View Full Version : Marine Raiders disappeared in World War II, but not forgotten

11-06-03, 07:26 AM
Marine Raiders disappeared in World War II, but not forgotten

November 2, 2003

Phil Luciano

Sucker-punched at Pearl Harbor, America jumped into a war that quickly had the Allies against the ropes.

By the onset of 1942, Germany had tromped British resistance throughout Europe. Japan had flared throughout the Pacific, threatening to overwhelm British and U.S. forces.

Enter the Marine Raiders, a new breed of commando who could go toe-to-toe in the Japanese's own game of guerrilla warfare.

The Raiders were elite, efficient and effective. They were inspired, incisive and indefatigable.

And, suddenly, nine were ghosts.

For six decades, the nine vanished Raiders existed only in a scant few memories that knew of their harrowing execution and inexplicable disappearance. But next week, on Veterans Day, the U.S. military will officially recognized their sacrifice with a monument near the site when they drew their last breaths.

"The Marine Corps never gives up. They find these people," says Harold Berg of Normal, a former Raider and one of just 22 veterans nationally who will attend the dedication of the monument.

It will have to serve as a gravestone for the nine Raiders. They have not been found and likely never will.

But their story has been rediscovered.


By early 1942, the Japanese had forged toeholds throughout the Marshall and Gilbert islands, with a base of operations in Kwajalein, an atoll 2,100 miles southwest of Hawaii. A key outpost was developed on Makin atoll, 500 miles to the south, where the Japanese built a runway and harbored seaplanes. >From this spot, they could blockade Allied supplies from reaching Australia.

The American military decided to push the Japanese from the region by starting with the enemy's entrenchment in Guadalcanal. But how? The typical U.S. battalion was too cumbersome and slow to counteract the fast-moving Japanese.

The answer came from Marine Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson, who as an observer in China during the Sino-Japanese War had witnessed the deadly speed of guerilla regiments. Carlson, who had the ear of Franklin D. Roosevelt, envisioned the Marine Raiders, who would move within the cloak of submarines and spring upon their targets. Lightly armed and lightning quick, they would push back the enemy, then bolt out of the way to let conventional forces finish the job and secure the area.

In February 1942, training began in earnest, in two battalions. Carlson (who instilled the rally cry "Gung Ho!" - Chinese for "work together") would command the Second Battalion, based in San Diego. The First Battalion began in Quantico, Va., under the helm of Merritt A. Edson, a former Marine airman who also had observed guerrilla tactics in China.

They had the pick of the military's finest enlisted men. Carlson and Edson sought fearless volunteers.

"They basically told you that your chances of coming back home were very slim," says Normal veteran Berg, a former Peorian who left Woodruff High School his junior year to enlist in the Marines. He would join the Second Battalion in 1943. "I was a young 17-year-old. All I wanted to do was fight the Japanese."

The Raiders' first mission called for a one-two punch. The First Battalion would take a slow route to Guadalcanal to roust the Japanese. Meanwhile, to divert potential enemy reinforcements, the Second would blast onto Makin to preoccupy Japanese forces to the north.

The Second Battalion would make the first move. On Aug. 17, 1942, its 222 Raiders silently edged up to Makin, launching the Marine's first-ever submarine raid.

The Raiders slid ashore on 10-man rubber rafts. Confusion reigned at first, as volatile surf and conflicting orders had units scrambling to find their proper attack points. With bugle calls, the Japanese responded in full force. A melee of a firefight broke out, while Japanese airborne reinforcements strafed the Raiders' position. The battle raged through the night and into the next morning.

"It was an awful mess," says Ben Carson, a Minnesota native and one of the 222 Raiders.

Under flashes of battle disorientation, Lt. Col. Carlson decided to surrender. Further, he might have been influenced by the peril to the president's son, Capt. James Roosevelt, who was serving under his command at Makin.

Carson grumbles, "We didn't want to take him in the first place. He was prime bait. If the Japanese would've caught him, they would've sent him back to Franklin D. one piece at a time."

At any rate, Lt. Col. Carlson ordered a group of Raiders to bring him a Japanese solider, a task that proved momentarily daunting, if not immediately foreshadowing: They couldn't find any. Finally, they captured a solider, then handed him Carlson's written surrender to take to his Japanese superiors.

From his bunker, Carson heard a fellow Raider yell to Carson's company, "You're on your own! (Lt. Col. Carlson) is going to surrender."

