During the early years of World War II, the United States Marine Corps Raider battalions became the first American elite units committed to battle the Axis. Though originally conceived as a counterpart to the British commandos, the Raiders proved to be much more, and like their English brethren, laid the groundwork for the future while carving out an illustrious list of accomplishments that earned it a hallowed place in military history.
Born by order of President Franklin Roosevelt, the 1st and 2nd Raider Battalions were formed and activated on February 16, and 19, 1943, respectively, under control of two of the Corp’s most capable officers.
The 1st battalion came under command of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Mike” Edson, who decided to train his men from a more traditional standpoint and used basic Marine Corps doctrine as far as strategy, tactics and discipline mattered.
As for 2nd battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Evans Carlson, it was he who had been one of the officers that encouraged Roosevelt to green light the Raiders.
Carlson once served as Marine intelligence officer in China, where he observed tactics used by guerillas against the Japanese. This left a great impression on him about how irregular units could be used, and after assuming leadership of the 1st’s leadership, he exhorted his men to learn his new methods, such as employing three-man fire teams as a basic element of fire and maneuver, downplaying importance of rank to better bond units, and introducing a new word that has since become part of the Marine lexicon:
‘Gung Ho’ (Work Together).
Those who volunteered found training in both battalions to be relentless and in time, for each unit, both commanders methods proved to be ideal, as both soon found themselves fighting on islands in the Pacific, but under much different circumstances.
On August 7th 1942, as part of the Guadalcanal campaign, Edson’s Raiders, along with 2nd battalion, 5th Marine regiment, landed on the western shore of Tulagi, a seductive calm greeting them on the beach.
Moving inland, they quickly took the Japanese garrison by surprise. Fierce fighting ensued as the Raiders moved toward the southeast portion of the island, battling the enemy in isolated positions before reaching a main defense line of trenches, tunnels and machine gun pits.
Realizing the scope of what they faced with so little light left, they dug in and waited, tension mounting as the sun slipped beneath the horizon.
Throughout the night, the Japanese charged the Raider positions. Bayoneted rifles clanged amidst gunshots, grenade blasts and moans of the dying. Shadows leaped about positions, and a Raider had less than a second to discern friend or foe. At one point, amid the confusion, the Japanese managed to break through the line, taking a machine gun position, but were thrown back before sunrise.
As the sun rose above the azure sea on August 8, the Marines, with their uniforms darkened greener from bloodstains and profuse sweating, found the Japanese had expended their forces attacking, and left the defense line near empty as the Marines cleared them with little difficulty and secured Tulagi.
Taking stock of the night’s battle, a Marine Major slowly walked amid the bodies and positions. He stopped at one and stood in awe at an incredible sight. It was the foxhole of Private First Class Edward H. Ahrens.
Ahrens, a small man of about 140 pounds, lay in one corner of his foxhole covered in blood. In the hole with him were two dead Japanese, a lieutenant and sergeant. 11 more lay dead circling the foxhole. In Ahrens’ hands was a Samurai sword.
He was still alive.
The Major pulled Ahrens free of the hole and cradled the blood-soaked warrior in his arms.
“The bastards tried to come over me last night…I guess they didn’t know I was a Marine.” With that, he died in the Major’s arms.
He later received the Navy Cross.
Command moved 1st battalion to Guadalcanal the next day where they conducted patrols alongside the rest of the 1st Division.
Not long after, the Japanese began landing forces to counterattack the island and retake its airfield, finding Edson emplacing 840 of his men with other Marines atop a 1,000 yard wide coral ridgeline as defense against a likely route of advance.
True to form, on September 12 the Japanese forces attacked, pushing a Marine company back before calling off the assault for the night.
After darkness fell on the 13th, they returned en masse, storming up the hill in a two pronged attack involving 3,000 men. A roar of explosions and gunfire echoed from the island while hand to hand fighting ensued all along the ridge as the Japanese attempted to break through. On one portion they succeeded before being stopped by units guarding the northern part of the ridge.
