Seventy Years Ago: The Makin Island Raid, August 1942

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Some seventy years ago, this past August, the first major collection of captured Japanese documents in the Pacific Theater to arrive at Pearl Harbor were those captured in August 1942 when the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, under Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson, made a harassing raid on Makin Island, an atoll in the Gilberts. The raid was intended primarily as a diversion to distract Japanese from sending reinforcements to Guadalcanal and Tulagi where Marines had landed earlier in the month.

Carlson (bottom center) and his Raiders on Guadalcanal during the famous “Long Patrol,” November-December 1942

In Mid-December 1941 the Japanese had occupied the Gilberts.  At first the only military installation that the Japanese constructed on the Gilberts was a seaplane base on Butaritari Island of the Makin Atoll. Seaplanes there could harass shipping lanes to Australia.  The Americans had little information about Makin in 1942.  It appeared that the atoll’s main island, Butaritari, was as a weather station and seaplane base, defended by force estimated between 50 and 350. Actually it was garrisoned by no more than a platoon of the 62nd Guard Unit, fewer than 50 men in all, commanded by Sgt. Maj. Kanemitsu.

Two large submarines, Nautilus and Argonaut, carried Carlson’s 221-man raiding force, including Maj. James Roosevelt, the President’s son and Carlson’s executive officer, to the island.  The raiders went ashore at dawn on August 17 and attacked the Japanese garrison. That morning Capt. Gerald Holtom, who read, wrote and spoke fluent Japanese and served as the battalion’s intelligence officer, was killed by a sniper.By the end of the morning the Japanese had been pressed into a last-ditch defense at the shore.  Japanese efforts to reinforce Makin were to with little avail, with no more than 35 soldiers being added to the Japanese forces. The Japanese were wiped out in suicide attack or subsequently killed or killed themselves. During the remainder of day and the next the raiders picked up important documents at the headquarters and from the bodies of the dead and destroyed enemy weapons and equipment.  Around 11pm August 18 almost all of raiders still on the island reached the submarines and just before midnight they set sail for Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, by accident, nine raiders were left behind. They would be subsequently captured and executed at Kwajalein, on October 16, 1942.  The Nautilus arrived on the morning of August 25 and the Argonaut the following day.  The press was initially informed that an estimated eighty Japanese were killed during the raid. About a week later the number was raised to 350. In the official report Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief Pacific Ocean Area, subsequently sent Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, the number pared down to between 100 and 150.

Lt. Col. E.F. Carlson, (left), and Maj. James Roosevelt, (right), pose with the captured Japanese flag that flew above the enemy garrison on Makin. Following the raid, Roosevelt presented this flag to his father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during a trip to Washington, DC

It is has been debated whether the diversionary attack on Makin diverted any Japanese forces from Guadalcanal.  But there is no debate about the captured documents.  Although Makin was a minor outpost it had been supplied with major documents.   This Ellis M. Zacharias, a naval intelligence officer, would call a “grave intelligence blunder.”  The documents were quickly brought back to Pearl Harbor on board the submarines. They included plans, charts, air defense details on all Japanese-held Pacific islands, battle orders, one top-secret map that provided the air defense capabilities of all Japanese-held Pacific islands, the strength of all Japanese-held Pacific islands, the strength of the air forces on them, and the forces’ radius of operations, methods of alert, types of aircraft, and operation plans for future emergencies.  It is also likely that Japanese weather code books were also captured.

Two Raiders prepare to debark from the submarine USS Nautilus before the Makin Raid

Among the documents captured at Makin was a Japanese chart of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts.  An officer with the Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area, Pearl Harbor felt as though he had seen this chart before as it looked vaguely familiar.  A translator told him why.  The title and written descriptions were in Japanese; otherwise it was an exact duplicate of the U.S. Hydrographic Office chart of Tarawa. Comdr. Joseph J. Rochefort, reminded this officer that when the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 destroyed the plates of the Japanese Hydrographic Office’s charts, the US Hydrographic Office gave the Japanese duplicate plates of its charts of the Pacific.  “What we had captured,” W. J. Holmes would later write in Doubled-Edged Secrets: U.S. Naval Intelligence Operations During World War II, “was a perfectly legal Japanese edition of one of our own charts, complete with all the inaccuracies of the original surveys made in the mid-nineteenth century, without a jot of new information.”

Raiders crowd the deck as the USS Argonaut docks at Pearl Harbor upon returning from the Makin Raid

Besides acquiring documents and charts the raiders on Makin acquired many souvenirs. Carlson gathered up a Japanese flag, pistol, and samurai sword which he intended to give President Roosevelt and Admiral Nimitz upon his return. These were subsequently delivered.  

Subsequently Marine Corps Lt. W. S. LeFrancois, who participated in the raid, in 1943 published   a story about it entitled “We Mopped Up Makin Island,” in the Saturday Evening Post.  A movie based on this account was made, and released on December 23, 1943. The movie, starring Randolph Scott, is usually referred to by its short title Gung Ho!, but its full title is Gung Ho!: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders.  The term Gung Ho, a Chinese expression meaning “working together,” was adopted by Carlson, who had spent time in China before the war, as the slogan of his Marine Raiders.  It soon spread throughout the U.S. Marine Corps as an expression of spirit and eventually entered the public lexicon to mean “enthusiastic” or “dedicated.”

2 thoughts on “Seventy Years Ago: The Makin Island Raid, August 1942

  1. Sure would like to know how 9 men were accidentally left behind (and thus captured and executed). Amazing accomplishment, but amazing unneeded loss.

  2. I always enjoy Dr. Bradsher’s interesting posts sharing the fruits of his research. I’ve used the term “gung ho” frequently throughout my life and never once wondered about its origin. Very interesting.

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