'Gung Ho:' Honoring Marine Raiders

The week of August 17th will be a special one for the men in uniform considered the fathers of the modern Special Operations Forces that are a staple of today’s armed forces:  the Marine Raiders, whose heroism in World War II will be saluted with the opening of Raider Hall at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

With remarks delivered by former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant and Gen. Alfred Grey, the crucial role played in the Pacific by the four Raider battalions in the early days of World War II will be highlighted.  Raider Hall features equipment and exhibits of the Marines, who conducted amphibious landings in the island battles in the Pacific and operated behind enemy lines.  

The Raiders were the first American combat forces to wear camouflage, to be trained in martial arts and knife fighting, and to operate at night.  To some uniformed cynics, the Raiders were an “elite force within an elite force.”  The much-decorated Gen. Chesty Puller, for example, resented such an elite unit being created within his beloved Marine Corps because, as one of his comrades-in-arms recalled, “Chesty felt he was as good as any of them.” (Puller’s brother, Major Sam Puller, was himself a Raider and was killed in the battle of Guam in 1944).

“Gung Ho” Came From Red Chinese

Students of the contemporary Special Operations units may be a bit surprised to learn the genesis of their earliest ancestor:  the Chinese Communists.  In the 1930’s, Marine Major (later Brigadier General) Evans F. Carlson had spent nearly two years in China learning guerilla tactics from Mao Tse-Tung and his Communists as they fought against Japanese occupiers.  From that experience, Carlson brought back to the U.S. a first hand knowledge of guerilla warfare and a phrase that would become the battle cry of the Raiders:  “Gung Ho,” Chinese for “work together.”  

After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt sought an elite strike force and turned to Carlson, who had once commanded the Marine detachment at FDR’s vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia.  (Marine Reserve Capt. James Roosevelt, the President’s eldest son, would become Carlson’s right-hand man).  Within three months, the first two Raider battalions were trained and went into action.  

Makin Island is a name known to every World War II Marine.  It was home to a Japanese base in the Pacific and the site of the newly-formed Raiders on August 17, 1942.  At a time when the U.S. had suffered considerable setbacks in the Pacific, the Makin mission was a major success.  In overpowering the enemy, however, eighteen of the 211 Raiders were killed.  One was Sgt. Clyde Thomason, who was killed while leading an assault and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first enlisted Marine in World War II to receive America’s highest military honor.    

“And the remains of the eighteen fallen Marines were recovered and fifty-nine years to the day — August 17, 2001 — they were interred at Arlington National Cemetery,” recalled retired onetime Raider Ken O’Donnell, adding that remarks at the funeral were delivered by the Marine Corps commandant at the time, Gen. Jim Jones (now national security adviser to President Obama).  Sgt. Thomason is honored at Raider Hall.

The First Raider Battalion moved on to capture Tulagi.  By the end of 1942, two more Raider battalions had been formed and trained.  Raiders would play major parts in the campaigns in the battles of the Solomon Islands and New Georgia, at Guadalcanal, and at the battle of Tarawa.  

No Raider likes the term “disbanded,” but, as former Raider O’Donnell put it, “that’s about what happened to us in February of 1944.”  As large-scale assaults were required on the remaining Japanese-held islands, the Marine Corps brass saw far less use for small units that specialized in going behind enemy lines.  The four Raider battalions and the Marine paratroopers were merged into the regular Marines, thus reforming the old Fourth Marine Regiment.  

One moving moment for the Raiders did come later.  In August of 1945, days before the surrender was signed on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, the 4th Marine Regiment had gone into Japan and came upon a prison camp where their predecessor unit — the earlier 4th Marine Regiment, which had been captured — were being held.  The old 4th Marines were promptly freed and then reviewed the new 4th, who marched before them on parade.  Then the new 4th went on to Tokyo.  

As the “greatest generation” is hailed, it is also frequently pointed out that many are taking their last salute.  More World War II veterans die every day than were killed in action in closing days of the war in the Pacific..  But their memory lives on.  The U.S. Army’s elite Green Beret unit, for example, is in many ways is a direct descendant of the Raiders in terms of training and operating behind enemy lines.  In the U.S. Marine Corps itself, the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command was activated in 2003 and has played a major role in the war on terror (although its units are not called Raiders).

In the walls of Raider Hall, there is a roster naming each of the 6000 Marines who were in their ranks of Raiders during their two years existence.  The legend on the plaque honoring the 899 Raiders killed in action say it all:  “The bricks that surround this plaque will honor the lives and deeds of these Raiders who gave the last full measure.  They will live in our memories forever.”