In August 1942 the 2nd Marine “Raider” Battalion raided what was then called Makin Island in the Gilbert Archipelago of the South Pacific. The present name of the island is Butaritari in the island nation of Kiribati.
In 1942 the island had a small, roughly 160 man garrison, and was the site of a Japanese Airfield. The raid was conceived as a way for the Marines to gather intelligence on what and how many Japanese forces were stationed in the Gilbert Islands. The plan was for 211 men from companies A and B of the 2nd Marine “Raider” Battalion led by LTC Evans Carlson to land on the island under cover of darkness, neutralize the small Japanese garrison and ransack the island for anything of intelligence value before destroying the facilities and leaving the island. The Marines would land from two submarines the USS Nautilus and USS Argonaut using small rubber boats equipped with outboard motors.
The Marines landed the night of August 17th without incident and proceed to attack and kill the Japanese garrison. They landed on the southern shore and moved north against strong resistance from snipers and machine gun teams. The Japanese also launched two Banzai Charges which the Marines beat off. Most of the defenders were killed in the course of the Banzai Charges. In the early afternoon to flying boats with Japanese reinforcements attempted to land on Makin but the Marines managed to force one to crash and the other exploded in midair after being fired on by Marine machine gunners.
After destroying everything they could including two small ships and all the Japanese buildings on the island the Marines began to evacuate the island. That is when the real fun started as the surf had risen and they had trouble getting out to the waiting submarines. 93 men made it out to the subs the first evening but 73 men waited until the morning when the subs sent a boat with a rope to help the boats get through the surf. This attempt failed when Japanese aircraft appeared and strafed the submarines forcing them to crash dive. LTC Carlson sent word to the subs to meet the men at the mouth of Makin Lagoon and the evening of the 18th the remaining 73 men built a raft and using two native canoes traveled the four miles to the mouth of the lagoon where they were picked up by the Submarines.
The Marines killed virtually all of the Japanese garrison of the island. LTC Carlson reported counting 83 Japanese bodies before he left. The Marines had suffered 18 KIA and 12 MIA in the raid. The Marines had succeed in destroying the Japanese installations on the island but they retrieved nothing of any great intelligence value. Because of the difficulty in returning to the subs they had also been forced to leave their dead an missing behind.
Of the 12 MIA Marines 9 were captured and taken to Kwajalein Atoll where they were interrogated and eventually executed with the Japanese never reporting them as POWs. USAAC 1LT Louis Zamperini saw the names of the 9 Marines scratched into the wall of his cell in 1943 when he was held on Kwajalein as a POW after he was captured following the crash at sea of his B-24. Kōsō Abe, who ordered the execution of the Marines was eventually caught, tried, and executed as a war criminal in 1947 after the Japanese surrender.
But what of the 18 KIA and remaining 3 MIA marines? They were reportedly buried in a mass grave by island natives after the Japanese returned to the Island. No bodies of the raiding force were recovered when US forces returned and captured the island in 1943 however. in 1949 the Marines made an unsuccessful effort to find and recover the bodies of the fallen. The Marines did not give up and in 1999 the Defense Department’s Central Identification Laboratory discovered the remains of 19 of the fallen marines after research by relatives of the fallen had found a local who had helped bury the Marines as a young boy.
The recovered remains were returned to the central ID Lab in Honolulu where the 18 reported dead and one of the MIA Marines were identified. The bodies of 6 of the Marines were returned to their families for private burial and the remaining 13 were interred in Arlington National Cemetery in 2001. The Marine Commandant spoke at the memorial ceremony prior to their internment.
A Short Video about the recovery of the fallen Marines.
The names of the 19 Marines recovered were:
Capt Gerald P Holton, 0-7549
Sgt Clyde Thomason, 246433
FM Cpl Vernon Leroy Castle, 307868
Cpl I B Earles, 293609
Cpl Daniel Albert Gaston, 340727
Cpl Harris J Johnson, 334067
Cpl Kenneth Kirk Kunkle, 268716
Cpl Edward Maciejewski, 299149
Cpl Robert B Pearson, 275291
Cpl Mason O Yarbrough, 309064
PFC William A Gallagher, 307593
PFC Ashley Warren Hicks, 345385
PFC Kenneth M Montgomery, 305326
PFC Norman W Mortensen, 326651
PFC John E Vandenberg, 335768
Pvt Carlyle Oscar Larson, 346391
Pvt Robert B Maulding, 337436
Pvt Franklin M Nodland, 333878
Pvt Charles Austin Selby, 326661
SF Gate Article about the interrment at Arlington