The Raid On MAKIN ISLAND
By MajGen Oscar F. Peatross, USMC (Ret.) - Originally Published August 2002
Carlson's Raiders: Their name still conjures images of Marine commandos stealing ashore, quickly sinking unwary Japanese outposts, and then leaving as silently as they arrived by the sea.
Retired Major General Oscar F. Peatross, now living in Frogmore, S.C., was a first lieutenant then, and a member of the famous August 17 and 18, 1942, raid on Makin Island where he won the Navy Cross. It was one of the earliest offensive actions of World War II and news of the raid, according to Gen Peatross, "had an enthusiastic response back in the States. To the man on the street, the picture of a handful of Marines landing from submarines to engage the enemy in a face-to-face shootout was somehow more heroic, more in the American tradition than bushwhacking him from a bomber (as the Doolittle raid) flying at 5,000 to 10,000 feet."
In his forthcoming book, tentatively titled "Bless 'Em all - Marine Raiders of World War II," Gen Peatross devotes a chapter to the Makin raid and to retelling and bringing to light what history has thus far forgotten or left buried in time. The general has spent countless hours interviewing the survivors, rereading papers in the archives and other historical accounts.
His story of the raid is a tale of bold men and their leader. Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, who at age 46 led men half his age on a physically demanding and deadly mission 2,000 miles from the nearest friendly force.
Carlson was an Army veteran of the Philippines, Hawaii and World War I. A Marine officer in 1923, he served with the Pacific Fleet, in Puerto Rico, China, and Nicaragua, where he earned his flrst Navy Cross. He went back to China in 1933 where he learned the language. In 1936, he returned to the States via Japan. He returned to China a third time in 1937 as a military observer with Chinese Communist forces warring against the Japanese. From horseback and foot he studied and learned the tactics of the Japanese soldier. Carlson was so impressed with the danger of Japanese aggression that in 1939 he resigned his commission to write and lecture on that subject. When the danger he foresaw neared reality in 1941, he requested to be recommissioned in the Corps. A year later he was in command of the 2d Marine Raider Battalion.
Although Carlson was considered a brilliant officer by many, according to Peatross, "Many senior Marine officers were politically very conservative and considered Carlson to be a Bolshevik, both literally and figuratively. His book 'Twin Stars of China,' extolling the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders, and his close association with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whose son. Marine Major James Roosevelt, was also on the Makin raid) did nothing to dissuade them from this conviction."
It would all come to a head after the Makin raid. Peatross brings it all into play. More importantly, he brings to his account of the raid the real command problems faced by Carlson: the uncertainty, the fog of battle, Murphy's Law (if anything can go wrong, it will), and concern for his Marines which brought him to the point of attempting to surrender. There are also questions that a young 1stLt Peatross leading men for the first time in combat, or for that matter any young officer, would ask himself when orders are given and then seeing their results. It is a realistic picture of battle, causing the student of combat to wonder, "What would I have done in such a situation?" The following is a condensation of Chapter 3 of Gen Peatross' manuscript.
R. R. Keene
Designed to be small, unburdened with heavy equipment, the 1st and 2d Marine Raider Battalions were organized in February 1942. By July our training was completed, and each member of the raiding force was in top physical condition and had thoroughly mastered his individual assignment. Units executed their maneuvers with precision and coordination rarely seen, even in professional athletic teams. We had no doubts as to our readiness to handle anything.
With our objective still unknown, a raider force of 222 boarded the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus at Pearl Harbor for a 2,000-mile trip to the southwest. Although our submarines were classified as large, they had never been intended to serve as troop transports.
Our gear was stacked, poked, tucked, and stowed in every nook and cranny. Space was at a premium. It became more than a little close. The squad- and fire-team leaders used every spare minute to review operational details with their men, ensuring that each man knew exactly what he was to do when he landed, emphasizing the need for silence, cautioning them to carry their weapons ashore with the bolts closed on empty chambers, and to load, silently, only after they reached their first objective.
On August 12, Commodore John M. Haines explained that many targets for our raid had been considered to boost the morale of our nation. After considering all factors, an objective in the Gilbert Islands seemed the most realistic. This was the area of the deepest Japanese penetration. Its exposed position left it sufficiently sensitive to a raid as to bring out the reaction we desired, which was to deter the reinforcement of Guadalcanal, under attack by the First Marine Division even as the commodore spoke.
