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All Original Written Material copyright 1999, Dan Marsh; all original artwork copyright 1999 by Louie Marsh. Please use with permission only.

 

 

2nd Raiders - Makin Raid
Part One

                When I dropped Carlson off at the rendezvous point, he found mass confusion. The darkness, foul weather, and failure of most of the outboard motors made it impossible to organize the boats into company formations as had been planned, and Carlson quickly saw that if they were to make it to the beach before dawn and have a semblance of control when they landed, it would be necessary to alter the landing plan. Accordingly, he decided to take both companies to the Same beach (Beach “Z”) and passed the word as best he could for all boats to follow him.

                Because the roar of the wind precluded voice communication between boats and visibility was only a few yards, the signal to head for the beach had to be relayed from boat to boat. One of Carlson’s “word-passers” was Corporal John W. Potter, Jr., one of my squad leaders. After finally getting his balky motor started, Potter had been motoring around looking for other Company “B” boats when he spotted Carlson a few yards away, standing up in a pitching boat. Approaching Carlson to ask for instructions, Potter was told to “circle around and up and down to find as many boats as possible and send them straight to the beach.” After carrying out this order as best he could, Potter went on to the beach himself.

                Communication difficulties notwithstanding, all eventually headed their sodden rubber boats toward the breakers, which now appeared as a luminescent line in the darkness. Aided by the onshore current, the boats quickly covered the distance from the rendezvous point to the surf line, where those with functioning motors had little or no difficulty negotiating the breakers. It was a different story, however, for those boats being paddled, and many soon found themselves in trouble.

As Ben Carson of Company “B” recalls the experience:

                . . . we were not prepared for the action those first rollers gave us. The surf was running high and as our boat rode up the first wave we were turned sideways and ended up making a full circle before we headed down the leeward side of the wave. Everybody in the boat was doing his damnedest to keep the bow . . . . pointed to the beach, but without verbal commands there was a lack of coordination and we made several other complete turns before our surf trip was over. The nearer we got to the beach the more each wave bent the rubber boat . . . [and] about fifty feet from shore a huge wave hit the rear of our boat and. . . [I] and two others flew over the stern into the surf.

                Carson’s experience was not atypical of that of many boats, paddled or motored, and several Raiders ended up in the surf, although not always as a result of wave action. One such dunking might be said to have been the result of “command influence.”

                Then Private, first class, Fred E. Kemp remembers that as his boat (carrying, among others, Major Roosevelt, Private, first class, Harold E. Ryan, and Private Olan C. Mitchell) neared the beach, Roosevelt ordered, “Point over the side!”

                Kemp, riding in the bow, cautioned, “Not yet, too deep,” but in the same breath Ryan, instantly obedient to the voice of authority, jumped over the side and disappeared in the foam. As the next wave broke and flattened shoreward, the top of a head appeared in the clear water, and Kemp grabbed a handful of hair and pulled upward. Next a pair of hands reached out, and Ryan was pulled into the boat, minus helmet, weapon, and web belt, but otherwise unharmed. Although there probably were several close calls such as Carson’s and Ryan’s, there is no evidence to indicate that anyone drowned during the landing.

                In spite of the effects of wind, current, waves, and the ragged departure, 17 of the 20 boats landed more or less together on a 200-yard stretch of the designated beach. My boat landed about half a mile to the southwest; that of Corporal Harris J. Johnson’s 3d Squad, 2d Platoon, Company “A,” landed about 200 yards to the southwest; and that of Sergeant William I. Yount’s 1st Machine Gun Section, Weapons Platoon, Company “B,” landed about a mile to the northeast. In addition, there were the two derelict boats that washed ashore southwest of where I landed. Although badly intermingled, both companies had landed more or less on time (around 0500) and, as far as they knew, undetected. Carlson prudently ordered security to be posted on higher ground (about five feet above sea level) behind the beach and under its protection began to sort out the landing force.

                At 0513 the landing party established voice radio communication with the Nautilus, and there seemed to have been every reason to feel optimistic. Unknown to Carlson, however, the poor communications between boat teams in the rendezvous area had begun to influence the course of events.