Shock seized the troops. Surrender? By their own count, they'd suffered few casualties.

"We knew there were few Japs left," Carson said. "We were astounded. What the Sam Hill was going on?"

So Carson and others kept firing. One bullet felled the Japanese solider toting the surrender note. His superiors never got it.

After awhile, gunfire died down. Eventually, the Raiders crawled out of their foxholes to recon the enemy. They couldn't find any.

They'd taken the island.

Lt. Col. Carlson decided to move out the battalion in anticipation of conventional forces securing the desolate atoll. Carlson surveyed the fallen bodies, 89 Japanese to 19 Marines. He paid the village chief $50 to bury the Americans.

Nine remained missing. Carlson figured they'd been shot dead in the surf and washed away.

So, he ordered the sub hatch closed, and they churned away from Makin. Seven days later, the sub would slide into Pearl Harbor to a hero's welcome.

But Carlson had miscued. The missing nine hadn't died. Not yet.

Bud Carson believes the military kept the disappearance hush-hush to avoid embarrassment, especially considering the rest of the operation went swimmingly. The First Battalion took Guadalcanal, where Carlson's Raiders later served valiantly. Afterward, Carlson and the Makin raid were lionized in the stateside-popular motion picture "Gung Ho!"

After the Allies secured the Pacific, the Raiders' guerilla skills were deemed no longer necessary. In early 1944, they were folded into conventional Marine battalions. Carlson died in 1947, while counterpart Edson (who after Guadalcanal led further campaigns in the Pacific) died in 1955.

The Raiders became a footnote, as did the buried and missing Marines on the Makin atoll. But surviving vets, through their Marine Raiders Association, kept pressure on the military for resolution.

In 1999, a team of forensic anthropologists working for the U.S. Army found the grave on Makin (now part of Butaritari) of the 19 Raiders long ago buried by the village chief. Through DNA tests, they were identified. Six Raider families claimed and buried remains privately; the 13 others were interred at Arlington National Ceremony under a full-honors ceremony.

That effort left nine Makin Raiders lost to the blurs of war and time. But that's changing. National Geographic has been working on a documentary, while Hollywood has planned a movie.

"This thing is kind of a revelation to the world," says Ben Carson, now 80 and living in Oregon.

Louis Zamperini first told his version of the story in 1943 to military-intelligence officers. He's told it again this year in the book "Devil at My Heels." Nicholas Cage wants to play him in a film biography.

Zamperini attended the University of Southern California, where he became such a track star that he went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

After Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. During a rescue mission in 1943, his B-24 malfunctioned and crashed into the Pacific. He and another crewman spent 47 days drifting in a life raft, barely surviving on a small cache of candy bars and other salvaged rations.

They came ashore on Wotje Island in the Marshalls, where they were captured by the Japanese. Zamperini weighed 66 pounds.

The pair was taken to another island, the Japanese base of Kwajalein, and shoved into separate cells measuring 30 inches wide, 6 feet wide and 6 feet high. Weak and constrained, Zamperini lay on the ground and stared at the wall.

Six inches from his face, he spotted a crude yet riveting engraving, "9 Marines marooned on Makin Island - August 1942." Each of the nine was listed by name.


11-06-03, 07:27 AM
Early in his confinement, Zamperini was visited by a native who followed the USC Trojans and knew of Zamperini's athletic feats. A shocked Zamperini asked about the nine Marines on the wall.

"They were all killed by the decapitations with the samurai sword. That is what happens to all prisoners who come to Kwajelein," the native said, according to Zamperini, now 86 and back in his home town of Torrance, Calif.

Zamperini would spend six weeks mulling those names. He later would tell U.S. intelligence officers, "I took a name each day and wondered about that person's life. I asked myself, 'What did he look like? Where was he from? Did he have a girlfriend, or was he married? Did he have children? How would his family take the news of his death?'

"I wondered about his fearful reaction or last emotional thoughts as the sword came swiftly down, sending his head rolling."

On his 42nd day, an emaciated Zamperini was taken from his cell, certain of the same death that had befallen the nine Marines. However, in a break with Japanese policy to kill all POWs on Kwajelein, the enemy took him to Japan. They figured his athletic stardom would carry weight in anti-American radio messages they forced him to record.

Zamperini says he memorized the nine names. But starvation and beatings took their toll on his mind. By the time he was liberated at the end of the war, he had forgotten the names - but not the cell-wall inscription.

