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CARLSON OF THE MARINE RAIDERS  

Brigadier General Evans F. Carlson, USMC

         

"Evans F. Carlson got an early start in his career as a maverick. He ran away from his home in Vermont at the age of 14 and two years later bluffed his way past the recruiters to enlist in the Army. When war broke out in 1917, he already had five years of service under his belt. Like Merritt A. Edson, he soon won a commission, but arrived at the front too late to see combat. After the war he tried to make it as a salesman, but gave that up in 1922 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. In a few months he earned a commission again. Other than a failed attempt at  flight school, his first several years as a Marine lieutenant were unremarkable."

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In 1927 Carlson deployed to Shanghai with 4th Marines. There he became regimental intelligence officer and developed a deep interest  in China that would shape the remainder of his days. Three years later, commanding an outpost of the Guardia National in Nicaragua, he had his first brush with guerrilla warfare. That became the second guiding star of his career. In his only battle, he successfully engaged and dispersed an enemy unit in a daring night attack. There followed a tour with the Legation Guard in Peking, and a stint as executive officer of the presidential guard detachment at Warm Springs, Georgia. In the latter job Carlson came to know Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Captain Carlson arrived in Shanghai for his third China tour in July 1937. Again like Edson, he watched the Japanese seize control of the city. Detailed to duty as an observer, Carlson sought and received permission to accompany the Chinese Communist Party's 8th Route Army, which was fighting against the Japanese. For the next year he divided his time between the front lines and the temporary Chinese capital of Hangkow. During that time he developed his ideas on guerrilla warfare and ethical indoctrination. When a senior naval officer censured him for granting newspaper interviews, Carlson returned to the states and resigned so that he could speak out about the situation in China. He believed passionately that the United States should do more to help the Chinese in their war with Japan.

During the next two years Carlson spoke and wrote on the subject, to include two books (The Chinese Army and Twin Stars of China), and made another trip to China. With the war looming for the United States, he sought to rejoin the Corps in April 1941. The Commandant granted his request, made him a major in the reserves, and promptly brought him onto active duty. Ten months later he created the 2d Raider Battalion.

After his departure from the raiders in 1943, Carlson served as operations officer of the 4th Marine Division. He made the Tarawa landing as an observer and participated with his division in the assaults on Kwajalein and Saipan. In the latter battle he received severe wounds in the arm and leg while trying to pull his wounded radio operator out of the line of enemy fire of an enemy machine gun. After the war Carlson retired from the Marine Corps and made a brief run in the 1946 California Senate race before a heart attack forced him out of the campaign. He died in May 1947.

The Carlson/Raiders Controversy  Most Marines remember Carlson for his raid on Makin island on August 17, 1942 with his 2d Raider Battalion. But lesser known is that "Carlson's Raiders" are also well known for their famous 31 day patrol (4Nov--4Dec 1942) behind enemy lines on Guadalcanal, usually referred to as "The Long Patrol." Thought to be the longest WWII patrol of its kind, it resulted in 488 enemy killed, and 16 killed and 18 wounded for the 2d Raider Battalion.
 
Lesser known still is the fact that both Carlson and the concept itself of the raider battalions were controversial subjects in the Marine Corps. Many books written about Marines in the Pacific during WWII mention Carlson only briefly and in some cases, in rather uncomplimentary terms. I have read several books describing him (and/or quoting others as doing so) as Red but not yellow, an oddball, approaching crackpot level, etc. Others, including general officers, have referred to him as a remarkable man, worthy of better treatment than he received, etc.
 
There is only one book which goes very far into detail regarding Carlson, a biography, i.e., The Big Yankee: The Life Of Carlson of the Raiders, By Michael Blankfort, Little, Brown and Company, Boston 1947. Also, a book describing in detail Carlson's Long Patrol, is the book, The Island: A History of the Marines On Guadalcanal, By Captain Herbert C. Merillat, USMCR, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1944. These books have long since gone out of print, but may be available in libraries, and sometimes available for purchase through used-book
sellers, although rare and prices a bit high. Rarer still are Carlson's books (The Chinese Army and Twin Stars of China); I found one of these on an Internet search at $250.
 