                As Carlson was attempting to orient himself and to sort out and reorganize the Raiders who had landed with or near him, about one-fourth of his total force (at least three rifle squads, a machine gun section, and an antitank section) was already seeking out the enemy, either on its own initiative or in accordance with the original plan. As a consequence of these independent actions and those subsequently directed by Carlson, the two companies remained intermingled to a significant degree during most of the day’s fighting.

                The original scheme of maneuver had called for Company “B” to land its two platoons abreast on Beach “Z”, with the 2d Platoon an the right. Upon landing, the 2d Platoon was immediately to move across the island to Government Wharf, securing Government House enroute, then face left and advance to the southwest, maintaining contact with the 1st Platoon on its left. Now, some boat teams, unaware of a change of plan or need to reorganize, went ahead with the missions for which they had trained at Barber’s Point.

                Typical of this conditioned response was the action of Joe Griffith’s Government House detail (most of the Company “B” Raiders embarked aboard the Argonaut). In the absence of instructions to the contrary, this group landed and moved immediately on its primary objective. Ben Carson remembers that, after finally struggling to the beach, the first person he saw was Gunnery Sergeant Lang. standing there:

                . . . directing Raiders to their primary targets and he indicated to me to head toward the right down the beach which was the direction of the Government House. I finally caught up with my special squad and directly we could see the outline of the Government House . . . we approached the building [and] I noticed the door was open. I cautiously approached. . . and looked in—the place was abandoned. I rapidly sped around the corner . . . and was waved on toward . . . [Government] Wharf.]

                Likewise, the boat team that included the Company “B” antitank section (Sergeant Walter D. “Tiny” Carroll and Private Dean G. Winters) and Corporal Edward R. Wygal’s machine gun section deployed as it had trained. This group was the last to disembark from the Nautilus and because of a nonfunctioning motor did not go to the rendezvous point. Instead, it headed directly for the beach and, landing about 100 yards to the right of the main body, moved to the north side of the road and headed west, looking for its company.

                Sergeant William I. Yount’s boat team, which landed a mile or so to the right of Beach “Z,” also moved inland to the road and headed west, looking for friendly faces. It was not until around 0700, however, that it finally found them near Government House. There Carlson ordered them to set up the machine guns on the windward side of the command post and await orders from him.

                The Company “A” boat team that landed apart from the main body had encountered considerable difficulty in the surf and, except for a few stragglers from another boat, found itself alone when it reached the beach. At that point, according to the recollection of Private Murphree (Craven), Sergeant Faulkner, 2d Platoon guide, took charge:

                We headed for the middle of the island and when we came to the road. . . headed north, with half the squad on each side. . . . . Just as it was breaking daylight we sighted a bicycle coming up the road. When he got even with us we stepped out into the road and stopped him. We had with us a lieutenant [Holtom] who spoke Japanese fluently, and he said the sign on the bicycle read “Japanese Chief of Police.”.

                Sergeant Faulkner told two guys to guard him until we came back, and we continued on around the small curve in the road toward Government House. As we went around the curve we heard a shot that was the first I heard that morning.

                Distracted by the sound of the unexpected gunshots, the two men guarding the prisoner momentarily took their eyes off him, and he made a break for freedom. The Japanese policeman covered only a few yards, however, before the Raiders opened fire and killed the only prisoner to be taken in the operation.

                It was now around 0530, and dawn was breaking. On the beach, the reorganization had been progressing well; however, Murphy’s Law (If anything can go wrong, it will.) had continued to work against Carlson. Just when it had seemed that in a few more minutes the operation would be more or less back on track, one of the automatic riflemen had carelessly discharged his weapon. Assuming that this burst of fire, its sound so uncharacteristic of Japanese weapons, surely had alerted the garrison and would bring a quick reaction, Carlson precipitately issued an order that violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the philosophy of command he had preached throughout the organization and training of the 2d Raider Battalion.

                Now, notwithstanding Company “B” having trained to operate in the area behind Beach “Z” and being familiar with the relative locations of key objectives, Carlson seemed to abandon, at least temporarily, his philosophy of command and ordered the commander of company “A,” First Lieutenant Plumley, “to move his company across the island, seize the road on the lagoon side, and report our [sicj location with relation to the wharves.”

