This past May, the membership of American Legion Post 44 located in Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands in the mid-Pacific (Micronesia), honored the United States Marine Corps Raiders of World War II by making an extraordinary monetary donation to the U.S. Marine Raider Association. Post 44, under the leadership of Commander Mike Woundy, orchestrated a Mothers Day Mongolian BBQ fundraiser, of which all proceeds were denoted in honor of the Marine Raiders who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Makin Island raid during World War II.
Kwajalein Atoll today is the home of the Reagan Test Missile Site/US Army Garrison as part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The relationship between the Raider Association and members of Post 44/Army Garrison began in November 2003 when the garrison hosted 20 World War II Marine Raiders for the official dedication of the Makin Raider Monument, honoring the 12 Marine Raiders missing in action while participating in the Makin Island raid. Additionally, during the same visit, the same 20 Marine Raiders were distinguished guests of honor at the 228th Marine Corps Birthday celebration on Kwajalein.
The Makin Atoll is part of the Gilbert Islands, located 300 miles to the south of the Marshall Islands and the site of the historical raid conducted by Marine Raiders. The Makin Atoll had been occupied by Japanese forces on 10 Dec 1941 and represented the Japanese's most forward defensive position in the Pacific. With the landing of Marines at Guadalcanal in August 1942, the Makin raid was to be executed with the intent of distracting Japanese attention from Guadalcanal. On 9 Aug 1942, 2nd Raider Battalion (222 Marines from Company A and Company B) under the leadership of LtCol Evans Carlson and his executive officer, Maj. James Roosevelt (son of President Roosevelt), embarked aboard the submarines USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut at Pearl Harbor. The challenge and password for this first-ever Raider operation was GUNG HO!
On 17 Aug 1942, the first true Raider operation was executed as Marines in motorized rubber boats launched from the submarines, navigating 15-foot seas in transiting to Makin Island. 15 rubber craft landed on the designated beach while 3 boats landed to the north and one to the south. The element of surprise was lost, as the Raiders landed when a Raider had a negligent discharge with his BAR prior to the Raiders commencing the assault.
With the support of naval gunfire from Nautilus, the Raiders faced numerous snipers, machine gun fire as well as two banzai charges while engaging the Japanese defenders. Marine Raider Sgt. Clyde Thomason, armed with a shotgun, distinguished himself in close quarters fighting, singly wiping out a Japanese counterattack before being killed by an enemy sniper.
By the end of the following day, Japanese reinforcing forces began to arrive via seaplanes in concert with enemy aircraft strafing the Raider force. The initial withdrawal of the Raiders faced treacherous sea conditions, loss of boats and outboard engines while being strafed by enemy aircraft. This resulted in less than half the Raiders returning to the submarines, leaving 120 Raiders on the beach. The near-disaster withdrawal caused Carson to maneuver his raid force to a more advantageous terrain, which allowed the Raiders to draw the remaining enemy forces in the open as well as better organize for withdrawal. By the second night, with the assistance of the natives, the remaining Raiders moved to the lagoon side of the island with the remaining 4 rubber craft, 2 native canoes and a hastily constructed raft, completing the withdrawal.
The Marine Raiders killed 86 Japanese defenders, destroyed two seaplanes and two small ships as well as various Japanese military and logistics facilities on Makin Island. In addition to Sgt. Thomason receiving the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions, the bravery of 18 Raiders was recognized by receiving the Navy Cross.
The well-publicized raid resulted in 18 Marine Raiders killed in action, and unbeknownst to the Raiders until they returned to Pearl Harbor, 12 Marine Raiders missing in action. Carlson prior to withdrawing from Makin Island paid the local native chief 50 dollars to bury the 18 fallen Marines. Nine of the reported 12 Raiders missing in action were captured by Japanese forces (now numbering over 1,000) and later transported by Japanese to Kwajalein as prisoners of war. The 9 captured Raiders were later executed by beheading on the orders of Japanese Vice Admiral Koso Abe.
What of the recovery and accounting efforts for the 18 Raiders killed in action and the 12 Raiders missing in action? When U.S. forces captured the Makin Atoll in 1943, recovery efforts failed to find the remains of the Raiders. In 1949, Marines returned to the Makin Atoll once again with the mission of finding the remains of the fallen Marines but were unsuccessful. In 1998, and then later in 1999, with the support of the Defense Department's Central Identification laboratory as well as the relentless research efforts of the families of the Raiders, they found a local who had helped bury the Marines as a young boy, directly contributing to locating the remains of 19 Marines, resulting in the positive identification of the 18 Marines reported killed in action and 1 Marine of the 12 missing in action.
Of the 19 Marines recovered, 6 were returned to their families for private burial and the remaining 13 were buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors presided over by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones.
The U.S. Marine Corps Raider Association is deeply honored by the unmatched recognition and profound generosity of American Legion Post 44 and their continued efforts to honor our Marine Raiders who made the ultimate sacrifice in their service to our great nation. The compelling actions of Post 44 reflect the actions of a grateful nation and its people.
Semper Fi and Gung Ho!