"That," he concluded, "is how we selected Makin Atoll as the target and August 17, 1942, as D-Day."
Makin Atoll, the northernmost in the Gilberts group, is located between three and four degrees north of the equator. A typical coral atoll, it consists of several small, reef-girt islands arranged in a rough isosceles triangle. The deep lagoon enclosed by this triangle is approximately 10 miles across at its widest point.
Butaritari Island, the largest island in the atoll (about eight miles long by a half mile wide), forms the southeastern base of the triangle. It is a low, sandy eminence covered by dense growth of coconut palms and scrub brush. Breadfruit trees and clumps of mangrove thrive. Areas of salt marsh are found throughout, particularly in the low-lying southwestern one-third.
Major cultural features included a dirt road running the length of the island and, on the lagoon, four wharves: On Chong's Wharf, King's Wharf, Stone Pier, and Government Wharf. On the southwestern tip of the island lay Ukiangong village, the largest settlement, and three miles up the road near King's Wharf, was Butaritari Village.
In addition, there were small clusters of buildings and structures scattered along the lagoon road. Noteworthy were a two-story building near the foot of Stone Pier, used by the Japanese as a headquarters, a church south of the headquarters, a Japanese barracks southwest of the church, and a small rifle range southeast of the barracks. About two-thirds of a mile northeast, across the road from Government Wharf and 300 yards from the beach, stood a building with the name of "Government House" and a building that served as a native hospital. Southeast of the hospital was a cluster of native huts.
The offshore approach to the southeastern coast, where we landed, is clear; however, there is a steep underwater gradient, and soundings made by the Nautilus indicated depths decreasing from 1,000 fathoms half a mile offshore to 145 fathoms less than a quarter mile offshore. The breaker line, marking the seaward edge of the submerged reef shelf, is about 200 yards offshore in our landing area; from here to the beach the underwater gradient is fairly gentle, and the water shallows rapidly.
Our mission was to land on Butaritari. destroy enemy forces and vital installations, capture prisoners and documents, and withdraw. The following day we were to land on Little Makin (another island in the chain) with the same objectives.
The Japanese garrison on Butaritari comprised about 45 Marines of the Special Naval Landing Force under the command of Sergeant Major Kanemitsu. Since their arrival, the Japanese had constructed some defensive positions. Following American carrier air raids on the Marshalls and Gilberts early in February, preparations for defense had been intensified.
H-Hour was set at 0500. The time of withdrawal was set at 1930, which meant that we would have at least 12 hours of daylight to accomplish our mission.
The Nautilus surfaced on schedule, the hatches were opened and we were met by weather conditions for which the adjective was "atrocious." Rain was coming down in torrents; a strong wind was whipping up whitecaps. Seas were running high, and the submarine was rolling and pitching heavily.
As the Marines prepared to go ashore, two rubber boats containing machine guns, ammunition and medical supplies were swept away.
However, the storm was abating, the rain had stopped, the wind had eased off, the clouds were breaking up and a sliver of dawn was on the horizon. We headed for shore and soon reached the surf line.
After dragging our boat across the beach and camouflaging it, we looked around to get our bearings. Nothing was to be seen to the right. To the left, down the beach, we saw rubber boats at the water's edge. So far, we had not seen a soul nor had we seen any landmarks by which we might locate ourselves. Moreover, there was the conundrum of abandoned boats. Where were their crews? Had they been captured? Drowned? Much later we learned these were the boats that had broken loose and been driven ashore by the wind and current.
We could not use our radio to contact the others because radio silence was to be maintained until firing commenced. So far, I had many more questions than answers. Doubt began again to gnaw at my self-confidence. I got with Corporal Sam R. Brown, my platoon guide, and squad leader Cpl Mason G. Yarbrough to thrash out a course of action. Assuming the original plan was being followed, we reasoned that if we continued we would either overtake Company B or meet up with Co. A. Never dreaming that both companies were still behind us, we figured if we went back we probably would miss both of them.
We advanced only a few yards down the beach when, much to our relief, we saw that scruffy little rifle range! Now all we had to do was to move inland about 300 yards and we would be within a "Hallelujah!" of the church.
