Operation Raid on Makin Island

The 'Raid on Makin Island' was an attack on the Japanese on the Pacific island of Makin in the Gilbert and Ellice islands group by a small raider force of the US Marine Corps (17/18 August 1942).

Makin is a low coral atoll in the Gilbert islands group, about 105 miles (170 km) north of Tarawa. The atoll is about 18 miles (29 km) long, and its principal islands are Makin (Butaritari) and Kuma. Both are long, narrow islands on the southern side of the atoll, and average about 500 yards (465 ) in width. Little Makin is a separate atoll just to the north of Makin. The two atolls have a combined land area of just 7 sq miles (18.3 km˛).

The atoll has a number of passes on its western side, which required careful navigation as they were characterised by the presence of some coral heads. The lagoon itself provided a deep and spacious anchorage. Makin island is covered with coconut palms and salt brush, and has extensive mangrove swamps on the lagoon side of its western end. Much of the island’s centre was also swampy. The island os surrounded by a reef 100 to 200 yards (90 to 185 m) wide on the ocean side and 500 to 1500 yards (460 to 1370 m) wide on the lagoon side. The reefs on the lagoon side were deep enough for the passage of landing craft at high tide but fully exposed at low tide.

The atoll was discovered in 1788 and became a British protectorate in 1892. The British built their administrative centre just to the west of Makin’s centre and also constructed a road along the entire lagoon side of the island. There were four piers on the lagoon side of Makin, and the population was about 1,700 Micronesians.

A small Japanese force seized Makin on 8 December 1941, expelling the local population and establishing a seaplane base.

The US object in the 'Raid on Makin Island' was the destruction of Japanese installations, the seizure of prisoners, the gathering of intelligence on the Gilbert islands group, and the diversion of Japanese attention and reinforcements from the Allied 'Watchtower' landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi islands farther to the south. Only the first of these objectives was achieved, but the raid did boost morale and provide a test for raider tactics.

The raid was among the earliest US offensive ground combat operations in World War II. The raiding force was drawn from the 2nd Raider Battalion and comprised a small battalion command group and two of the battalion’s infantry companies. Because of space limitations aboard ship, each company embarked without one of its rifle sections. The Headquarters Battalion, Company a and 18 men of Company B, totalling 121 Marines, embarked aboard the submarine Argonaut, and the rest of Company B, totalling 90 Marines, embarked aboard Nautilus. The raiding force was designated Task Group 7.15.

It was on 8 December 1941 that the Imperial Japanese navy landed part of its 51st Guard Force as the start of its establishment of its Makin Atoll Garrison as an element of the Marshall Islands Garrison. At the time of the 'Raid on Makin', the total force opposing the US landing comprised 71 armed personnel of the Japanese seaplane base and a radio station led by Warrant Officer Kyuzaburo Kanemitsu of the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force equipped with light weapons. There were also four members of the seaplane tender base and three members of a meteorological unit. Two civilian personnel were attached to the Japanese forces as interpreters and civilian administrators.

On 17 August 1942 the Marine raiders were launched from the two submarines in LCRL (Landing Craft Rubber Large) inflatable boats powered by 6-hp (4.5-kW) outboard motors shortly after 00.00 on 17 August. At 05.13, Companies A and B of the 2nd Raider Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, came ashore on Makin after experiencing considerable difficulties as a result of the rough sea, high surf and the failure of many of the outboard motors. Carlson decided to land all his men on one beach, rather than two beaches as originally planned. At 05.15, Lieutenant Oscar Peatross and a 12-man squad landed on Makin. In the confusion of the landing, they did not get word of Carlson’s decision to change plans and to land all the raiders on one beach. Peatross and his men therefore landed where their landing had originally been planned. It turned out to be a fortunate error. Undaunted by the lack of support, Peatross led his men inland.