                Carlson believed a thorough understanding of orders--what they were and what was expected—to be the only basis for command, and if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the commander is to blame. Once it became common knowledge in the battalion that he deemed it a mortal sin for an officer to give an order that was misunderstood, the men naturally sought to turn this to their advantage. It became not at all uncommon for a malefactor, brought on the carpet for some sin of omission or commission, to offer in extenuation “Sir, I didn’t understand the order.” and thereby divert the colonel’s wrath onto the officer accuser.

Being uncertain as to his location on the island, Carlson understandably would have wanted to orient himself before taking further action; however, his choice of Company “A” to execute this mission seems to have been almost guaranteed to add to the already existing confusion. With most of Company “A” now deploying into the objective area of Company “B,” part of which was even then attempting to carry out its originally assigned mission, and where a squad from Company “A” was looking for action on its own, it is small wonder that the picture Joe Griffith recalls over the years is one of “mass confusion.” Once joined, the battle was largely without central control and quickly resolved itself into what Platoon Sergeant Melvin J. Spotts of the 1st Platoon, Company “A,” described as “more or less a free-for-all, with every man trying to get his score of Japs before they ran out.”

                Plumley quickly relayed Carlson’s order to Second Lieutenant Wilfred S. Le Francois, his 1st Platoon commander, who immediately started across the island with his platoon in a column of squads. Ahead of the column went a scout group under the platoon guide, Sergeant Clyde Thomason, and Platoon Sergeant Melvin J. Spotts brought up the rear, dropping off a man every 50 yards to guide the rest of the company.

                The scout group soon crossed the island and found itself at Government Wharf, only a few yards from Government House. The wharf apparently was no longer in use, for it was it a state of extreme disrepair and no boats were tied up at it. Only a short distance to the southwest, between the road and the lagoon, could be seen a cluster of several native huts. Corporal Howard A. Young, the lead scout, recalls that “It was not yet dawn, but the natives were stirring. They did not know 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 trace of the scout group, carefully checking the occasional native hut for occupancy as they advanced. “About 200 yards inland,” wrote Mel Spotts, “Lieutenant Le Francois and Sergeant Lenz or Thomason [probably Lenz since Thomason was with the reconnaissance group] went into a small house to investigate it. On coming out they were mistaken for Japs and some of our men opened fire on them. Lucky for them the shots went wild and no one was hurt.”

                In an article published in the 12/4/43 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Le Francois places this incident at Government House and the shooter as Lieutenant Lamb; however, Howard Young questions that location, he having been with Le Francois when he searched Government House. The “who” and “where” aside, however, it was even luckier than Mel Spotts could have imagined that there were not more such “friendly” firefights as the Raiders stumbled about in the semi-darkness, largely ignorant of one another’s whereabouts and prone to shoot first and ask questions later. For example, in the immediate vicinity of Government House at about the same time, were part of the Government House detail from Company “B,” Faulkner’s group, Le Francois’s platoon, and several others. “Loose cannons” suggests itself as a not inappropriate metaphor for such largely uncontrolled activity, and that they did not collide is amazing.

                When the scout group returned with confirmation of their location relative to Government Wharf and Government House, Le Francois relayed this information to Plumley and was instructed to check the building for occupancy. Accompanied by Young and Corporal Ladislaus A. Piskor, leader of the 1st Squad, Le Francois warily moved up to the building and found it empty, just as Ben Carson had found it a few minutes earlier. The only indication of recent occupancy was the Japanese flag flying from a pole in front of the building. Piskor and Young quickly converted the flag into souvenirs of somewhat dubious value by the simple expedient of hauling it down and tearing it in half.

                Later in the morning, Captain Davis, the battalion demolition and engineer officer, would attempt to hoist the Stars and Stripes on this same pole. When the flag was at about half-mast, Davis suddenly found himself the target of some long-range sniper fire. Although none of the shots was close enough even to be called a “near miss,” their cumulative effect was enough to make him forget his officer’s dignity and every thing he knew about flag etiquette. Dropping the halyard and leaving the flag to fall where it would, Captain Davis hightailed it for cover, providing thereby a bit of comic relief for all present.

