.
At mid-morning, with Kanemitsu's men hotly
contesting the Marine advance, an enemy reconnaissance aircraft appeared,
forcing both submarines to submerge. Then, around noon, the Japanese organized
several aerial attacks, the second of which bombed
In the late afternoon, Carlson began a deliberate withdrawal back to the original landing site and launched his boats at 1900 for a return to the sea. Since morning, however, the surf had kicked up considerably, and with their outboard motors repeatedly swamped, 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. All told, fewer than 100 - in seven boats - made it back to the submarines that night. This left half the force, including four stretcher cases, on the hostile shore.
The next morning, after only a brief skirmish with a Japanese patrol during the night, Carlson's Executive Officer, Major James Roosevelt, USMCR, son of the President, led four more boats out through the surf to the submarines waiting offshore. Nautilus manned up a boat with five Marine volunteers and attempted to send it to the beach with a line for pulling the remaining boats out to sea. Unfortunately, a Japanese aircraft forced both submarines under and strafed the boat, and it - and the volunteers - were never seen again. Further debarkation efforts were put off until nightfall on the 18th, but it emerged in the interim that except for the dead - surprisingly - the Japanese had disappeared. The remaining Marines spent the rest of the day searching Kanemitsu's headquarters, collecting intelligence, and wreaking more destruction on the Japanese installations.Then, 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 boats departed for the long return to Pearl Harbor. The thirty men who did not make it back were all assumed to have been killed in action. One of these, Sergeant Clyde Thomason, was the first enlisted Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.
To an American public hungry for good news, the Makin raid was proclaimed a brilliant exploit by the Navy and Marine Corps, and many of the participants were highly decorated, among them Carlson, Roosevelt, and CDR John Haines, who received the Navy Cross. In retrospect, there is little evidence that the attack succeeded in Japanese how tenuously they held the Gilbert Islands, it led directly to subsequent reinforcements that exacted a terrible price from the Marines at Tarawa somewhat over a year later. As part of that same campaign, however, the U.S. Army's 165th Regimental Combat Team wrested Makin from the Japanese on 23 November 1943. Today, Makin Atoll is part of the island nation of Kiribati.
There are a number of other postscripts. Nautilus and Argonaut returned safely to Pearl Harbor, arriving on 25 and 26 August, respectively. Ultimately, Nautilus ended the war with 14 successful war patrols, including several in which she landed troops and supplies for operations similar to the Makin raid. Argonaut was less fortunate. Later in the year, her base of operations was transferred to Brisbane, Australia, and in late December, still under the command of Jack Pierce, she was diverted for a patrol near Bougainville in the northern Solomons. On 10 January 1943, Pierce attacked a heavily-escorted convoy of five freighters. The encounter was seen from a U.S. Army aircraft that happened to be overhead, and it ended tragically with Argonaut, apparently mortally wounded by depth charges, breaking the surface steeply and falling back again. She was lost with all hands.
Despite Carlson's careful withdrawal, nine Marines were, in fact, left alive on Butaritari and captured by the Japanese. They were treated humanely at first and transferred to Kwajalein, with the intention of sending them on to Japan. However, after a murderous change of heart by the Japanese commander of the Marshall Islands, Vice Admiral Kose Abe, they were ceremoniously beheaded on 16 October, despite the objections of several of his officers. After the war, Admiral Abe was convicted of war crimes and hanged at Guam.
After an extensive search in 1998 and 1999 and an ensuing forensic investigation, the remains of 19 Marines killed on Butaritari Island were recovered, identified, and returned to the United States for burial just last year - nearly six decades after their being declared Missing in Action. An additional search effort will now attempt to find the remains of the nine Marines who were executed on Kwajalein, despite the fact that the island has been drastically transformed both by and since the war.
Carlson's Raiders fought again on Guadalcanal, where they operated behind enemy lines for 31 days in November and December 1942, apparently the longest such patrol in the Second World War. Carlson himself left the raiders in 1943 to become the Operations Officer of the 4th Marine Division and participated in the assaults on Tarawa, Kwajalein, and Saipan. He was severely wounded on Saipan dragging his radio operator from the line of fire, retired from the Marine Corps after the war, and died of heart trouble in May 1947. His successes on Makin and Guadalcanal and his seminal ideas on unconventional warfare have left a living legacy in the tradecraft and traditions of our Special Forces today. And the pioneering role of Nautilus and Argonaut in projecting power "...From the Sea" at Makin Atoll during 1942 was a clear forerunner of many of the expeditionary missions for which the U.S. Submarine Force is prepared even now.
Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.
of the Argonaut and Nautilus
Argonaut and Nautilus were members of the loosely-defined "V" class, which eventually included nine submarines commissioned in the decade following 1924. Because the V-boats were originally conceived shortly after World War I as "fleet submarines" capable of operating with the Navy's battleships, their speed and endurance requirements demanded twice the displacement of earlier U.S. submarine designs. The first three - displacing approximately 2,100 tons and capable of 21 knots on the surface, were authorized in Fiscal Year (FY) 1919 and launched in 1924 and 1925. However, V-4 (later Argonaut) and V-6 (later Nautilus) were only authorized in FY 1925 and FY 1926, respectively, and by then, the growing power of Japan in the Pacific had become a serious strategic problem for the Navy. This factor - and the implications of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty - created the requirement for long-range submarine "cruisers," or "strategic scouts," as well as long-range minelayers, for which long- endurance, not high speed, was most important. Thus, the next three V-class boats grew in displacement to over 2,700 tons (surfaced) and could only make 15-17 knots, or 8 knots submerged. (For comparison, consider that the later USS Gato (SS-212)-class, work-horse of the Pacific campaign, displaced only 1,525 tons.) Originally, the submarine cruisers were to include a small hangar for a scout aircraft, but that idea was dropped.
USS Argonaut (SS-166) was
designed originally as a minelayer and launched at the Portsmouth (New
Hampshire) Navy Yard in November 1927. On an overall length of 381 feet
and displacing 2,710 tons surfaced and 4,080 submerged, she carried four
21" torpedo tubes forward and two 40" mine-laying tubes aft,
with an elaborate mechanical handling system for moving the mines from
stowage to the launching tracks. Considerable engine room volume was
sacrificed to gain additional mine payload, which resulted in limiting
the main propulsion diesels to a total of 2,800 horsepower, yielding
only 15 knots on the surface. An over-large, under-powered boat, Argonaut
was never entirely successful, but early in the war, she was re-engined
at the Mare Island Navy Yard to increase her main propulsion horsepower
to 3,600 and additionally received two external, aft-firing torpedo
tubes. Then, on the way back to the theater, her mine-laying gear was
stripped out at Pearl Harbor to make room for Carlson's Marines.