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History of the Marine Raiders

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Patch of the Marine Raiders.

Patch of the Marine Raiders.

Marine Raiders

  • Name of Unit: Marine Raiders
  • Branch of Military: United States Marine Corps
  • Military Allegiance: United States Armed Forces
  • Years of Active Military Service: 1942–1944; 2014–Present
  • Military Role: Light Infantry; Special Operations
  • Size: Approximately 8,078 in World War II; Current numbers unknown
  • Headquarters: Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia
  • Notable Engagements: Numerous Operations in Second World War

During World War II, the United States Marine Corps developed a special amphibious unit to conduct lightning-fast raids (and special operations) against enemy forces in the Pacific. Known as the “Marine Raiders,” these units were one of the first “Special Operations” units to form and see combat during the Second World War. In total, four separate “Raider Battalions” were developed throughout the war, with notable engagements at Guadalcanal and Makin Atoll. “Carlson’s Raiders” and “Edson’s Raiders of the First and Second Marines, respectively, are among the most famous Raider Battalions.

Marine Raiders at Bougainville.

Marine Raiders at Bougainville.

Creation of the Raider Battalions

During the Second World War, President Roosevelt became interested in the development of a counterpart to the British Commandos operating in Europe and North Africa. After discussing the matter with the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb designated two separate battalions from the 1st Battalion Fifth Marines Division to be trained for special operations, with one of the battalions to be under the direct command of Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson, and the second under Lieutenant Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson.

Although the name “Marine Commandos” was initially proposed for these special units, Major General Holcomb felt that the term “Commando” was not only undesirable but superfluous given that Marines were already considered an elite unit in the United States military. After discussing the matter with Pacific Fleet Admiral, Chester Nimitz, the commandant of the Marines chose, instead, the name “Raiders.” Nimitz was deeply supportive of the creation of Raider Battalions as he desperately desired special units that could raid Japanese-held islands before major invasions took place. The first Raider Battalion was officially activated on 16 February 1942, with the second battalion being activated only a few days later (19 February 1942).

Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson.

Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson.

Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson

Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson was a perfect choice for the Raider Battalions, given his strong military background. Carlson had not only served as a Marine in the conflict involving Pancho Villa of Mexico but had also served in World War One. Following the war, Carlson later became a Marine officer during the American occupation of Nicaragua and worked as an intelligence officer in the Fourth Marines operating within China (during the Japanese-led invasion of the country as well as the conflict between nationalist and communist forces). Through these campaigns (particularly in China), Carlson gained an unprecedented understanding of guerrilla warfare tactics and strategy. Although Carlson resigned from the Marines for a brief period, he quickly rejoined the Marines in April of 1941 as the prospects for war with Japan seemed to be inevitable.

Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Edson (Second From Left) with group of Marine Raiders.

Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Edson (Second From Left) with group of Marine Raiders.

Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Austin Edson

Similar to Carlson, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt Austin Edson (Later promoted to Major General) had served in the Marine Corps for several decades before the outbreak of the Second World War. Edson served in both France and Germany during the First World War and earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Marines in October of 1917. Following the war, Edson attended flight school and was later designated as a “Naval Aviator.” For his special talents, Edson received numerous assignments in both Central America and China. Like Carlson, Edson’s experience in China allowed him to observe guerrilla warfare tactics, first-hand, as well as the strategies and maneuvers of the Japanese Army during their invasion of the Chinese mainland.

Raider Battalion with War Dogs.

Raider Battalion with War Dogs.

Marine Raider Battalions

The Raiders were comprised of handpicked men and were provided the best equipment offered by the Marines. Both Carlson and Edson, however, led their respective battalions in very different ways. Carlson, for example, believed in egalitarian qualities between the officers and enlisted men, with little focus on ranks. He also used strong team-building methods to motivate his Raiders and even developed his own strategies that went against the traditional methods of the Marine Corps (including the development of three-man fireteams). Although Edson followed many of the team-building methods of Carlson in the training of his Raiders, Edson continued to follow many of the strategies, doctrines, and organization of Marine Corp training.

Marine Raider wounded on Makin.

Marine Raider wounded on Makin.

Combat in the Pacific (Second World War)

Both Raider Battalions saw combat around the same time, with Edson’s Raiders being deployed on 7 August 1942 on Tulagi, and Carlson’s Raiders assaulting Makin Island on 17–18 August 1942. In the Tulagi landing, Edson’s Raiders were tasked with helping in the capture of the island before being sent to Guadalcanal, where they helped to defend Henderson Field from the Japanese. In one particular engagement at Guadalcanal, known affectionately as the “Battle of Edson’s Ridge,” Edson’s Raiders were successful in a major defensive victory over the Japanese Army, as the Raiders (along with the 1st Parachute Battalion and the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines) defended against approximately 3,000 Japanese forces. Outnumbered nearly four to one, the Raiders suffered through wave after wave of enemy assaults on the ridge before fighting ceased the following day. For his action in the battle, Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor.