                Back at the beach, however, Carlson was still uncertain as to his location; his force was in disarray; and he had lost the element of tactical surprise, if indeed he had ever had it. At this time, if the 0543 message to the Nautilus, “everything lousy.” can be taken as a reliable indicator of his state of mind, he was teetering on the brink of despair. However, when Plumley reported at about 0545 that his point had located Government Wharf and Government House had been occupied without opposition, Carlson’s mood became more upbeat, and he revised the earlier, pessimistic estimate of the situation.

                At 0547 the Nautilus received the more sanguine “Situation expected to be well in hand shortly”, and Carlson, apparently now confident of his location and feeling reasonably secure from surprise attack, ordered Plumley to deploy across the island and advance to the southwest; Captain Coyte was to hold Company “B” in reserve and provide security for the left flank.

                While Carlson was issuing his operation order to the company commanders, Lieutenants Lamb and Le Francois were talking with some natives—men, women, and children—who, undoubtedly awakened by the gunfire. had come running out of their huts and up the road to see what was happening. Evidently having assumed that the firing had been by the Japanese on maneuvers, they were quite surprised to come upon a group of armed Americans standing near Government House. Soon, however, curiosity overcame their surprise and natural shyness, and they became quite friendly. Some of the natives could speak English, albeit brokenly, and soon were telling the Raiders what they knew about the enemy garrison and its disposition.

                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; however, there was wide divergence in their estimates of the garrison strength. Some insisted that there were no more than 80 Japanese on the island, while others were equally certain there were 150 or more. All agreed, however, that there were no prepared defensive positions ahead of the Raiders. They could not have known, however, that even as they stood talking to the Raiders, Sergeant Major Kanemitsu’s men were moving into position for a counterattack.

                Later the natives were to tell Carlson that the Japanese had had three days’ advance notice of our raid, which was expected to come either at On Chong’s Wharf or at Government Wharf. In preparation they had conducted frequent maneuvers between the two wharves, had begun to post lookouts along the windward beaches, and had assigned snipers to positions in the tops of trees near Stone Pier, the approximate midpoint of the anticipated area of operations. Strangely enough, however, they had prepared no defensive positions behind the beaches they expected to be attacked except, again according to the natives, the windward beach opposite On Chong’s Wharf where some barbed wire had been strung.

                Given the extent and efficacy of the pre-war Japanese intelligence net in the Hawaiian Islands and a high probability that at least part of it was still operational in the summer of 1942, it was not impossible that the enemy had discovered or been able to deduce that a submarine-launched raid was in the offing. After all, our “secret” operation had become the topic of bar conversation, as Doctor MacCracken and I had discovered on the morning of our departure from Pearl Harbor. Furthermore, it might also have been the subject of “pillow talk” in suburban Honolulu’s better brothels and of idle chatter in the waiting lines at the “wham-bam-scram” mass-market establishments on downtown Hotel Street.

                Knowing of our capability to conduct such raids, the size and speed of our submarines, and the dates of departure of those capable of carrying troops, it would have been a simple matter for the Japanese to calculate the earliest date at which a raiding force could reach their most advanced positions—Wake Island, the Marshall Islands, and the Gilbert Islands—all nearly equidistant from Pearl Harbor. It seems, however, quite improbable that, of the dozens of possible targets along the arc of that radius, they would have been able to zero in on Butaritari as our objective, a detail which even most of us hadn’t known until after sailing.

                Most likely the advanced readiness posture of the Butaritari garrison was the result of the general alert that had been broadcast to all Japanese units at the time of our landing on Guadalcanal on August 7, and the final deployment was not ordered until around 0500 on August 17, probably when a lookout posted near Beach “Z” observed our landing. Having begun then, 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 facts: First, the garrison troops were full dressed, even to neatly wrapped puttees, which indicates that their deployment had been orderly and probably began soon after reveille (0600 local time, 0500 standard)—coincidentally the time of our landing. Second, that at 0615 (0515 standard) the garrison commander reported by radio to his headquarters on Emidj that he was being attacked by an enemy unit that had landed from two submarines. And finally, that soon after 0530 my boat team was close enough to the road between King’s Wharf and Stone Pier to have heard, if not seen, any movement vehicular or pedestrian, in either direction, and there had been none.

