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History and Heritage

What's in a Name?

The Story Behind USS Makin Island

While Hollywood continues to churn out fictional fantasies about futuristic wars, Special Forces operations, or superhero-esque spying organizations, few are capable of capturing the level of difficulty and insurmountable odds of the true story of the raiders of Makin Island.

The modern day military cinema is littered with scenes of such operations, launching a silent sneak attack in the dark of night using their tiny rubber raiding crafts, with faces blackened to match their attire.

However, what few know is that one raid, often overshadowed in the events of World War II, set the stage for a series of military operations that are now common place in both reality and the silver screen.

Over the course of two days, Aug. 17-18, 1942, Marine Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson led 222 men from two companies of the 2nd Raider Battalion on a raid of the small, triangular-shaped Makin Island, a small atoll in the Pacific's Gilbert Island chain. With Carlson, were two notable officers, Maj. James Roosevelt, Carlson's executive officer and son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 1st Lt. Oscar F. Peatross, who would later author a manuscript and rise to the rank of Major General in the Marine Corps.

A raid at that time was not new to the military, nor was the concept of Marines working with the Navy to accomplish such a raid, nor was the son of a president serving in battle. The raid did, however, serve as the first amphibious raid attempted from submarines, a precursor to what is now considered routine by the U.S. Special Forces.

Carlson's team embarked the submarines USS Argonaut (SM 1) and USS Nautilus (SS 168) in Pearl Harbor and began the long journey to Makin Island before disembarking early that Monday morning under the shroud of night in their tiny rubber raiding crafts. Immediately the raiders found trouble. Heavy seas, rain and strong wind swamped the small boats and drowned out their outboard engines.

Strong tides then threatened the submarines, forcing them to back away. Never deterred, Carlson instructed his company commanders to push forward to the beach. However, without engines the Marines had to paddle vigorously through the misery to reach their landing zone on time, a mark that they still hit.

Peatross' boat was one of the first to reach the beach where he and his crew were clouded in confusion, unaware of the rest of the raider's whereabouts. As Peatross recounted in his memoirs, "so far, I had many more questions than answers. Doubt began again to gnaw at my self-confidence."

Before the rest of the boats hit the beach and still concealed from enemy detection, Carlson's team spotted a large troop transport and small boat that they would surely encounter. Using only radios, Carlson's own compass readings, 6-inch guns, and a whole lot of good fortune and expert marksmanship, the submarine Nautilus fired blindly and sunk both vessels.

It was a struggle from that point to simply regroup and carry out the mission objectives and the raiders would go on to face heavy sniper fire, flame throwers, tanks, machine guns and a barrage of bombings and air attacks from a total of 12 planes.

Against all odds and out manned, the raiders evaded the bombings and eliminated nearly every enemy. Carlson's raiders even shot down two of the planes, one of which was carrying 35-40 reinforcements.

History debates the success of the mission objectives, as the treacherous obstacles and Murphy's Law scenarios impeded the men's ability to fulfill every objective, it is logged generally as a mission accomplished.

And Carlson's mission? To detract attention from the Japanese forces in Guadalcanal.

"Its exposed position left it sufficiently sensitive to a raid as to bring out the reaction we desired, which was to deter the reinforcement of Guadalcanal, under attack by the First Marine Division even as the commodore spoke," said Peatross in his manuscript, recalling the time they first heard news of the planned raid.

The mission was also designed to serve as a morale booster of sorts; one that would encourage the troops while showing the world that the U.S. was taking control of the Pacific.

"What's better than a sneaky little raid to show we're on the offensive?" asked Chief Gas Turbine System Technician (Electrical) Dale Furr.

The undeniable ability of the raid to boost spirits and instill pride within the ranks has since led to two feature films and the naming of two proud U.S. warships, which have carried with them the same will, determination and teamwork that brought the majority of the raiders home from that battle.

The first was a Casablanca-class escort carrier (CVE 93), commissioned less than two years after the battle, May 9, 1944, that served a purpose very similar in nature to today's amphibious assault ships.

CVE-93 quickly rose to action and joined in the war efforts, creating her own legacy through hard work, dedication and human spirit.

"Her guns and planes destroyed 21 Japanese planes, many small ships and an undetermined number of enemy installations on a score of islands," described by then Radioman 2nd Class Gus Youngkrist. "She was awarded five battle stars, the Navy Unit Commendation and the admiration of her Force and Fleet commanders. Yet her history is more than a history of numbers, it is a record of a group of men working together, successfully completing a big job."

Today, the Navy's newest deployable amphibious assault ship carries with it the same Makin Island name as she carries forward the traditions and spirit of the events before her.

Furr, assigned to the current namesake, USS Makin Island (LHD 8), and regarded by much of the crew to be an expert on Naval history, said the use of the namesake is appropriate for the type of ship.

"A lot of the amphibious assault ships are named after major actions," he said. "As far as Makin Island is concerned, I don't think anything was done on that scale with Marines on subs during World War II."

The ship itself was designed with Navy and Marine Corps integration as its primary function and has the ability to conduct a wide range of amphibious operations while supporting any variety of landing craft as well as a full flight deck capable of launching air assaults, reconnaissance and rescue missions.

As this newest crew of more than 2,500 Sailors and Marines walks the passageways in the early stages of the ship's second deployment, they pay tribute to the original raiders by proudly serving on the ship that carries with her the moniker "Raiders" and Carlson's famous motto of "Gung Ho," which, translated from the Chinese, means "work together."

Not to be understated and in yet another tribute to the events of the raid, the two rigid hull inflatable boats that Makin Island carries with her are named Nautilus and Argonaut.