Seconds after we had passed the rifle range, a burst of fire from a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) rang out to our rear and inland from where we had landed. This accidental discharge, as we later discovered, occurred at 0530, according to Col Carlson's after-action report.
We immediately took cover and switched on our radio. It didn't work! It appeared the enemy was between our "reinforced" squad and the other Raiders. Being fairly close to the church, our designated linkup point with the 2d Plt. of Co. A, we decided to continue on.
As we neared the Japanese barracks that lay between us and the church, hell broke loose about half a mile to the northeast near the road. As the clatter of rifle and machinegun fire echoed across the island, a startled Japanese burst from the barracks. Without command and almost as one, three of our group fired, and the luckless Japanese fell dead. These were the first shots that any of us had fired in the war; this was our first face-to-face encounter with the enemy; the first person we had met up with on Butaritari.
We moved into the barracks, but found them empty. We moved to the church and found it to be padlocked. The firing up the road had become intense, and we judged that the Japanese had engaged the Raiders. We deployed into a skirmish line and moved into positions near the road, the apparent axis of all enemy activity. A Japanese with his rifle slung came out of the bush, picked up a bicycle, and swiftly pedaled down the road in our direction. Private First Class Ernest R. July, apparently suffering a case of "buck fever," opened fire with too little lead at too great a distance and missed. Four Raiders on the right fired, and in the dust raised by their fire, we saw the rider crumple.
Minutes later, another Japanese came out of the bush, picked up a bicycle and pedaled in our direction. This time, everyone held fire until the target was opposite the center of our firing line. We opened up at the same time in a classic example of overkill. A third Japanese mounted a bicycle. He, alerted to our presence, seemed to have the idea that speed would get him safely past. He raced down the road, pumping for all he was worth. His best effort, however, was fatally inadequate.
After several minutes I decided to advance on the headquarters of the island commander, SgtMaj Kanemitsu. The building was unoccupied, but inside there was a radio transceiver.
Our radioman, PFC Kenneth M. Montgomery, soon had the radio operating. All we heard was Japanese, which none of us could understand. We decided not to destroy the equipment, thinking we might find some use for it as our radio still would not function.
We decided to advance in the direction of our own forces, moving first to the next house. As we approached, a man dressed in white shirt, khaki shorts, and sun helmet walked out and waved toward the area from which the bicyclists had come, as if signaling.
Cpl Brown fired on the man killing him. Suddenly as a summer hailstorm, a heavy volume of machinegun fire began to pepper the ground around us. We dashed for cover.
I had Montgomery make another attempt with our radio. It still didn't work. Montgomery proposed to take the radio apart and, hopefully, solve our communication problem. After half an hour, Montgomery reported the radio to be unserviceable.
The rest of us had spotted the machine gun, a scant 100 yards from us; it was active in two directions. I ordered Cpl Yarbrough to send part of his squad to attack and destroy it.
Leading the assault was the fire team comprising PFC Floyd B. Bigelow, PFC July, with a BAR, and Field Music First Class Vernon L. R. Castle, submachine gunner. Yarbrough, Montgomery and I followed a few feet behind. Deployed in a ragged echelon-left, we advanced.
As he drew abreast of the enemy position. Castle hit the deck, and crawled to within 30 yards of the gun. The enemy gun crew discovered him and opened fire, hitting him several times. With the rest of us providing such supporting fire as we could. Castle crawled and dragged himself on toward the enemy, firing his Thompson submachine gun as he advanced. He struggled close enough to the enemy to throw a grenade, killing the gunner and two of the crewmen. The rest of us shot two riflemen near the gun.
By the time Bigelow got to Castle, he was dead. . .in the bravest act that I witnessed in all of WW II. We began to receive heavy fire too close for comfort, and withdrew behind the headquarters building.
Besides Castle, the assault had cost the life of Cpl Yarbrough (it was his birthday), and as we were withdrawing Montgomery was killed. The wounded included Cpl Brown, gunshot in the left leg, and PFC July with a gunshot wound in the right arm. I had holes in my shirt, trousers and in my field glasses, my knees were skinned and oozing blood, and I was exhausted.
We patched our wounds and found that everyone could walk. Having collected our wits and evaluated our options, we decided to push toward the heavy firing, but by a different route.
