The week of August 17 was a special one for the men in uniform who are considered the fathers of the modern Special Operations Forces so critical to today’s armed forces: The Marine Raiders, whose heroism in World War II was saluted with the opening of Raider Hall at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
The crucial role played in the Pacific by the four Raider battalions in the early days of World War II was highlighted in remarks delivered by a former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Alfred Grey. Raider Hall features equipment and exhibits about 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.” Much-decorated Gen. Chesty Puller, for example, resented such an elite unit’s 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, Maj. Sam Puller, was himself a Raider and was killed in the battle of Guam in 1944).
Red Chinese ‘Gung Ho’
Students of the contemporary Special Operations units may be a bit surprised to learn of their origins from the Chinese Communists. In the 1930s, Marine Major (later Brigadier General) Evans F. Carlson had spent nearly two years in China learning guerrilla 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 guerrilla 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, Ga. (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 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 Aug.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, 18 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 18 fallen Marines were recovered and 59 years to the day — Aug. 17, 2001 — they were interred at Arlington National Cemetery,” recalled retired onetime Raider Ken O’Donnell.
The First Raider Battalion moved on to capture Tulagi. By the end of 1942, two more Raider battalions had been formed and trained. Raiders played major roles in the battles of the Solomon Islands and New Georgia, at Guadalcanal.
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.
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 members of 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.
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 the 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).
On the walls of Raider Hall, there is a roster naming each of the 6,000 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 says 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.”