                It was now broad daylight and the natives, well rewarded for their cooperation with American cigarettes and D-ration chocolate bars, wisely moved up the road to the east and out of the area that soon was to become a battleground. Lieutenant Lamb headed for the beach to convey to Carlson the latest information on the enemy situation, and Le Francois turned full attention to his own situation and the possible courses of action open to him.

                The inactivity of the enemy was ominous and indicated a waiting ambush. There, of course, was no thought of the 1st Platoon alone taking on the entire enemy force, but they could continue on down the road and try to locate and perhaps spring this ambush. On the other hand in the absence of specific instructions to go farther, perhaps it would be better to deploy in defensive positions at the present location and wait for further developments, either orders from Carlson or movement by the enemy.

                Although Le Francois probably didn’t realize it at that time, the 1st Platoon was not alone, and his situation vis-à-vis the Japanese was not at all unfavorable. In addition to his platoon with its attached light machine gun section, several Company “B” units, including part of the Government House detail, a light machine-gun section, and an antitank-rifle section, were present in his sector and in position to support him. Thus, when the battle was joined, he would have at his immediate disposal the firepower of about a dozen automatic rifles, four .30-caliber light machine guns, and a .55-caliber antitank rifle.

                As Le Francois mulled over the advantages and disadvantages of feasible courses of action, however, the need for decision was taken from him. His walkie-talkie suddenly came to life, and over the background static he recognized Lieutenant Plumley’s voice ordering him to deploy his platoon on the lagoon side of the road and advance southwest toward the Japanese trading station near Stone Pier.

                Uncertain as to the location of the 2d Platoon but assuming that it was somewhere to his left and in position to support him, Le Francois quickly deployed his platoon into a wedge with the squads in column (Corporal Piskor’s 1st Squad ahead in the center, Corporal Stanley F. Debosik’s 2d Squad behind on the right, and Corporal Wittenberg’s 3d Squad behind on the left) and sent out security—a fireteam to each flank and one at point. Then, placing himself near the head of the 1st squad from where he could see and control the point, he gave the signal to move out. Platoon Sergeant Spotts again took up his position at the rear of the formation.

                For the first 600 yards or so their route was through moderately restricted terrain—frequent low marshy areas with fairly dense vegetation, which provided good concealment for the advancing Raiders, and a cluster of a dozen or so native huts. What was good concealment for one side, however, was equally good for the other, and the advance was slowed as the point and flankers thoroughly searched the bush and the huts for hidden Japanese. Beyond the native settlement, the terrain opened up and visibility improved. Good fields of fire lay on both sides of the road; consequently, the rate of advance increased somewhat.

                Suddenly the point fire team, now ranging several yards in advance of the main body, took cover, and the rest of the platoon followed their lead, at first not knowing why. The reason soon became apparent, however, as they saw a truck grind to a halt about 300 yards down the road and quickly unload 15 or 20 soldiers who were soon joined by others already there. Designated snipers undoubtedly had already taken up their positions in the tree tops, from which they would have observed the Raiders’ approach. After planting a large, rising-sun flag, presumably to mark the center of their position and to serve as a rallying point, the entire group of Japanese quickly deployed into the bushes on either side of the road and began to move toward the Raiders.

                It was now around 0600 and, as Kanemitsu’s skirmishers began their advance, Le Francois found himself about to fight a classic, albeit small-scale, meeting engagement instead of the ambush he had anticipated. Knowing that the first commander to bring the most firepower to bear probably would be the victor, he quickly called in his point and signaled to Sergeant Thomason to bring the rest of the platoon forward on the double. Then, having ensured that his point fire team had successfully disengaged and was returning, he moved back a few yards to a somewhat higher elevation that offered the best field of fire west of the village.

                When Thomason came running up with the rest of the platoon, Le Francois indicated the general line on which to deploy and, leaving the detailed positioning of the men to the sergeant’s judgment, radioed a situation report to the command post, all the while keeping a close watch on the advancing enemy soldiers. The Japanese were now plainly visible as they moved in small, well dispersed groups through the 100-yard strip of light brush between the lagoon and the road. They were walking into a trap, seemingly unaware of the curtain of fire and steel that awaited them just ahead.