While we were assaulting the machine gun, the Nautilus had fired on and sunk a Japanese patrol boat and small transport in the lagoon. There was a possibility that survivors from these vessels could have made it ashore. I sent a patrol comprised of Cpl Brown, PFC Alexander J. Donovan and Private Raymond D. Jansen to reconnoiter.
Suddenly we heard a commotion up the road from where the bicyclists had come. We watched as a small Japanese car came tearing down the road at us like a rabbit flushed from cover. It roared past at full throttle. We all fired. The car bore straight on down the road in a cloud of dust. About 500 yards beyond, the road curved and there, as we watched, refusing to believe we had missed, the car continued straight and, never slowing, ran off the road. Inspection revealed it riddled with bullet holes. The driver and his passenger were dead.
Meanwhile the patrol had seen no other Japanese to the southwest. It was important that Carlson be informed of the situation as we knew it.
Although Jansen and Donovan had only recently returned from the reconnaissance, I picked them to take information we had on the enemy. I instructed them carefully, telling Jansen to stay near the road and Donovan to move a few yards in advance near the beach, and cautioned each to return immediately if fired on.
Their departure was delayed by a group of about 75 natives from the area of the heavier fighting. Bigelow and I went to meet the leader. The old man could speak some English, and between us we managed to communicate. The most important result of our conversation was confirmation of the Japanese location about as we had estimated.
I sent Donovan and Jansen off. They had progressed about 300 yards when several riflemen opened fire on Jansen. He headed back at top speed, bullets kicking up dust around him, and arrived unscathed. We heard nothing from the area through which Donovan was moving.
We had been ashore for more than seven hours. As far as we knew, the Japanese had not attempted to reinforce or support their garrison from off-island.
Shortly after 1300, we heard the sound of planes approaching. The entire island shook from the bomb explosions and we endured some anxious moments as several bombs hit within a few yards of us.
The planes departed, except for a flying boat and a float plane, which landed in the lagoon off Stone Pier. These planes were immediately taken under fire by our main body from the vicinity of Stone Pier. The float plane, hit by a hail of bullets from machine guns and the antitank rifles, caught fire and burned. The flying boat taxied frantically in circles and managed to get airborne but soon crashed into the lagoon and sank.
It was past 1500, and our time was running out. We set about destroying everything serviceable. We found a truck loaded with ammunition and supplies, intended to be a mobile supply dump. We tossed grenades into it and dashed for cover. In a short time, the entire truck was in flames. . .sending up a high column of smoke visible for miles. At about 1630 the bombers returned, concentrating their attack on the area of the burning truck.
After the bombers left, we moved to the lagoon shore and saw some Raiders on Government Wharf. Brown and I made our way onto Stone Pier and waved, shouted, whistled, and fired our weapons into the air. Much to our surprise, they did not recognize us as Raiders and began firing at us.
We hotfooted it to the foot of the pier. Our steam was running out, time was running out, and we still had before us the trek across the island to our boat and the trip back.
It seemed to us that the main body had an excellent chance to link up with us, and we couldn't understand why they didn't. We also wondered about Donovan: Did he get through and report to Carlson? If so, why weren't they making some effort to establish contact with us? Whatever the cause, it seemed worthwhile to wait for another 45 minutes.
While waiting, we destroyed the radio and other items. It was obvious there would be no linkup, and we started back to our boat to return to the submarine.
Back on board the Nautilus, I inquired about the rest of our force and felt uneasiness when the commodore told me that my boat was the only one to have made it back. The last radio contact with Col Carlson had been at 1030.
The officer of the deck soon informed me that several boats were heading our way. Topside, in the illumination of battle lights I could see the worn faces and exhausted bodies of men with whom the trials of this day had played havoc. They all looked to be pale shadows of the men I had last seen that morning, and I knew they had been through a terrible ordeal. This impression was reinforced as other boats came alongside. These later arrivals looked like nothing less than zombies. They had lost everything: weapons, equipment, shoes and clothing (some were mother-naked), and above all their sense of unity.
I barely recognized my fellow platoon commander. First Lieutenant Joe Griffith; he had aged 20 years.
It was apparent that no more boats were coming. Below in the wardroom we spent several minutes talking and wondering what was going on ashore. The Raiders who had made it back reported that, as far as they knew, all boats had tried to leave but had extreme difficulty getting through the surf. Most of the motors couldn't be started and finally were jettisoned. After repeated upsets, most of the paddles, weapons, radios, and other equipment had been lost. As far as the returnees knew, the others were still battling the surf.
