On August 17-18, 1942, members of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion made an attack on a small island in the Pacific Ocean held by Japanese forces during World War II. The raid had several objectives – destroy Japanese installations, gather intelligence of the Gilbert Islands area (map by Wikipedia), capture prisoners, and divert Japanese attention away from allied landings on Guadalcanal that occurred on August 9th. The raid also was an initial test of the raiding tactics and capabilities of the Marine Raider units.
Makin Island. The small island was the home of a Japanese seaplane base and had a garrison of less than 100 men. The island was a strategic atoll in the Marshalls as it afforded the Japanese a location from which to conduct air patrols along the eastern flank of the Japanese perimeter. The island is known as Butaritari Island, however, during World War II, the military referred to it as Makin Island. It had a large lagoon surrounded by the island that could accomodate fairly large ships; although the entrances to the lagoon were narrow. The island would later be taken by American forces in the November 1943.
Image. Astronaut photo, U.S. government. Government of Kiribati mapping information. (2012) Makin Island (Butaritari Island, Wikepedia).
Image. Gilbert Islands, Makin Island is the top island of the archilago. By Pitichinaccio – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1350215
Submarine Infiltration. The Marine Raiders were transported to the island from Pearl Harbor aboard two large mine-laying submarines that had been converted to troop transports – the Nautilus and the Argonaut. The subs departed Pearl Harbor on August 8, 1942. Each of the submarines carried a company of raiders – for a total of 211 men (some sources say 221). The two companies were Companies A and B. The voyage was several days long – under cramped and hot conditions inside the submarines – one sub arriving on the 16th and the second on the 17th. During the Makin Island battle the submarines would provide fire support for the raiding party; firing against enemy positions on land, aircraft, and boats. During the course of the raid the submarines would be forced to submerge several times to avoid attack from enemy aircraft.
Landing Difficulties. The raiding force was to depart the subs in inflatable boats with motors and make a predawn landing on two locations on Butaritari Island beginning at 03:00 of the 17th. Once ashore it would destroy the garrison and then withdraw that evening. Things went badly from the outset while boarding the rubber boats from the subs. When the subs surfaced there were high seas and heavy rain. Many of the underpowered rubber boats were swamped and the engines had difficulty starting due to flooding with water. Some rubber boats were towed by others to make it to the island landing site. Due to the weather, it was decided at the last minute to utilize only one landing site on the island; instead of two. However, one element didn’t get the word and was separated from the main force. Some of the boat motors malfunctioned, slowing the landing process and causing confusion amongst the raiders. Once on shore the rubber boats were stashed in vegetation. Unfortunately, one of the Marines discharged his weapon shortly after the landing ruining the element of surprise.
Battle with the Garrison Force. The Marines were soon in contact with the Japanese force, estimated at 85 personnel, upon landing upon the island. Enemy snipers and machine guns halted the Marines advance towards the garrison. The Japanese then launched two banzai attacks which were defeated by the Americans. At that point, although not known to the Marines, the Japanese force was greatly diminished. Later in the day the Japanese attacked with air attacks and attempted to land troops in the lagoon with seaplanes – but unsuccessfully. Eventually, over the course of the next two days the surviving Japanese forces were dispersed and scattered around the island. The Japanese garrison was destroyed; to include the radio station, fuel, and other supplies.
Leaving the Island – More Difficulties. The departure from the island was a disaster. The heavy surf and barrier reef caused a lot of problems. Many of the outboard engines of the 18 rubber boats did not work. It was difficult to paddle against the heavy breakers and some boats capsized with the loss of equipment. Seven boats and less than 100 men did make it to the submarines on the evening of the 17th; but more than 100 men were still stranded on the island and were to remain overnight on the island. Things were thought to be dire for the Americans. Many had lost their clothing and weapons in the severe surf and the raid force had overestimated the remaining strength of the Japanese garrison. At one point in the early morning of the 18th, the commander of the raid, Lt Col Carlson, contemplated surrender to the enemy.
Back on the Subs. However, during the course of the next day – the 18th – it became evident that there was little Japanese resistance on the island and that the submarines were still available for exfiltration. A more suitable location was found for leaving the island on rubber boats – one with less surf. Almost all of the remainder of the raiding force would make it to the submarines the night of the 18th. Nine men were inadvertently left behind once the submarines set off for Pearl Harbor, arriving on August 25th (Nautilus) and August 26th (Argonaut).
Casualties. The Marine unit suffered losses in the raid. The official tally states that 18 (19?) were dead and 12 missing; among those missing were nine that had been left alive on the island. Seven Marines had drowned. They were captured on August 30th and later beheaded by the Japanese at Kwajalein Atol. Figures on Japanese losses vary, depending on the source. Estimates range from 65 to 160 enemy dead. Two Japanese seaplanes were destroyed while trying to reinforce the island with troops.
Marine Raiders. The Marine Corps had established four Raider battalions during World War II to provide the capability of small light units that could strike deep into enemy territory during the Pacific campaign. The Second Marine Raider Battalion was designated on February 19, 1942. For Raider Battalions would serve in the Pacific over the course of two years. In early 1944 the four battalions were disbanded. On February 1, 1944, the 1st Raider Regiment was redesignated the 4th Marine Regiment. Members of the Raider Training Center were transferred to the newly formed 5th Marine Division. In 2014, the Marine Special Operations Regiment, a subordinate unit of the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), ws redesignated the Marine Raider Regiment.
Achievements of the Raid. The Makin Island raid was a learning moment for the Marines and the training of the Marine Raider battalions. The commander of the raiding party, Lt Col Evan Carlson, received the Navy Cross for his efforts in the battle. He would retire as a Brigadier General. Although the mission did not achieve all of its objectives it did prove to be a morale booster for the Marines and Navy and was a public relations success for the war effort. In 1943, the film Gung Ho! was released (see movie trailer, 1943). It depicted the 2nd Raider Battalion’s raid on Makin Island. Two U.S. Navy ships would bear the name of USS Makin Island. The 2nd Marine Raider Battalion would see more fighting during the Guadalcanal campaign.
Image of Nautilus: U.S. Marines arrive at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 26 August 1942 on board the U.S. submarine Nautilus following their raid on Makin Island on 17-18 August, 1942.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1388486
“The Makin Island Raid”, Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, October 1946.
“Last Reminiscence of a Makin Island Raider”, Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, October 2022.
“The Makin Island Raid, August 1942”, The Text Message, National Archives, November 14, 2012.
Video – The Echoes of Makin Island. This video has clips of the 1943 movie Gung Ho!. Defense Media Activity – Marines, August 15, 2023, DVIDS, 3 minutes.
Video – 1942 Raid on Makin Raid. The History Guy, YouTube, 2020, 17 minutes.
Video – Raid on Makin Island. Kings and Generals, YouTube, 2022, 20 minutes.