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Evans Carlson & America’s First Special Operations Team

By Duane Schultz

Major Evans Carlson stood on a rickety platform built from wooden crates, the kind their rations came in. He said nothing for a moment as he looked out over the young Marines he and his executive officer had personally selected after grueling interviews. These were the elite, the toughest and most adventurous of the already tough and daring Marines. These were the men of the newly formed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, America’s first special operations team, trained to strike back at the Japanese in the hit-and-run style of the British commandos.

It was 3 pm on a chilly, rainy day in the second week of February 1942. The Marines were assembled in the middle of a muddy field surrounded by eucalyptus trees, which made the whole camp smell like menthol cough drops. This dismal place was called Jacques Farm, five miles south of Camp Elliott, a rapidly expanding part of the Marine Training Center near San Diego, California.

In the two months since the Pearl Harbor Attack, U.S. forces in the South Pacific were being beaten back in one battle after another; Wake Island, Guam, and Bataan were no longer unknown names. Throughout the nation cries arose for America to strike back against the Japanese.

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Carlson’s Raiders, as the media called them, would thrill Americans with the first victory against Japanese-held territory, tiny Makin Island, some 2,000 miles west of Pearl Harbor. Evans Carlson and his men became instant national heroes on a huge scale, celebrities filling the headlines of every newspaper in the country with two Hollywood movies glamorizing their exploits. Everyone knew about Evans Carlson and his Marine Raiders.

Carlson did not look much like a hero that day at Jacques Farm. He was 46 years old and rail thin; although he stood tall and straight, he appeared frail. He had piercing blue eyes, a long nose, and a pronounced, chiseled jaw. Historian John Wukovits described him as “an intellectual who loved combat; a high school dropout who quoted Emerson; a thin, almost fragile looking man who relished 50-mile hikes; an officer in a military organization who touted equality among officers and enlisted; a kindly individual with the capacity to kill.” The first thing he did at Jacques Farm was take out his harmonica and lead his men in singing the national anthem.

In 1942, Evans Carlson's 'Marine Raiders' gained instant celebrity status as America’s first Special Operations team.

When the last words of the national anthem rang out, Carlson put away his harmonica and announced that he had a lot to tell the men about their lives as Raiders. They would train and fight like no other outfit had ever done; he was not exaggerating. He talked about his years in China, where he learned from Mao Tse-tung how to fight the Japanese, and about his months with the Chinese Communist Army operating behind Japanese lines. He said that the Raiders would work together—officers and men as one—the way the Chinese Communists did. There would be no distinction by class or rank; every man would eat the same rations, sleep on the ground, and have the same rights and privileges. No one was better than anyone else.

Then Carlson gave them their battle cry: “Gung Ho!” The Chinese phrase meant “work together,” which was how the Raiders would learn to fight.

Six months later, Evans Carlson and his Raiders had become instant celebrities. Anyone in the States who read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched a Movietone newsreel knew about them. Banner headlines screamed the story of the small group of Marines, only 221, who went by submarine to attack the Japanese-held island of Makin. Now Americans had a victory to cheer and heroes to praise.

An Overnight Media Sensation

“Marines Wiped out Japanese on Makin Isle in Hot Fighting,” wrote a New York Times reporter. The press reported that the Raiders cleaned out the Japanese troops. Carlson was quoted as saying, “We wanted to take prisoners, but we couldn’t find any. Our casualties were light. We took more than ten for one. The Japs fought with typical Japanese spirit—they fought until they died. It was a sight to see. There were dead all over the place.”

Overnight Carlson and his Raiders had become a sensation. When the first submarine bringing them back from Makin reached Pearl Harbor, James Roosevelt recalled, “We were surprised to find bands playing and the piers lined with cheering people. We had not shaved or bathed or washed our clothes for two weeks, so I sent my men to clean up as best they could. It turned out to be a hero’s welcome.”

Sailors in dress uniforms, standing at attention, lined the decks of every ship the Raiders passed. Bands played the Marines’ Hymn. As the submarine eased up to the dock, a huge cheer rang out. A battalion of Marines in dress blues stood at the ready along with Admiral Raymond Spruance and his boss, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Behind them waited a crowd of reporters and cameramen.

As Nimitz led a military delegation on board, he stepped up to Carlson, returned his snappy salute, and shook his hand to offer congratulations on a successful mission.

“Makin has made you and your Raiders famous,” he said.

Sergeant Howard E. “Buck” Stidham recalled 50 years later, “The realization was slowly sinking in that we had gone from the status of a courageous and fortunate bunch of dumb-dumbs to what Kipling would probably call ‘a bloody bunch of heroes.’ We had no concept of the hunger the American people had for some good war news and that this operation had attracted the attention of every citizen in the country.”

Carlson’s Last Fight

Three months later, Carlson and his Raiders were back in action, this time on Guadalcanal. They were sent behind Japanese lines where, in what came to be called the Long Patrol, they fought in close combat for 30 days and covered over 120 miles in the steaming jungle. The Raiders killed nearly 500 of the enemy, losing 16 killed and 18 wounded. The press once again lavished praise on “Carlson’s Boys,” the most famous outfit in the Marine Corps, and for a time they were the most glorified group among all of the military services.

Carlson was sent back to the States to be treated for malaria and jaundice. He did not yet know it, but he would never again be allowed to lead men in combat or to serve with his beloved Raiders.

On May 27, 1947, Carlson died of a heart attack at the age of 51. General Alexander Vandegrift, then Marine Corps Commandant, attended the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but few others were present. The Marine Corps had made no public announcement of the service. When it was over, before the small group of mourners left, a Marine who had served with Carlson in China overheard General Vandegrift say, “Thank God, he’s gone.”

At great personal cost, Evans Carlson had achieved what he set out to do—create an elite special operations force that helped boost the morale of the American people when it was at its lowest point. And he accomplished this on his own terms, in his own way, in defiance of the establishment and its rules.


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