Almost three hours had passed since the scheduled return time, and the Nautilus had recovered only four boats with a total of 53 Raiders. The Argonaut had picked up three boats which carried only 35-40 Raiders. We were faced with the reality of being unable to account for about 130 Raiders, more than half of the landing force.
My mind would not release me from the realization that all during the fighting our group had been within 400 yards of the main body, at times as close as 200 yards, or less. It seemed to me they would have joined up with our group. There had to have been a good reason for them not to have done so. Had it been because of extremely heavy casualties? Had enemy resistance been too much for the lightly armed Raiders? Could my small group have done more to distract the enemy?
Later that night, the Argonaut received a blinker request for help from one of the marooned Raiders (PFC William B. Murphree, also known as PFC Howard R. Craven, of Co. A). Sometime after midnight, someone else (later determined to have been Captain Ralph H. Coyte) had attempted to communicate with the Nautilus by blinker, but his message was unreadable.
At 0651, observers on board the Nautilus sighted several men on the beach preparing their boats to come out. The first person I recognized, once aboard the submarine, was Sergeant Frank J. Lawson, my platoon sergeant.
I took him by the arm and asked, "What's going on back there?"
He began, "Everybody's having a helluva time getting off the beach. When we left, the colonel was getting ready to surrender."
He went on to relate how everyone had been exhausted by hours-long battle with the surf; how most had lost their weapons, ammunition and equipment. The wounded were strewn up and down the beach and some were thought to have drowned. Finally, the able-bodied were too exhausted to get the wounded through the surf and so had assembled them in a holding area where (Doctor) Lieutenant William B. MacCracken II (MC), USN and his corpsmen could tend them.
Lawson related how around midnight a Japanese patrol attacked the perimeter defense and seriously wounded PFC Jess Hawkins, but not before he had killed three of them. This incident, Lawson believed, marked a decision point for Col Carlson, and about an hour later he called together a group that included Capt Coyte, Dr. MacCracken, himself, and several others to discuss their options.
Because of the wounded. Carlson thought that surrender was the only humane course of action open to him. Furthermore, if he didn't surrender, Maj Roosevelt might get killed, which would be a severe blow to his father and to the morale of our country. This argument had led Lawson briefly to wonder, "If Roosevelt's death would be so bad, why in hell is he on the raid?" and then conclude that Carlson's belated concern for Roosevelt's safety was an attempt to rationalize the decision to surrender.
Carlson went on to say that he would stay, with the wounded, but those who felt strong should continue in their efforts to make it back to the submarines right up to the time when the surrender was actually effected. Lawson grabbed the first men he could find who felt strong enough to try the surf again.
I immediately reported the situation to Commodore Haines and recommended that we immediately send a rescue party ashore. The commodore received the news calmly, considered the information and said, "That crusty old boss of yours isn't going to surrender; he's too tough for that. But, I do believe he could use some help."
He instructed me to select volunteers from our strongest swimmers and prepare to return to the beach as soon as possible.
In the meantime, at 0737, a second boat carrying seven Raiders arrived. According to them, there still had been no surrender.
Two more boats had made it through the breakers and were picked up by the Argonaut at 0800. Aboard the second of these boats were Maj Roosevelt and several Co. A Raiders.
In addition to those men in the boat, its human cargo included four "hangers-on." Three of them had helped push the boat through the surf and, when they would have returned to the beach, were ordered by Maj Roosevelt to hang on for the trip to the submarine. The fourth hanger-on was PFC Herbert K. Oliver, who had swum through the breakers to within 100 yards of the Argonaut where he had been overtaken by the Roosevelt boat. Roosevelt's escape meant that one of Carlson's reasons for surrendering no longer existed.
I briefed the volunteers: Sgts Robert V. Allard and Dallas H. Cook, PFCs Richard N. Olbert and Donald R. A. Robertson and Pvt John I. Kerns, and told them of the commodore's promise: "We are going to stay here until we get every living Raider off that island and, if we have to, we'll send every able-bodied man ashore, sailors included."
