Marine Raiders

American Marines have long resisted referring to themselves, or any unit in the Marine Corps, as “commandos.”  By definition, a commando is a military unit or individual specifically trained and organized to conduct raids into enemy territory.  The Marine Corps is an elite combat force with specific expertise in amphibious operations, including over-the-horizon vertical assault.  Raiding coastlines is what we do for a living.  Our purpose is to project naval power ashore, so senior Marine Corps officials did not see an advantage of re-designating some Marine Corps units as “commando” units.

When this subject first came up at the beginning of World War II, creating a specialized elite force within an elite force seemed to many senior Marine officers as counter-intuitive —yet, that is exactly what transpired.

Holcomb 001President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whose son James [1] was a Marine Corps officer) expressed interest in creating an American counterpart to the British Commandos [2].  In the president’s mind, the U. S. Marine Corps was the natural place for a commando organization.  Where the president got this idea was from proposals co-authored by then-Major Evans Carlson, USMC and Colonel William J. Donovan [3].  Then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General Thomas Holcomb (pictured right) disagreed with the Carlson-Donovan proposal.  He didn’t think that an elite combat force like the Marine Corps needed a specialized subset organization.

Nevertheless, the debate over the creation of these elite units came to a climax when the newly-appointed commander of the Pacific Fleet requested “commando units” for raids against lightly defended Japanese-held islands [4].

Overruled by President Roosevelt, Holcomb maintained his resistance to calling these organizations “commandos.”  In his view, “Marine” was sufficient to signify a well-trained soldier of the sea who ready for duty at sea and in the field at any time and at any place.

Holcomb re-designated the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (then commanded by LtCol Merritt A. Edson) as the 1st Separate Battalion.  Roosevelt wanted two battalions, however.  General Holcomb then created a 2nd Separate Battalion, which at the president’s direction, would be commanded by Evans Carlson [5].  In one amazing turn of events, Major James Roosevelt USMCR was appointed as Carlson’s executive officer.

General Holcomb finally agreed to call these two organizations “Raider” battalions.  LtCol Edson retained command of the 1stRaider Battalion, and LtCol Carlson assumed command of the 2nd Raider Battalion.

Marine raider battalions were provided with the best available equipment in 1942.  The Marines selected to serve in these battalions were hand-picked from among solicited volunteers.  However, organizationally, the two formed battalions were as dissimilar as night and day. Carlson organized his battalion around the Chinese communist model of egalitarianism.  He treated his officers and enlisted men with minimal regard for their rank as leaders and fighters.  He also employed ethical indoctrination sessions, describing to each man what he was fighting for, and why.  He incorporated the Chinese phrase “Gung Ho” [6] as a motivational slogan.  Rather than organizing his battalion according to approved Marine Corps table of organization, he formed six rifle companies of two platoons each, and each of these with three-man fireteams.

Edson 001Both raider battalions went into action at about the same time.  In early August 1942, Colonel Edson’s battalion (assigned to the 1stMarine Division) landed on Tulagi in the British Solomon’s; it was the opening phase of the campaign for Guadalcanal.  After the capture of Tulagi, 1stRaiders were moved to Guadalcanal to defend Henderson Field and, in fact, one of their most notable engagements occurred during the Battle of Edson’s Ridge [7].  Here, 1stRaider Battalion, attached elements of the 1stParachute Battalion, and 2ndBattalion, 5thMarines soundly defeated Imperial Japanese forces on the night of 13-14 September.  (Pictured right, Col. Edson)

Carlson 001In mid-August 1942, 2nd Raider Battalion embarked aboard two submarines (Nautilus and Argonaut) and conducted a raid on Makin Island [8].  During this raid, eighteen Marines and one Navy corpsman were killed in action (see notation, below[9]).  The night raid was disorganized and chaotic.  Marine dead were left behind on the island as the raiders withdrew back into the sea.  A Butaritari man managed to hide the bodies of these dead servicemen from the Japanese; he carefully buried them on this island.  The US Armed Forces did not recover their bodies until December 1999. See also: video posted earlier.  Carlson (Pictured right) also unintentionally left nine men alive on the island, all of whom were captured and beheaded by the Japanese.

Following the Battle of Savo Island in the Solomon’s, 1,400 Marines in various support units of the 2nd Marine Regiment —yet to land on Tulagi— were returned to Espiritu Santo on transport ships withdrawn from Guadalcanal by Admiral Richmond K. Turner.  Believing that regimental and larger sized Marine Corps units were not suitable for amphibious operations, Turner decided to form these Marines into a 2ndProvisional Raider Battalion —but did so without consulting with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who as might be expected, was not a happy man.  Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Naval Forces South Pacific, rescinded Turner’s order.  Turner’s desire that all Marine battalions be re-formed as raider battalions caused Marine Corps headquarters to take a dim view of the entire raider concept.