There is one new book on the horizon, i.e., "The First Gung-Ho Marine: Evans F. Carlson of the Raiders," By Phyliss Zimmerman; the publisher is presently due to release the book for sale on December 15, 1999 (previously scheduled for release in March 99), and at least one WWW bookseller is now taking orders. (Note: The release date has now been extended to May 2000). --RWG 

The Donovan Connection:  Another little-known item of information that I learned of, relating to the Marine raider units, is the following.
 

"On 14 January 1942 the Commandant of the Marine Corps advised the Commanding General, Amphibious Force, Atlantic (Major General Holland M. Smith) and the Commanding General, Department of the Pacific (Major General Charles F. B. Price) of a proposal to appoint Colonel William J. Donovan, USA, to brigadier general USMCR with duty as commanding officer of the raider project. Both generals were requested to comment on the proposal, and both used the opportunity to comment generally on the entire raider concept.
 
General Smith recommended against the appointment of Donovan on grounds that the Marine Corps should not have to go outside its ranks to secure leaders. He also opposed the raider concept on philosophical grounds, noting that all Amphibious Force, Atlantic Marines could be trained in raiding techniques by their own officers if deemed important...thereby expressing a view that would become increasingly common among senior Marine officers, namely, that there was no task that the "elite" raider units could perform any more effectively than their regular line units.
 
General Price's reply noted that the rapid expansion of the Marine Corps was resulting in an extreme shortage of qualified officers and senior NCOs with the requisite command experience...
On 4 February 1942, the Commanding General...ordered the formation of four company strength raider units...Concurrently, the Commandant of the Marine Corps ordered organization of the 2d Separate Battalion on the west coast....
 
In early February, General Holcomb wrote to General Smith, acknowledging the latter's letter, and offering some details on the matter of appointing Donovan. (*) Apparently the impetus for this appointment originated with a "very high authority" and only the Commandant's "utter disapproval" stayed the matter. It was apparent that the Marine Corps' expanded interest in raider units was at least partly the result of intense high level political pressure. General Holcomb stated: ...we must act and act quickly. We must prepare ourselves particularly for one of our most important missions, viz.; the execution of amphibious raids....In view of the situation now facing us, it is imperative that we intensify this type of training....
 
In a move at least partly precipitated by a desire to avoid a political appointee as leader of the raider units, Lieutenant Colonels Merritt A. Edson and Evans F. Carlson were designated to command the two battalions...

The basic mission of the two new raider units was threefold: To be the spearhead of amphibious landings by larger forces on beaches generally thought to be inaccessible; to conduct raiding expeditions requiring great elements of surprise and high speed; and to conduct guerilla type operations for protracted periods behind enemy lines."

(*)  Donovan was subsequently selected to be chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA.

(Re Special Marine Corps Units Of World War II, By Charles L. Updegraph, Jr., History and Museums Division, HQMC)

And, in 1943....
Interestingly enough, on page 319 of The Big Yankee, is found the following.

"...he went to Washington. He had decided to take his fight to Headquarters. He saw General Holcomb, the Commandant...They listened and asked him questions...But nothing was said about sending him back to the Pacific. In short, he had lost the final round for the Raider idea.

...Holcomb saw him again and suggested perhaps General William J. Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services might have a task for Carlson. He conferred with Donovan,..., then General Stillwell's adviser in China, and a job was offered to him, the details of which are still, and may well be for a very long time to come, top secret.

Carlson, however, saw that the mission had certain political aspects which were repugnant to him, and he begged to be relieved. 'I'd rather go back to the Pacific,' he told a friend, 'and get a good clean bullet right in the heart.'