With their momentum, shattered, the Japanese retreated back into the jungle, leaving some 850 dead behind, covering the slopes of the ridge.
105 Marines were killed in the assault, but their sacrifice was not in vain. The island was saved, even though heavier fighting lay ahead.
For his gallant command of what is now known to history as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, Merritt Edson received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the satisfaction of knowing his raiders contributed a vital part to a campaign the Japanese felt was developing into the most decisive action of the war.
At nightfall on August 16th, two submarines surfaced off Butaritari Island, in Makin Atoll, the Nautilus and the Argonaut. Stuffed into the cramped confines of the two vessels were 211 men of Carlson’s 2nd battalion.
This small force was tasked with the classic raider mission. They were to slip ashore in rubber boats, destroy installations, take prisoners and comb for intelligence about its home island chain, the Gilberts.
The operation was to begin and conclude the same day.
At 12:00 A.M. on the 17th, the Raiders, led by Carlson, boarded their small powered craft and set course for the island.
The run inland became a challenge, as swells washed over the men, scattering the boats from their tight formation. Many of the engines flooded, forcing the use of paddles and rifle butts to churn their way through the heavy surf breaking hard on the beach ahead. Finally, at a little after 5:00 A.M., the first groups landed in silence on Butaritari.
Some of the unit was missing, but enough was intact that Carlson led them forward into the line of palm trees that skirted the entire island.
Just after dawn first contact was made. The Raiders pushed to the northern shore, then attacked southeast. Strong enemy opposition stalled the advance as the Raiders suffered casualties while dealing out a hailstorm at the enemy, destroying two Banzai charges before moving out, without realizing they’d killed most of the garrison.
They set about demolishing installations and sweeping for stragglers the next few hours when 12 Japanese planes were seen coming towards the island. Two of them, four-engined flying boats carrying reinforcements broke off and attempted to land offshore.
The Raider’s poured fire into each plane as it glided along the water. The first plane crashed, while the second burst into flames before it too slammed home, scattering it into dozens of burning pieces.
Seeing the last hope of holding the island vanish, the remaining planes made several bombing and strafing runs to no avail, before winging back out over the ocean.
By 7:30 P. M, the Raiders began heading back out to sea, leaving several structures and two small boats destroyed, and over 100 dead Japanese behind.
93 men made it back to the two subs, mainly by paddle, but 73 still remained ashore with just three boats available. These men were rescued the next day when the subs sent out rescue boats to stretch a line to shore.
After leaving the area, Carlson took stock of his losses. They’d suffered 19 killed, 17 wounded and 11 missing. Nine of these it was discovered were captured and later beheaded by the Japanese.
Carlson’s men later set ashore on Guadalcanal, joining their 1st battalion cousins as the fighting moved inland. On one occasion he conducted what became known as the long patrol, a 29 day affair which saw 700 Raiders conduct hit and run raids against a much larger Japanese force of 2,500, killing nearly 500 while losing 16 of their own.
Two more Battalions, the 3rd, under Lieutenant Colonel Harry Liversedge, and the 4th, under Lieutenant Colonel James Roosevelt (the President’s son), formed in late 1942, and joined in the fight for the upper Solomon Islands throughout the spring of 1943.
By then, the four battalions were reorganized into the 1st Raider regiment, and then later halved into two Regiments. They continued their unconventional tactics and successes through the Battle of Bougainvillea, which, sadly, proved to be their last campaign.
As 1944 arrived, the Corps employed four divisions with two more on the way. Here it was decided, that the Raiders should fill the ranks of line companies in the newest divisions, as the need for unconventional forces diminished with each passing offensive.
With the stroke of a pen, the Raiders dissolved into history, having proved the value in using a small force of highly trained men to influence the course of a battle and inflict casualties far out of proportion to their own. seven of them received the Congressional Medal of Honor and they, along with the others, can rightfully claim the title not just of Marines, but America’s first modern Special Operations Forces.