At 07.00, with Company A leading, the raiders advanced from the beach across the island to its northern shore before attacking to the south-west. Strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns stalled the advance and inflicted casualties. The Japanese then launched two banzai charges, which were destroyed by the raiders, thus killing most of the Japanese on the island. At 09.00 Peatross and his 12 men found themselves behind the Japanese, who were fighting the rest of the raiders to the east. Peatross’s unit killed eight Japanese and Kanemitsu, knocked out a machine gun, and destroyed the Japanese radios, while suffering three dead and two wounded. Failing to contact Carlson, Peatross’s party withdrew to the submarines at dusk as planned.

At 13.30, 12 Japanese aircraft, including two flying boats, arrived over Makin. The flying boats, carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison, attempted to land in the lagoon but were met with machine gun, rifle and anti-tank rifle fire from the raiders. One flying boat crashed, and the other burst into flames. The remaining aircraft bombed and strafed but inflicted no losses on Carlson’s men.

At 19.30 on 17 August the raiders began to withdraw from the island using 18 rubber boats, many of which no longer had working outboard motors. Despite heavy surf, seven boats with 93 men reached the submarines, but the attempt by most of the raiders to reach the submarines failed. Despite significant effort, 11 of 18 boats were unable to breach the unexpectedly strong surf. Having lost most of their weapons and equipment, the exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach to link with 20 fully armed men, who had been left on the island to cover their withdrawal. An exhausted and dispirited Carlson sent a note to the Japanese commander offering to surrender, but the Japanese messenger was killed by other marines, who were unaware of Carlson’s plan.

At 09.00 on 18 August, the submarines sent a rescue boat to stretch rope from the ships to the shore that would allow the remaining Raiders' boats to be pulled out to sea. Just as the operation began, however, Japanese aircraft arrived and attacked, sinking the rescue boat and attacking the submarines, which were forced to crash-dive and wait on the bottom the rest of the day. The submarines were undamaged. At 23.08, having managed to signal the submarines to meet his raiders at the entrance to Makin lagoon, Carlson had a team led by Lieutenant Charlie Lamb build a raft comprising three rubber boats and two local canoes powered by the two remaining outboard motors. Using that raft, 72 exhausted raiders sailed 4 miles (6.4 km) from Makin to the mouth of the lagoon, where the submarines picked them up.

Marine casualties were given as 18 killed in action and 12 missing in action. Of the 12 marines missing in action, one was later identified among the 19 Marine Corps graves found on Makin island. Of the remaining 11 marines missing in action, nine had been inadvertently left behind or returned to the island during the night withdrawal. They were subsequently captured, moved to Kwajalein atoll, and executed by the Japanese forces. After the war, Vice Admiral Koso Abe was tried, convicted and executed by the Allies for the murder of the nine marines. The other two marines missing in action disappeared without trace.

Carlson reported that he had personally counted 83 Japanese bodies and estimated that 160 Japanese were killed based on reports from the Makin islanders to whom he had spoken. Additional Japanese personnel may have been killed in the destruction of two boats and two aircraft. Japanese records indicate the deaths of 46 of all ranks (not including the purported large casualties Carlson reported for the boats he had sunk). This was confirmed when supporting Japanese forces returned to the island and found 27 Japanese survivors of the raid.

Although the raiders succeeded in killing more than half of the island’s Japanese garrison, the raid failed to meet its other material objectives. No Japanese prisoners were taken, and no meaningful intelligence was collected. Also, no significant Japanese forces were diverted from the area of the Solomon islands group. In fact, because the vulnerabilities of their garrisons in the Gilbert islands group had been highlighted by the raid, the Japanese strengthened their fortifications and defensive preparations on the islands in the central Pacific. As a result, the objective of dissipating the Japanese forces may have had the unintended consequence of causing heavier losses for the US forces during the 'Galvanic' and 'Flintlock' battles of the Gilbert and Marshall islands campaigns. However, the raid did succeed in its objectives of boosting morale and testing raider tactics.