Marine Raider 001Nevertheless, two additional raider battalions were created.  3rd Raider Battalion in Samoa, commanded by LtCol Harry B. Liversedge, and 4thRaider Battalion, commanded by the newly promoted LtCol James Roosevelt.  Both of these battalions distinguished themselves in heavy combat in the 1943 campaigns.  In March 1943, the four raider battalions were organized into the 1st Marine Raider Regiment; Colonel Liversedge was named Commanding Officer with Evans Carlson serving as his executive officer.  LtCol Alan Shapley [10] was appointed to command the 2nd Raider Battalion a week later and he promptly re-organized the unit into a standard (American Marine) battalion configuration.

Under Colonel Liversedge, the Raider Regiment enforced a common table of organization among the four battalions.  Each battalion consisted of four rifle companies of three rifle platoons each, and a weapons platoon, and each battalion had a weapons company to provide general support to the battalion.  These changes reflected both Edson’s and Carlson’s ideas about organizing fireteams and platoons and were later adopted by the Marine Corps: highly trained, lightly equipped, conventional forces.

During the New Georgia campaign, the 1st Marine Raider Regiment was task-organized for a new mission with the 1st and 4th Raiders, and two battalions of the US 37th Infantry Division, commanded by Liversedge.

At the same time, the 2nd and 3rd Raider Battalions were temporarily attached to the 2nd Provisional Raider Regiment under Colonel Shapley for the invasion of Bougainville.  This would be the final combat assignment of the Marine Raiders before their disbandment.

In December 1943 command of the 1st Raider Regiment passed to Lieutenant Colonel Samuel D. Puller.  The regiment left New Caledonia on 21 January and landed at Guadalcanal three days later.  It was here that the 2nd Provisional Raider Regiment was disbanded and folded into the 1st Raider Regiment; Colonel Shapley was assigned as Commanding Officer with Puller serving as the executive officer.

Early in 1944, the Marine Corps fielded four combat divisions with two more in the process of formation.  Even with a half-million young Americans serving as Marines, there was insufficient manpower to operate  two new infantry divisions.  Large numbers of Marines were serving in defense battalions, parachute battalions, raider battalions, and amphibian tractor battalions.  With no further expansion of the Marine Corps being anticipated, the only way the Marine Corps could man these new divisions was to reorganize existing units.  The need for additional commando type organizations had not, by this time, materialized.  Technological development of amphibious tractors and improved fire support methods ended the need for specialized light assault units.

In effect, Marine Raiders performed the same missions as regular infantry battalions; the juxtaposition being that either the Raiders were wasting much needed infantry assault assets, or that, in lacking firepower, senior leadership were exposing the Marine Raiders to the possibility of unacceptably high casualties.

Also, at this time, there was considerable opposition to maintaining a commando force within the Marine Corps.  Simply stated, the Raiders weren’t cost effective.  The newly appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander Vandegrift (having commanded the 1stMarine Division on Guadalcanal) and General Gerald C. Thomas, the newly appointed Director of Plans and Policies at Headquarters Marine Corps, decided to disband the Marine Raiders.  This decision was supported by Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations.  The Raider battalions were ordered deactivated on 8 January 1944 with their manpower being re-directed to the forming new divisions.

On 1 February 1944, the 1stRaider Regiment was redesignated as 4thMarine Regiment and folded into the 6thMarine Division.  The 1st, 4th, and 3rd Raider Battalions were re-designated as the first, second, and third battalions of the 4th Marines.  The 2nd Raider Battalion was re-designated as Weapons company, 4th Marines.  Nevertheless, Marines who had previously served as raiders served with distinction in later engagements; Sergeant Michael Strank, for example, formerly a raider, was one of the six Marines that participated in the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

During World War II, more than 8,000 men served with Marine Raider battalions.  Of these, seven raiders were awarded medals of honor [11], and 136 were awarded the Navy Cross.

The United States military has fielded special forces organizations since colonial times.  After the onset of World War II, these units supported combat operations within a specified theater of operations and were organic to and in general support of the major commands they served.  Examples include, Marine raiders, the First Special Service Force (Devil’s Brigade), Colonel Wendall Fertig’s Philippine Scouts, US Army Rangers, US Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (now called Navy SEALS), US Army Airborne and Special Forces regiments.

At no time prior to the 1975 Mayaguez Incident, however, did US Armed Services cross-train for the conduct joint special forces operations.  Following the 1980 disaster of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis, the US Department of Defense began to re-evaluate its joint services special operations capabilities. In 1984, the Department of Defense established the Joint Special Operations Agency, but the agency exercised neither operational or command authority over any US special operations forces.  Readiness, capability, or joint-service policy and procedure remained insufficient to real-world contingency planning.

Creation of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was not an easy undertaking, or rapid.  Nevertheless, the Defense Appropriations Bill of 1987 was signed into law in October 1986.  It was the intent of Congress to force the executive administration (and its DoD) to face up to the realities of past failures and emerging threats.  Moreover, the law required inter-service cooperation and established a single commander of all special operations forces with control over its own resources.