A few minutes past 0800 the rescue boat shoved off for the beach. At 0821 the Argonaut suddenly dived and the Nautilus followed. Before the dive was completed, Japanese aircraft began dropping bombs, whose explosions shook the submarine severely. We surfaced at 0901, but at 0941 our radar detected a flight of Japanese aircraft closing fast. Lieutenant Commander William E. Brockman decided to dive. A few minutes later a couple of explosions shook the submarine. As we had dived, the duty officer on the periscope had seen the rescue boat being bombed and strafed. We could only assume that all five Raiders in the rescue party had been killed.
The same assumption was made by those ashore as stated in Carlson's after-action report: "The boat came to a point just outside the reef and shot a line to us. One man swam in with a message from the commodore that the subs would remain off the island until we were evacuated. Planes came over and the boat headed out to sea. The boat was straffed (sic) and nothing more was seen of it or of the crew."
By my count, 85 to 90 were still ashore. Sgt Lawson and I walked to a reasonably quiet spot where we could talk, and he recapitulated what he knew of events ashore. By filling in the blanks with information from other participants, I was able to come up with a reasonably coherent, if not pretty, picture of the entire operation.
When Carlson arrived at the boat rendezvous, he found much confusion, and it was impossible to organize into company formations as planned. It would be necessary to alter the landing plan. Carlson passed the word as best he could for all boats to follow him. All, albeit not in unison, headed toward the breakers. Many soon found themselves in trouble.
Pvt Benjamin F. Carson of Co. B recalled, "We were not prepared for those first rollers. The surf was running high. The nearer we got to the beach the more each wave bent the rubber boat. About 50 feet from shore a huge wave hit and I and two others flew into the surf." There is no evidence that anyone drowned during the landing. Seventeen to 20 boats landed more or less together on a 200-yard stretch of the beach. Carlson ordered security posted on the high ground and began to sort out the landing force.
The landing force established voice communication with the Nautilus. Unknown to Carlson, however, poor communications between boat teams at the rendezvous area had begun to influence the course of events.
About one-fourth of his force was already seeking out the enemy, either on its own or in accordance with the original plan. As a consequence of these independent actions and those subsequently directed by Carlson, the two Raider companies became greatly intermingled and remained so during most of the day.
Some boat teams, unaware of a change of plan or a need to reorganize, went ahead with the mission for which they had trained. In the absence of instructions to the contrary, part of Joe Griffith's 2d Plt., Co. B landed and moved on its primary objective. Government House.
Likewise, Co. B's antitank section deployed as it had trained. Because of a nonfunctioning motor, the antitank section did not go to the rendezvous point. Instead, it headed directly for the beach, landing 100 yards to the right of the main body, and headed west looking for the rest of the company.
Cpl Harris J. Johnson's boat team, Co. A, encountered difficulty in the surf and, except for a few stragglers from another boat, found itself alone when it reached the beach. According to Pvt Murphree, Sgt James C. O. Faulkner took charge.
"We headed for the middle of the island. As it was breaking daylight we sighted a bicycle rider coming up the road. We stopped him. We had with us a lieutenant (Gerald P. Holtom) who spoke Japanese, and he said the sign on the bicycle read 'Japanese Chief of Police.' Sgt Faulkner told two guys to guard him. We continued toward the Government House. As we went around the curve we heard a shot."
Distracted by the unexpected gunshot, the men guarding the prisoner took their eyes off him, and he made a break. The Raiders opened up and killed the only prisoner taken in the operation.
On the beach. Murphy's Law continued to work against Carlson. An automatic rifleman had earlier carelessly discharged his weapon. Assuming this burst of fire would alert the garrison and bring a quick reaction, Carlson issued an order that violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the philosophy of command he had preached throughout the 2d Raider Bn.
Carlson believed a thorough understanding of the orders-what they were and what was expected-to be the only basis of command. If orders are not thoroughly understood, then the commander is to blame.
Co. B had trained to operate in the area behind the beach and its men were familiar with the locations of key objectives; however, Carlson seemed to abandon, at least temporarily, his philosophy of command and ordered 1stLt Merwyn C. Plumley to "move his company [Co. A] across the island, seize the road on the lagoon side, and report our (sic) location with relation to the wharves."
Being uncertain as to his location on the island, Carlson would have wanted to orient himself before taking further action; however, his choice of Co. A to execute this mission seems to have added to the confusion.