Meanwhile, after the Allies took the Marshall Islands in 1944, other recollections of the nine Raiders began trickling in to American military intelligence. One Makin native said he'd seen the men negotiate a surrender with the Japanese. A Kwajalein villager said he'd witnessed one of the executions.

After V-J Day, U.S. intelligence officers interrogated three Japanese officers on Kwajelein. They denied any knowledge of executions, but the truth came out in 1946 as the trio was tried before the Naval War Crimes Commission in Guam.

The nine Raiders had been captured on Makin by the Japanese, who by their POW policy transported them to Kwajalein. The initial plan was to send them to Japan for incarceration.

But, according to Vice Adm. Koso Abe, commander of all Marshall Island bases, Japanese Central Authorities told him: "From now on, it will not be necessary to transport prisoners to Japan. They will be disposed of locally (in Kwajalein)."

Capt. Yoshio Obara, commander of Kwajelein, said he at first refused to execute the nine Raiders. But, he said, Abe threatened his life.

The execution was set for mid-October as part of the Yasakuni Shrine Festival, a Japanese holiday honoring departed heroes. Obara ordered his military-police chief, Comdr. Hiusakichi Naiki, to carry out the executions.

Naiki, who had befriended some of the prisoners, at first tried to persuade Obara otherwise. Obara would not relent.

On Oct. 16, the prisoners were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs. They were taken to the southern edge of the island, where Abe and Obara arrived in full uniform.

One at a time, each Raider was led to an open pit and ordered to kneel. Each was beheaded by sword and dumped into the hole.

The War Crimes Commission found the trio guilty of "violation of the law and custom of war and the moral standards of civilized society." Abe was hanged; Obara and Naiki were sent to prison.

This year, Bud Carson and Lou Zamperini were flown to Kwajalein by the U.S. Army, which leases the island from the Marshallese people and maintains a missile base there. Carson and Zamperini tried to help a team of archeologists and anthropologists find the grave of the nine Raiders.

However, in 1944, the island was bombarded by Allied war planes, pockmarking it so severely that the Army bulldozed deeply into the earth to create a walkable terrain. All of that soil was shoved into the turbulent sea. Moreover, twice since the war, the Army Corps of Engineers has extended the size of Kwajalein to accommodate military needs, further disrupting the turf.

The expedition proved fruitless. Not so much as a dog tag ever has been recovered.

"The chances of finding these guys in one spot is slim," admits Zamperini.

Yet America finally will honor them. By process of elimination, the Army has determined the identities of the nine Raiders, who will be remembered at a Nov. 11 ceremony in Kwajalein.

All Raiders have been invited, but their ranks have dwindled. Only 22 will attend.

Carson and Zamperini (though not a Raider) will be at the ceremony, as will Harold Berg, who served as one of Capt. Edson's Raiders in 1943. Sill active as a Normal property appraiser at age 77, marksman Berg earned four service stars in the Pacific and now serves on the national board of the Marine Raider Association.

He didn't know any of the nine executed Marines. But he considers them all brothers.

"What it means to me is, I'm pretty much living their life," he says somberly. "I came home and my life's gone on, where theirs just came to a standstill."

At a brief ceremony, the Army will dedicate the marker, which includes a brief narrative on the executions. The plaque's final line offers a quote from Gen. George Patton:

"It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

Editor's note: Background sources for this story included "From Makin to Bougainville: Marine Raiders in the Pacific War," written by Marine Major John T. Hoffman and published by the U.S. Marine Corps; and various stories published by the Kwajalein Hourglass, a newspaper published by the U.S. Army.

- Contact Phil Luciano at pluciano@pjstar.com, 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155.

Members of the Marine Raiders, Second Battalion, executed on Makin atoll on Oct. 16, 1942:

Robert V. Allard, Sgt., USMCR, Company B, Navy Cross

Dallas H. Cook, Sgt., USMC, Company B, Navy Cross

Joseph Gifford, Cpl., USMC, Company B

Richard E. Davis, PFC, USMC Company A

Richard N. Olbert, PFC, USMCR Company B, Navy Cross

William E. Pallesen, PFC, USMC, Company B

John I. Kerns, Pvt, USMCR Company A, Navy Cross

Alden O. Mattison, Pvt., USMCR Company A

Donald R. Robertson, Pvt., USMC Company B, Navy Cross