                For the time being, Lady Luck smiled on Le Francois’s men. At this early hour the sun was just high enough to shine in the enemy’s eyes while leaving the Raiders in shadow and, hence, difficult to see. Furthermore, with the rising sun at their backs and positioned slightly higher than the advancing Japanese, they had near-perfect light for shooting. Le Francois could scarcely believe his good fortune; however, knowing that good fortune more often than not improves with assistance, he decided to give it a boost by tightening up the trap. By swinging Corporal Piskor’s squad forward, closer to the position now occupied by the point fire team, he created a cul-de-sac, from which the Raiders could deliver frontal and flanking fire on Kanemitsu’s men when the trap was sprung. Now all he had to do was wait until the opportune moment.

                So far not a shot had been fired. The Japanese advanced rapidly and aggressively, but the Raiders held their fire, confident of their own skills and secure in the knowledge that they were well positioned. Thomason had done his job well. Now, with no more concern for his personal safety than if he were supervising a firing relay on the rifle range, he walked along the line, pausing from time to time to adjust individual positions and point out fields of fire and. when needed, to ease inner tensions with an encouraging word and a pat on the back.

                Soon the enemy was close enough for the Raiders to begin to distinguish individual facial features and to pick out details of equipment. Some began to fidget, wondering “just how close is ‘whites of the eyes’ range?” and their trigger fingers began to tighten involuntarily. Finally, when the suspense had become almost unbearable, Thomason upstaged his lieutenant by shouting “let ‘em have it!” and punctuated his order with a blast from the 12-gauge shotgun he carried.

                For simultaneity of response and precision of execution, the effect of Thomason’s command was not unlike that of a movement command on the drill field. At the shotgun’s “command of execution,” the entire line opened fire as one, and for four or five minutes everyone blazed away at anything that moved. The sudden hail of well-aimed fire from the Raiders’ rifles and automatic weapons smashed the advancing enemy formation and literally left the attackers dead in their tracks, with few or no survivors to make their way back “to rally ‘round the flag.”

                Providing a bass accompaniment to Le Francois’s overture in .30 caliber was the Company “B” antitank-rifle team (Tiny Carroll and Dean Winters), now in line with the Company “A” Raiders. To ensure that the truck would transport no more troops into the area, they placed a .55-caliber armor-piercing bullet into its radiator. (On the following day, Winters had a chance to examine their handiwork and found that the bullet had passed through the radiator, the engine block, and the cab of the truck.)

                On the left flank of the 1st Platoon, where Piskor’s 1st Squad held a position well ahead of the other two, the initial engagement was fought at much closer ranges and was far more intense. In fact, the 1st Squad was almost within spitting range of the enemy, and had Corporal Young, the point man in the advance, been able to read his lieutenant’s mind as the battle began, he might well have asked, “Who’s trapping whom?”

                . . . A shot rang out. . . and all hell broke loose. We had Japs in front of us, above us, alongside of us to our left, and behind us also to our left. There were manmade shallow pits about 20 inches or so deep just to the left of the road. . . . [and] our 1st Squad. . . hit the deck in this taro patch. Two machine guns were sweeping the area above our heads; slugs were chunking into the bases of the palm trees. Snipers were coming very close, but no hits. The nearest machine gun was just about 20 yards from us.

                As Piskor and I. . . were picking off the Japs who were trying to reinforce the group who had stopped us [ i.e. those who had begun their advance from the truck], the others were trying to locate the snipers and lobbed grenades into the machine gun nest. They knocked out the nest, but we were still pinned down by the hard-to-find snipers. Piskor and 1, in the prone position, calmly squeezed them off as if we were on the 200-yard range at Camp Elliot. [Young was a graduate of Scout-Sniper School.] We killed most of the Japs who came toward us in the vicinity of the road.

                The cacophony of gunfire from the 1st Platoon area undoubtedly was the source of the “clatter” that brought the startled Japanese soldier out of the barracks and gave my boat team its first kill of the operation. Likewise, it was in the lull that followed this action that the bicyclists attempted to get past my group, evidently to seek instructions for their next move, and it probably was the noise of this battle that prompted Kanemitsu to anticipate his own imminent demise and send his last message to Emidj: “We are now all dying in battle”.