With most of Co. A deploying into Co. B's objective areas, elements of Co. B attempting to carry out their originally assigned mission and a Co. A squad looking for action on its own, it is a small wonder that the picture Joe Griffith recalled was one of "mass confusion." The battle, once joined, was largely without central control and quickly resolved into what Platoon Sergeant Melvin J. Spotts of the 1st Plt., Co. A described as "more or less a free-forall."
Plumley relayed Carlson's order to Second Lieutenant Wilfred S. Le Francois, his 1st Plt. commander, who started across the island with his platoon in a column of squads. Ahead of the column went a scout group under the platoon guide, Sgt Clyde Thomason. PltSgt Spotts brought up the rear, dropping off a man every 50 yards to guide the rest of the company.
The scout group crossed the island and found itself at Government Wharf, only a few yards from Government House. The wharf, no longer in use, was in extreme disrepair and no boats were tied up to it. A short distance southwest could be seen a cluster of huts. Cpl Howard A. Young, the lead scout, recalled, "It was not yet dawn, but the natives were stirring. They did not know that we were there and came out of their huts to relieve themselves and stretch. A few were singing softly. It was a very peaceful scene."
Meanwhile, the rest of the platoon was following in the trace of the scouts, carefully checking the occasional hut as they advanced. "About 200 yards inland," wrote Mel Spotts, "Lieutenant Le Francois and a sergeant went into a house to investigate it. On coming out they were mistaken for Japs and our own men fired on them. Luckily for them the shots went wild."
It was luckier that there were not more such "firefights" as the Raiders stumbled around in the darkness, largely ignorant of one another's whereabouts.
Back at the beach, Carlson was still uncertain as to his location. His force was in disarray and he had lost the element of tactical surprise. If his 0543 message to the Nautilus, "everything lousy," can be taken as an indicator of his state of mind, he was teetering on the brink of despair.
However, when Plumley reported minutes later that Government House had been occupied without enemy opposition and that his point was at Government Wharf, Carlson's mood became more upbeat and he revised his earlier estimate of the situation. At 0547 the Nautilus received the more sanguine, "Situation expected to be well in hand shortly." Carlson, now confident of his location and feeling reasonably secure, ordered Plumley to deploy across the island and advance to the southwest; Capt Coyte was to hold Co. B in reserve and provide security for the left flank.
While Carlson was issuing his operation order to the company commanders, Lts Lamb and Le Francois were talking with some natives who, awakened by gunfire, had come out of their huts. Having assumed that the firing had been by Japanese on maneuvers, they were surprised to come upon a group of armed Americans. They became quite friendly. Some could speak English, albeit brokenly, and were telling the Raiders what they knew about the enemy garrison.
The natives were unanimous in locating most of the Japanese at On Chong's Wharf and a few on Ukiangong Point, the southwestern tip of Butaritari. There was wide divergence in their estimates on the garrison strength. Some insisted that there were no more than 80 Japanese on the island, while others were certain there were 150 or more. All agreed there were no prepared defensive positions ahead of the Raiders. They could not have known, however, that even as they stood talking, SgtMaj Kanemitsu's men were moving into position for a counterattack.
Later, the natives were to tell Carlson that the Japanese had three days' advance notice of our raid and expected it to come at On Chong's or Government Wharf. They had conducted frequent maneuvers between the two wharves, had begun to post lookouts along the windward beaches, and had positioned snipers in the trees near Stone Pier. Strangely, they had prepared no defensive positions behind the beaches they expected to be attacked, except, again according to the natives, on the beach opposite On Chong's Wharf where some barbed wire had been strung.
Most probably, the advanced readiness posture of the Butaritari garrison was the result of the general alert broadcast to all Japanese units at the time of our landing on Guadalcanal August 7, and the final deployment was not ordered until around 0500 on August 17, when a lookout observed our landing. The deployment of the garrison would have been almost complete by 0530 when the hapless Raider carelessly discharged his automatic rifle.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that first, the Japanese troops were fully dressed, which indicates their deployment had been orderly. Second, at 0515 the garrison commander reported by radio to his headquarters that he was being attacked by an enemy unit that had landed from two submarines. Finally, my boat team was close enough to the road between King's Wharf and Stone Pier to have seen or heard any movement. There had been none.