On this day in 1942, Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson and a force of Marine raiders come ashore Makin Island, in the west Pacific Ocean, occupied by the Japanese. What began as a diversionary tactic almost ended in disaster for the Americans.
Two American submarines, the Argonaut and the Nautilus, approached Makin Island, an atoll in the Gilbert Islands, which had been seized by the Japanese on December 9, 1941. The subs unloaded 122 Marines, one of two new raider battalions. Their leader was Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, a former lecturer on postrevolutionary China. Their mission was to assault the Japanese-occupied Makin Island as a diversionary tactic, keeping the Japanese troops “busy” so they would not be able to reinforce troops currently under assault by Americans on Guadalcanal Island.
Carlson’s “Raiders” landed quietly, unobserved, coming ashore on inflatable rafts powered by outboard motors. Suddenly, one of the Marines’ rifles went off, alerting the Japanese, who unleashed enormous firepower: grenades, flamethrowers, and machine guns. The subs gave some cover by firing their deck guns, but by night the Marines had to begin withdrawing from the island. Some Marines drowned when their rafts overturned; about 100 made it back to the subs. Carlson and a handful of his men stayed behind to sabotage a Japanese gas dump and to seize documents. They then made for the submarines too. When all was said and done, seven Marines drowned, 14 were killed by Japanese gunfire, and nine were captured and beheaded.
Carlson went on to fight with the U.S. forces on Guadalcanal. He was a source of controversy; having been sent as a U.S. observer with Mao’s Army in 1937, he developed a great respect for the “spiritual strength” of the communist forces and even advocated their guerrilla-style tactics. He remained an avid fan of the Chinese communists even after the war.