Other InformationThe interested reader here will, as I have, find an abundance of interesting information regarding Carlson, the Raiders and other related material by researching those writings I have already mentioned as well as others that I will list at the bottom of this webpage. I was seven years old when Carlson's Raiders went ashore on Makin; I still remember not too long thereafter seeing the movie "Gung Ho!, " the movie about the Makin raid. My favorite uncle, shortly after Pearl Harbour, had turned seventeen and went to the Marines. After boot camp at PISC, he went to Quantico for training as a water purification specialist, then to 2dMarine Division where he made the Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan/Tinian campaigns.

I have always been interested in the subject of WW II Marines, and especially Carlson and his raiders; but it has taken me many years to arrive at the point of seeking out those resources with the answers to my specific questions regarding these things. 

It is hoped that by my writing of these things here, I may provide other interested readers with the information needed to delve into the Carlson saga. And, perhaps, those reading this (Carlson's Raiders, etc.) with knowledge of this subject will be inclined to advise me concerning this.

The following are a few more of the topics of interest to be found in the resources as noted.

Gung Ho!

The basis of Carlson's thinking was what he called Gung Ho, basically, "work together." But his concept of this was not merely a battle cry, a slogan or a motto, etc.; it is an ideal that goes to the very root and core of leadership and the social structure of the military unit. He held open " Gung Ho Talks" with his troops with all hands having a say in the matters at hand. Leaders were those who were recognized by their ability to lead, rather than being appointed to rank. Of course, this all came from his experience with the Chinese 8th Route Army, where he had first recognized that the true basis of leadership was ethics itself (something he had pondered upon all his life to that point). Thus he attempted to teach and guide his raiders in what he referred to as Ethical Indoctrination. Some thought that he carried this too far, but not his own men. He did not carry his ideals of leadership and organization beyond the confines of Marine Corps regulations, but others feared that he would. Carlson insisted on officers and enlisted alike eating the same food, being provided the same quarters, etc. They sang hymns and patriotic songs together, often with Carlson playing his harmonica. He not only allowed, he insisted  each of his own men make decisions on their own.

Carlson had a grasp of what it is that makes men fight. His long and varied service plus his constant study and reflection upon the subject left him with beliefs and theories that he had been developing for many years. These he used in establishing his 2d Raider Battalion. He knew it was necessary for men to know why and for what they were fighting. He taught his Marines the implications involved between the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific. And every man could ask questions and state his views. They also discussed matters such as what kind of society they wanted after the war, etc.

Interviewed by Robert Sherrod aboard ship just prior to the Tarawa invasion Carlson said, "You spoke about espirit de corps...the Marine Corps has it to a high degree. But when the going gets toughest, when it takes a little more drive to stay sane and to keep going, and a man is hungry and tired, then he needs more than espirit de corps. It takes conviction....Our greatest weakness is the caliber of our officers, and that, of course, is a reflection of our system of education." Carlson went on to state that the best officers were enlisted men after they had proven themselves in battle.

Within a few days after the battle for Tarawa, Carlson was flown home. He spoke before a meeting of one thousand officers at Camp Pendleton. "Tarawa was won," Carlson told them, "because a few enlisted men of great courage called out simply to their comrades, 'Come on, fellows. Follow me!' And then went on, followed by men who took heart at their example, to knock out, at great sacrifice, one Jap position after another, slowly, until there were no more. Tarawa is a victory because some enlisted men, unaffected by the loss of their officers, many of whom were casualties in the first hour, became great and heroic commanders in their own right.

"But--" He paused for a long time. "But with all that courage and fortitude and willingness to die on the part of some of the men, too many others lacked initiative and resourcefulness. They were not trained to understand the need for sacrifice. Too many men waited for orders--and while they waited they died. What if they had been trained not to wait for orders?"

He was deeply angry. Lives could have been saved. It was this very matter he had mentioned to Robert Sherrod of Time...."What if they had been trained not to wait for orders?" Carlson had asked. And how extraordinary was the resourcefulness of the few!...But if all had been trained to act by themselves...."Our leaders did not give them that chance," Carlson told the thousand Marine officers at Camp Pendleton."

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Jane Resture
(E-mail:jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 12th May 2012)