American Commando by John Wukovits

The US Marine 2nd Raider Battalion, with its colorful and controversial commander Evans Carlson, made plenty of headlines during World War II, but this is the first serious attempt at a history of that unit as far as I know.

Join me for a brief look at a history of these larger than life American warriors.

I’m sure many readers here will know the basic details of the Raider Battalions.  They were formed early in the War so the Marines would have their own commando force. The first two battalions were formed on the East Coast (1st Raider Battalion) and West Coast (2nd Raider Battalion) in February of 1942.  The two commanders, Merritt Edson and Evans Carlson, were very different men who trained and led their units very differently.  Obviously this book will focus on Carlson, but I found the occasionally mentioned contrasts to be most fascinating.

Evans Carlson had a long history as  a Soldier and Marine.  He fought in Nicaragua.  He  became friends with Franklin Roosevelt when he was a part of the President’s ceremonial guard.  Then he served in China and spent time with the Chinese Communist forces.  He learned a lot about irregular operations this way, especially the Chinese concept of “gung ho”; which apparently best translates as “team work”.  This association, and admiration he had for the Chinese Communists would prove highly influential and a mixed blessing to his career.

When the Raider Battalions were formed Gung Ho became the organizational philosophy behind Carlson’s unit. It meant almost every decision became a meeting and a discussion, it was democracy in its purest form.  This was a pretty radical approach for a military unit, especially in the Marines.  It also wouldn’t outlast Carlson, no other commander wanted to do things this way.  A more lasting development was Carlson’s organization of fire teams.  He set up three man teams, armed with M1, BAR and Thompson sub-machine gun.  This gave the Raider Battalion VERY heavy firepower for this stage of the war, and this organization would become standard by the mid-point of the war.

What really set Carlson’s Raiders apart was a brutal level of physical conditioning and tactical training.  They routinely did 50 mile hikes, off road with heavy gear. The final piece, that ensured wide spread media attention for the unit, was Carlson chose the president’s son James Roosevelt as his second in command.  Cynics would claim “gung ho” truly meant “find the nearest camera”.  By most counts Roosevelt proved to be a capable Executive Officer and was popular with the Raiders.

The Second Raider Battalion is best known for two main actions.  The  first is a raid on Makin Atoll.  This was in August of 1942 and was nominally a diversion for the Guadalcanal operation.  200 men were transported by two submarines (Nautalis and Argonaut) to destroy facilities and capture Intel.  The mission was technically a success and generated a lot of publicity.  It was seen as fighting back, as the US finally taking the offensive against Japan.  But overall the raid was poorly managed.  Carlson was hesitant and let his Raiders get drawn into a fairly orthodox small unit action.  He failed to accurately determine the size of resistance he faced and apparently failed to even recognized he had annihilated the Japanese garrison for several hours after doing so.

Even worse, the return to the submarines was badly botched.  Almost half the Raiders, including Carlson and Roosevelt failed to get their rubber boats through the surf and were forced to spend an extra night on the island.  Roosevelt got off the next day, but Carlson and the last group were stuck until that night.  And during that return, one boat of nine men strayed from the group and got left behind.  They were assumed drowned at the time, but it was learned post-war from Louis Zamparini (see Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) that the nine men were captured and transported to Kwajalein where they were beheaded.

The Battalion’s other major operation was on Guadalcanal.  In November of 1942 they were transported to that battle zone and launched what was known as “the long patrol”.  They spent 30 days in the jungle, in nearly continuous contact with the enemy.  They disrupted Japanese communication and supply, gathered Intel and finally destroyed the Japanese gun known as “Pistol Pete”. This last involved climbing an 11000 foot mountain, in the jungle, by exhausted and half starved men.

The long patrol suffered 16 dead and inflicted nearly 500 fatalities on the enemy.  It best proved the worth of the Raiders and Carlson’s abilities.  But it also was the end of the Raiders.  This is where I wish the book had focused more on the differences between the 1st and 2nd Raider Battalions, because the 1st Raiders had already been on Guadalcanal (and Tulagi) since August.  I think the 1st Raiders have generally been better served by serious historians since the war in part because they fought more closely with regular Marine Units.  Merritt “Red Mike” Edson used his Battalion for close in reconnaissance and plugging holes as an elite light infantry unit.  Their heroic stand defending the Henderson Field perimeter is the stuff of legend.  And Edson was apparently a better team player, at least his style and philosophies were more appealing to the bulk of the Marine Corps.

In the end, the Marine Corps decided the Raiders were redundant.  Every Marine was considered elite, there was no need for a more elite sub-set.  This makes pretty good sense since American resources and industry were finally getting on their war footing; there was no longer such a need to deploy very small units or nip around the edges.  The US was ready to face Japan with a massive force of arms.

The legacy of the 2nd Raider Battalion is as America’s first special forces unit in modern history.  They pioneered a type of operation that would be used in Korea, and especially Viet Nam.  We regularly hear of special forces in action today, and much of their history and tactics go back to Evans Carlson and the early days of World War II.

This story also has a very personal connection for me.  In 1980, when I was 16, I got my first job as a part-time elementary school custodian.  My boss, the head custodian “Kudge” Foster (I don’t think I ever knew his real name!) was one of Carlson’s Raiders.  I was already pretty into WWII history and knew exactly how impressed to be when I found this out.  And Kudge loved telling his war stories!  I’m sure he was partly full of hot air(!), but he truly had plenty to be proud of.  He was part of a detachment on Midway Island during the battle there (and now I know that means he was in E or F Company), he missed Makin, he was camped in Espiritu Santo, he was on “the long patrol” on Guadalcanal and won a Purple Heart in his post-Raider service on Bougainville (he always said “good thing it was minor wound, because that cheap plastic ‘medal’ wasn’t worth anything”.  Errr, actually he might have used a few words I won’t repeat here…).  I didn’t see the “Foster” name anywhere in the book or its index, but one picture of an unnamed Raider with a native scout looks a lot like a young Kudge to me.  I mean really, A LOT!   Anyway, my brush with greatness…

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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6 Responses to American Commando by John Wukovits

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great story Dave!

  2. Wow. To have crossed paths with such an interesting man no matter how much may have been ‘hot-air’. Fascinating stuff.

  3. What an incredible story! The stuff of legends! Thanks for sharing Dave.

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