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From Makin to Bougainville-Marine Raiders in the Makin to... · PDF fileFrom Makin to Bougainville: Marine Raiders in the Pacific War by Major Jon I Hoffman, USMCR n February 1942,

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  • From Makin to Bougainville:Marine Raiders in the Pacific Warby Major Jon I Hoffman, USMCR

    n February 1942, Lieu-tenant General ThomasHolcomb, the Com-mandant of the MarineCorps, ordered the cre-

    ation of a new unit designated the 1stMarine Raider Battalion. This eliteforce, and its three sister battalions,went on to gain considerable fame forfighting prowess in World War II.There is more to the story of theseunits, however, than a simple tale ofcombat heroics. The inception,growth, and sudden end of the raid-ers reveals a great deal about the de-veloprnent and conduct of amphib-ious operations during the war, andabout the challenges the Corps facedin expanding from 19,000 men tonearly a half million. The raiders alsoattracted more than their share ofstrong leaders. The resulting combi-nation of courage, doctrine, organi-zation, and personalities makes thisone of the most interesting chaptersin Marine Corps history.

    On the Cover: The Browning air-cooled.30-caliber machine gun was the weaponof choice for raider battalions because ofit5 low weight in comparison to otheravailable machine guns. The raider bat-talions were not armed with heavyweapons. Department of Defense Pho-to (USMC) 56108At left: Marine riflemen take on Japanesesnipers while others put a captured37mm field gun into operation duringthe raid on Koiari. Parachutists and raid-ers expected to surprise the enemy, butwere themselves surprised instead whenthey landed in the midst of a well-defended supply dump. The enemypinned the Marines to the beach withheavy fire, until evening. Department ofDefense Photo (USMC) 69783

    Two completely independentforces were responsible for the ap-pearance of the raiders in early 1942.Several historians have fully tracedone of these sets of circumstances,which began with the friendshipdeveloped between Franklin D.Roosevelt and Evans F. Carlson. Asa result of his experiences in China,Carlson was convinced that guerrillawarfare was the wave of the future.One of his adherents in 1941 wasCaptain James Roosevelt, the presi-dent's son. At the same time, anotherpresidential confidant, William J.Donovan, was pushing a similartheme. Donovan had been an Armyhero in World War I and was nowa senior advisor on intelligence mat-ters. He wanted to create a guerrillaforce that would infiltrate occupiedterritory and assist resistance groups.He made a formal proposal alongthese lines to President Roosevelt inDecember 1941. In January, theyounger Roosevelt wrote to theMajor General Commandant of theMarine Corps and recommended cre-ation of ifa unit for purposes similarto the British Commandos and theChinese Guerrillas:'

    These ideas were appealing at thetime because the war was going bad-ly for the Allies. The Germans hadforced the British off the continent ofEurope, and the Japanese weresweeping the United States and Bri-tain from much of the Pacific Themilitary forces of the Allies were tooweak to slug it out in conventionalbattles with the Axis powers, so guer-rilla warfare and quick raids ap-peared to be viable alternatives. TheBritish commandos had already con-


    ducted numerous forays against theEuropean coastline, and PrimeMinister Winston S. Churchill en-thusiastically endorsed the concept toPresident Roosevelt. The MarineCommandant, Major General Tho-mas Holcomb, allegedly succumbedto this high-level pressure and or-ganized the raider battalions, thoughhe himself thought that any proper-ly trained Marine unit could performamphibious raids.

    That scenario is mostly accurate,but it tells only half of the story.Two other men also were responsi-ble for the genesis of the raiders. Onewas General Holland M. Smith.Although the Marine Corps Schoolshad created the first manual on am-phibious operations in 1935, duringthe early days of World War II Smithfaced the unenviable task of tryingto convert that paper doctrine intoreality. As a brigadier general hecommanded the 1st Marine Brigadein Fleet Landing Exercise 6, whichtook place in the Caribbean in early1940. There he discovered that sever-al factors, to include the lack ofadequate landing craft, made it im-possible to rapidly build up combatpower on a hostile shore. The initialassault elements would thus be vul-nerable to counterattack and defeatwhile most of the amphibious forceremained on board its transports.

    As a partial response to thisproblem, Smith seized upon the new-ly developed destroyer transport.During FLEX 6, his plan called for theManley (APD 1) to land a companyof the 5th Marines via rubber boatsat H-minus three hours (prior todawn) at a point away from theprimary assault beach. This force

  • Major General Merritt A. Edson, USMCerritt A. Edson's militarycareer began in the fall of1915 when he enlisted in the

    1st Vermont Infantry (a National Guardoutfit). In the summer of 1916 he servedin the Mexican border campaign. Whenthe United States entered World War Iin April 1917, he earned a commissionas a Marine officer, but he did not ar-rive in France until just before the Ar-mistice.