In the Makin assault just a few weeks later, Carlson’s Raiders boarded the submarines Nautilus and Argonaut and were inserted onto Makin via rubber raft on the night of 17 August 1942. After crossing the beach, and under heavy enemy fire, Carlson’s Raiders were able to inflict heavy damage on the Japanese defenders after their launch of two banzai charges. As additional Japanese forces were flown in to reinforce the garrison on Makin, the Raiders were also able to destroy two enemy planes as they landed in one of Makin’s lagoons.

As dawn approached, the Raiders began to withdraw to the beach via the same rubber boats they arrived in. Due to the strong surf, however, nearly seventy-two Raiders were unable to reach the submarines offshore and were forced to retreat back to the island (Carlson included). Although Carlson originally planned to surrender to the Japanese garrison once he felt that capture was imminent (a move that was thwarted when Marines accidentally killed the Japanese messenger that was dispatched), the Raiders were offered a second chance to escape with the deployment of rescue boats from the Nautilus and Argonaut. However, the arrival of additional Japanese planes thwarted this attempt as well, as the rescue boat was struck during a strafing run, forcing the submarines offshore to make an emergency dive underwater until nightfall. The Raiders managed to elude Japanese forces until nightfall, where they were then able to signal the submarines and arrange pickup at the entrance of Makin Lagoon. In total, eighteen Raiders were killed during the operation with twelve listed as “missing in action.” Of these latter twelve, nine were unintentionally left behind during the escape. They were later captured by the Japanese and moved to Kwajalein Atoll, where they were beheaded. It is estimated that Carlson’s Raiders, however, managed to kill 160 Japanese in the assault, and destroyed two boats and two planes.

Marine Corps Hymn

“From the Halls of Montezuma,

To the Shores of Tripoli;

We fight our country's battles

In the air, on land, and sea.

First to fight for right and freedom

And to keep our honor clean;

We are proud to claim the title

Of United States Marine.”

Dissolution of the Raiders

On 15 March 1943, the 1st Marine Raider Regiment was formed and incorporated all of the Raider Battalions under the command of Colonel Liversedge. Unfortunately for the Raiders, Marine high-command along with the Navy began to use the Raiders Regiment alongside other infantry units as support (in particular, during the campaign involving New Georgia). By February 1944, the regiment was re-designated as the 4th Marines and was commissioned as a regular Marine Corps infantry unit. Despite all of their training and expertise in amphibious warfare, the high command felt that “normal” Marines could still carry out the work conducted by the Raiders; thus, ending the Raiders after only two years of military service.

New Marine Raiders Patch

New Marine Raiders Patch

Re-establishment of the Marine Raiders

In 2006, the Raiders were re-commissioned under the “Marine Corps Special Operations Regiment.” The force, which was originally comprised of eighty-six Marines, was handpicked from the elite Marine Force Recon. Before the group’s formation, this group of Marines had served with United States Navy SEALs in 2004 and provided direct support to the “Battle of Fallujah” in Iraq. Each battalion of the unit is comprised of four companies that consist of four fourteen-man teams.

In 2014, approximately seventy years from the date that the original Raiders were decommissioned, the Marine Special Operations Regiment announced that it would be renamed the “Marine Raiders,” in honor of their World War II counterparts. The announcement became official on 19 June 2015.

Similar to Carlson and Edson’s Raiders, the new Marine Raiders were developed to perform special operations against enemy forces. The new battalions are open to both men and women of the United States Marine Corps and require a grueling selection and training regimen designed to test Raider candidates to extreme limits. The new Raider battalions have already seen plenty of combat action in the last few years inside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although official numbers remain unknown, it is believed that the Raiders are comprised of approximately 1,500 Marines.

Legacy of the Marine Raiders

In closing, the Marine Raiders were among the first special operations units to see combat in the United States military. Their commitment and dedication to their fellow Marines and country has served as an inspiration for all special operations units in the American military. With the establishment of a new Raider battalion in 2015, the legacy of the Raiders lives on in the Marine Corps. Only time will tell what impact the Raiders will have on military planning and strategy in the months and years ahead.

Works Cited


Wikipedia contributors, "Marine Raiders," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Marine Raider Regiment," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, "Raid on Makin Island," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 11, 2019).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Larry Slawson


Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on February 08, 2020:

That is so interesting, Mary! Those guys saw a tremendous amount of action during WWII. True heroes in every sense of the word!

Mary Heinrich Janicek on February 07, 2020:

My brother, William D. Heinrich (1919-2004) was a member of the Carlson Raiders.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 12, 2019:

Thanks for the explanation. That probably explains why I read about the SEALS sometimes in espionage thrillers.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 12, 2019:

Hi Liz! In some ways, the SEALs and Raiders are quite similar, in that they both conduct raids, direct attacks on enemy forces, as well as train and assist foreign forces. I would say that the biggest differences lies with the SEALs in that they often work directly with the CIA. SEALs also do quite a bit of intelligence gathering, whereas Raiders are used predominantly for hit-and-run missions.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 11, 2019:

How do marine raiders differ from SEALS?