                When the 1st Platoon opened fire on the advancing Japanese, Mel Spotts was lying near the acting commander of the 2d Platoon, Gunnery Sergeant Ellsbury B. Elliott, and his radioman, Private, first class, Norman N. Mortensen, and overheard Le Francois’s contact report. Unable to see what was going on, he moved up closer to the firing line and, seeing the gap that had been created when Le Francois swung his left flank forward, attempted to close it as best he could with the assistance of Elliot and some others.

                Earlier Elliott’s 2d Platoon (less the 3d Squad) had followed the guides posted by the 1st Platoon inland from the beach for a short distance, then faced left, and swept up the island on the windward side of the road. When they left the beach, the 1st Squad had led off in response to Corporal Daniel A Gaston’s fondly remembered order: “OK., men, follow me. Davis, you go first.” When the battle began, it was just drawing abreast of the rear elements of the 1st Platoon, a short distance beyond the native village. Corporal Kenneth K. Kunkle’s 2d Squad was to their left. Private Glen A. Lincoln, a rifleman in Gaston’s squad, describes the opening action:

                After daylight, still proceeding up the island, 1 ran out to a tree in a fair sized clearing and dove behind it. Still no firing. A Raider ran by me headed for another tree further into the clearing. A machine gun then opened up from the brush and trees at the further side of the clearing, and the back of the Raider’s jacket looked like it had a fan in it. . . . [from] the bullets coming out. . . . The Raider fell a few yards ahead of me and to my left. [Then] . . . the machine gun swung down on me. I lay as flat as I could and tried to shrink myself as narrow as possible. At this time I discovered there were two machine guns a few feet apart. I really took a beating from these guns . . . Apparently they assumed that I was taken care of as they quit firing.

                All was quiet ,for awhile, then several kinds of small scrawny pigs came out of the brush to the left of the clearing and started to eat the dead Raider that had been killed ahead of me. Twice I ,fired. . . at them to drive them away. . . The two machine guns worked me over each time . . . [and] I gave up trying to drive the pigs off.

                Although they didn’t realize it, the 2d Platoon and the 1st Squad of the 1st Platoon had tangled with the bulwark of the Japanese position—a fence, as it were, apparently intended to contain the Raiders’ advance while the left wing swung like a gate to envelop and drive them into the sea. During the next half-hour or so, as it struggled to advance under the pointblank fire of snipers and the raking of the machine guns, the 2d Platoon would suffer all of its battle casualties, including nine killed in action. The dead in the 1st Squad were Corporals Gaston and Robert B. Pearson and Private, first class, Ashley W Hicks; in the 2d Squad, Corporal Kunkle, Private, first class, John E. Vandenberg, and Private Robert B. Maulding; and in the 3rd Squad, Corporal Johnson and Private Nodland.

                Also killed at this time was Norm Mortensen, Elliott’s radioman. Mortensen was the first of four radio operators to be killed that morning, the others being Gallagher, Griffith’s radio operator; Montgomery, my radio operator; and Corporal Edward Maciejewski, another Company “A” radio operator. The high casualty rate among our radio operators speaks volumes not only for the marksmanship ability of the Japanese snipers but for their target identification skills as well.

                Farther to the rear, Sergeant Faulkner and his group still had found no Japanese, except the policeman, so when the firing started, they turned about and hurried to the southwest in the direction of the action. Keeping to the windward side of the road, they soon came to the cleared area near the native village and, as they broke out of the undergrowth into the open, almost immediately were taken under fire by snipers. In the first volley, Faulkner was wounded in the left hand and Corporal Johnson was killed. William Murphree describes the action:

                Corporal Johnson and I ran into the clearing, and that’s when he was killed about two feet to my right. I asked him how he was when he told he was shot, and his last words were, “Hell, I’m, all right.” He started to get up, then just straightened out and never moved.

                I backed up to the protection of the coconut trees, and Private Nodland [Franklin M. ; killed a few minutes later], who was to my left, shot the Jap out of a coconut tree ahead of us with his BAR. I went to the left and ran into Faulkner, Lenz, and Larsen [Private Carlyle 0.]. We were at the edge of the coconut trees, and ahead of us was a rise in the ground and an open place.