    He ultimately more than made up formissing out on "the war to end all wars."In 1921 he began his long career in com-petitive shooting as part of the 10-manteam that won the National Rifle TeamTrophy for the Marine Corps. He earnedhis pilot's wings in 1922 and flew for fiveyears before poor depth perceptionforced him back into the infantry. In1927, he received command of the Ma-rine detachment on board the Denver(CL 16). He and his men soon becameinvolved in the effort to rid Nicaraguaof Augusto Sandino. Edson spent 14months ashore, most of it deep in the in-terior of the country. In the process, hewon a reputation as an aggressive, sav-vy small-unit leader. He bested Sandi-no's forces in more than a dozenskirmishes, earned his first Navy Crossfor valor, and came away with the nick-

    name "Red Mike" (in honor of the color-ful beard he sported in the field).

    Edson spent the first half of the 1930sas a tactics instructor at the Basic Schoolfor new lieutenants, and then as ord-nance officer at the Philadelphia Depotof Supplies. During the summers he con-tinued to shoot; ultimately he captainedthe rifle team to consecutive nationalchampionships in 1935 and 1936. In thesummer of 1937 he transferred to Shan-ghai to become the operations officer forthe 4th Marines. He arrived just in timefor a ringside seat when the Sino-Japanese War engulfed that city. Thatgave him ample opportunity to observeJapanese combat techniques at closerange. In June 1941, Red Mike assumedcommand of the 1st Battalion, 5th Ma-rines at Quantico.

    After his stint with the 1st Raiders andthe 5th Marines on Guadalcanal, Edsonremained in the Pacific. He served aschief of staff of the 2d Marine Divisionat Tarawa, and as assistant division com-mander on Saipan and Tinian. Duringeach of these campaigns he again distin-guished himself under fire. Ultimately,the Marine Corps discovered that Ed-son's courage was matched by his skillas a staff officer. He spent nine monthsas chief of staff for the Fleet Marine

    Force Pacific and closed out the war incharge of the Service Command.

    Following the war Edson headed theeffort to preserve the Marine Corps inthe face of President Truman's drive to"unify" the services. lie waged a fiercecampaign in the halls of Congress, in themedia, and in public appearances acrossthe nation. Finally, he resigned his com-mission in order to testify publicly be-fore committees of both houses ofCongress. His efforts played a key rolein preserving the Marine Corps. Afterstints as the Commissioner of PublicSafety in Vermont, and as ExecutiveDirector of the National Rifle Associa-tion, Edson died in August 1955.

    would advance inland, seize key ter-rain dominating the proposed beach-head, and thus protect the mainlanding from counterattack. A yearlater, during FLEX 7, Smith had threedestroyer transports. He designatedthe three companies of the 7th Ma-rines embarked on these ships as theMobile Landing Group. During theexercise these units again made nightlandings to protect the main assault,or conducted diversionary attacks.

    Smith eventually crystallized hisnew ideas about amphibious opera-tions. He envisioned making futureassaults with three distinct echelons.The first wave would be composedof fast-moving forces that could seizekey terrain prior to the main assault.This first element would consist of aparachute regiment, an air infantry

    regiment (gliderborne troops), a lighttank battalion, and "at least one APD[highspeed destroyer transport] bat-talion:' With a relatively securebeachhead, the more ponderouscombat units of the assault forcewould come ashore. The third eche-lon would consist of the reserve forceand service units.

    In the summer of 1941 Smith wasnearly in a position to put these ideasinto effect. He now commanded theAmphibious Force Atlantic Fleet(AFAF), which consisted of the 1stMarine Division and the Army's 1stInfantry Division. During maneuversat the recently acquired Marine baseat New River, North Carolina, Smithembarked the 1st Battalion, 5th Ma-rines, in six APDs and made it an in-dependent command reporting


    directly to his headquarters. Theoperations plan further attached theMarine division's sole company oftanks and its single company ofparachutists to the APD battalion.The general did not use this taskforce to lead the assault, but insteadlanded it on D plus 2 of the exercise,on a beach well in the rear of the ene-my's lines. With all aviation assetsworking in direct support, the mo-bile force quickly moved inland, sur-prised and destroyed the enemyreserves, and took control of keylines of communication. Smith calledit a "spearhead thrust around thehostile flank:'

    The AFAF commander had notrandomly selected the 1st Battalion,5th Marines, for this role. In June1941 he personally had pic

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