In 2005, the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was established at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina as a component command of the US Special Operations Command.  It is the Marine Corps’ contribution to the Special Operations mission of the Department of Defense.  MARSOC capability includes direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense missions, and counter-terrorism operations.  Initially, subordinate organizations were designated the 1st and 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalions, with personnel drawn from the Marine Corps’ Force Reconnaissance community.

 Marine Raider 002In August 2014, the Commandant of the Marine Corps announced that all Marine Corps units within MARSOC would henceforth be known as Marine Raiders.  Today, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command consists of the Marine Raider Regiment.  Organic to the regiment is a headquarters company and three (3) Marine Raider Battalions (based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and Camp Pendleton, California), the Marine Raider Support Group (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) with a headquarters element and three Raider Support Battalions, and the Marine Special Operations School, (located at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina).  The base unit of MARSOC is a fourteen-man Marine Corps Special Operations Team (MSOT).  These teams are commanded by a captain, who is assisted by a Team Chief in the rank of master sergeant.  Each team consists of two identical squads (referred to as tactical elements), each of which is led by a gunnery sergeant as Element Leader.

I suppose that it is at this point that Marine Raiders might parrot Arnold Schwarzenegger in his role as the Terminator by saying, “We’re Back!”

Notes:

[1] Soon after FDR’s reelection in 1936, James Roosevelt was given a direct commission as a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Marine Corps.  This caused public controversy for its obvious political implications.  In October 1939, after World War II broke out in Europe, James resigned his lieutenant colonel’s commission and was instead offered a commission to captain in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He went on active duty in November 1940 and was transferred to the Marine Raiders in January 1942.

[2] In 1940, Winston Churchill called for a force that could carry out raids against German-occupied Europe.  Commandos were initially formed within the British Army from individual volunteers for the Special Service Brigade (SSB). Eventually, British Commandos would include members of all branches of the British armed forces.  During World War II, the SSB reached a wartime strength of 30 units in four assault brigades.  After World War II, most commando units were disbanded, leaving only 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines with a commando role.

[3] Donovan became the director of the Office of Strategic Services (fore-runner of the Central Intelligence Agency) during World War II.

[4] It is interesting to me that Admiral Nimitz’ request for “commando units” came after the Carlson-Donovan proposal was submitted to President Roosevelt.

[5] Evans Carlson had nothing if not a colorful military career, which began prior to World War I.  He saw service in both the U. S. Army and the Marine Corps.  Having achieved the rank of captain in the Army field artillery, he resigned in 1921 and enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps in 1922. Eleven years later, Captain Carlson served as executive officer of the Marine Detachment at President Roosevelt’s vacation retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia where he became closely associated with the president and his son James.  Over time, Carlson developed far-left political views —which made him a lover of everything Chinese.  Carlson in fact organized and modeled his 2ndRaider Battalion on that of communist Chinese armies he had observed while stationed in China.  A famed Marine officer by the name of David M. Shoup once said of Carlson, “He may be a red, but he isn’t yellow.”

[6] Meaning teamwork

[7] Two medals of honor were awarded from this battle; one to Colonel Edson and the other to Major Kenneth D. Baily, commanding Company C, 1stRaider Battalion.

[8] Now known as Butaritari Island

[9] Captain Gerald P. Holtom, USMC; Sergeant Clyde Thomason, USMC (Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor); Field Medic First Class Vernon L. Castle, USN; Corporal I. B. Earles, USMC; Corporal Daniel A. Gaston, USMC; Corporal Harris J. Johnson, USMC; Corporal Kenneth K. Kunkle, USMC; Corporal Edward Maciejewski, USMC; Corporal Robert B. Pearson, USMC; Corporal Mason O. Yarbrough, USMC; PFC William A. Gallagher, USMC; PFC Ashley W. Hicks, USMC; PFC Kenneth M. Montgomery, USMC; PFC Norman W. Mortensen, USMC; PFC Charles A. Selby, USMC; Private Carlyle O. Larson, USMC; Private Robert B. Maulding, USMC; Private Franklin M. Nodland, USMC; Private John E. Vandenberg, USMC

[10] Lieutenant General Alan Shapley (February 9, 1903 – May 13, 1973) survived the sinking of USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He served with distinction in the Pacific theater and in the Korean War.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry on 7 December 1941, the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in the Battle of Guam, and ended his career as Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.

[11] Major Kenneth D. Baily, USMC; Corporal Richard E. Bush, USMC; Lieutenant Colonel Justice M. Chambers, USMC; Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC; Private First Class Henry Gurke, USMC; Sergeant Clyde A. Thomson, USMC; Gunnery Sergeant William G. Walsh, USMC; First Lieutenant Jack Lummus, USMC

 

4 thoughts on “Marine Raiders”

  1. Tis, now Friday the 5th of Oct. The Cherry Point Inn is no place to stay for an extended period. And the news from Socialist Washington is awful. I am not a happy lad just now.

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