                By this time (around 0615), the volume of Raider gunfire had slackened off considerably, not because of enemy inactivity but simply because there were no targets to be seen. Here the 2d Raiders learned an invaluable lesson: the Japanese soldiers were masters of the art of camouflage and concealment. Their jungle green camouflage suits, often supplemented by nets festooned with pieces of foliage, made them extremely difficult to see, and some of the snipers had tied coconuts to themselves so as better to blend in with their background. One imaginative sniper had even gone so far as to tie the tops of two palms together and, when finally spotted, cut the tie so that the trees sprang apart, giving the Raiders two trees to search.

                Furthermore, the snipers’ deadly marksmanship at ranges far greater than pointblank effectively belied all of the rumors we had heard about Japanese myopia. During two hours on the left flank of the 1st Platoon, Platoon Sergeant Spotts recalls having fired only once at a visible target, however, in this same period snipers firing from concealment in the tree tops inflicted most of the casualties the Raiders suffered in the battle.

                Among the first to fall in the 1st Platoon was Sergeant Thomason who was killed as he moved along the firing line, encouraging the young Marines, pointing out targets for them, and adjusting their fire. He had just joined the 1st Squad at the taro patch and was trying to locate a sniper when he was hit. Howard Young remembers that they “pleaded with him to stay down, there were snipers within 50 yards of us, and the machine gun nest that we had knocked out started up again. Thomason wouldn’t stay down, and he was killed. . . . We got the sniper, and., Bibby [Private, first class, Joe R. ], Weimer [Corporal Alvin J], and Locke [Private, first class, “B” “G”] knocked out the machine gun nest again.”

                For heroism above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy, Sergeant Clyde Thomason was post-humously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first enlisted Marine to be so honored in World War II.

                Also killed in the initial flurry of enemy counterfire was my good friend and hiking companion, Jerry Holtom. Jerry was on the right flank, near the lagoon, looking for Colonel Carlson and, according to Private, first class, Charles E. Dawson, a Company “B” machine gunner who was nearby, “He was too far up in the front. This would not be bad if he were needed up where he was, but he was not needed.”

                In addition to the snipers, at least four well-camouflaged machine guns continuously raked the Raider line, probing those areas likely to conceal a target. One of these, a Lewis gun of British manufacture, well-positioned in a taro pit less than 200 yards from the Raiders’ right flank, began to sweep the entire 1st Platoon line, causing Lieutenant Le Francois no little concern. Soon, however, Corporal Leon R. Chapman of Company “B” located the enemy weapon and engaged it in a gun-to-gun duel with his light machine gun.

                Although the enemy gunners tried valiantly to keep their gun in action, Chapman prevailed. Private Kenneth M. “Mudhole” Merrill, Chapman’s ammunition carrier, remembers that they fired about one and one-half belts of ammunition (about 400 rounds) to silence the Lewis-gun. “I, could see their heads bob up and down as Chapman got ‘em. After that all was quiet.” Later Chapman himself told Private, first class, Calvin L. Inman, another Company “B” machine gunner, that when he saw what he had done with his gun he almost threw up. In the taro pit around the wreckage of the machine gun were the bodies of a dozen or more men who had given their all to keep the gun in action.

                While Chapman held the undivided attention of the Lewis-gun crew, and the Company “A” antitank team of Sergeant Howard E. “Buck” Stidham and Corporal Robert E. Poarche provided support (mostly as the unwilling targets of another enemy machine gun), Corporal Wygal, Chapman’s section leader, made his way along the lagoon shore to outflank the gun position and administer the coup de grace with hand grenades. For his courage and outstanding leadership in this action, Corporal Wygal was awarded the Navy Cross.

                Not all of the bodies lying around the wreckage of the gun, however, were through “dying in battle” as Buck Stidham discovered a few minutes after the gun was silenced. Having let his curiosity overcome his better judgment, Stidham was searching one of the bodies for souvenirs when “to my surprise the ‘dead’ Jap suddenly groaned and raised up on his knees. Fortunately I had a knife,. . . so I whipped it out and punctured his lung.” Now he was through dying.

                Simultaneously with an increase in sniper and light machine-gun fire, the Japanese began firing shells from two grenade throwers (“knee mortars”). Although they caused no casualties (most of the grenades exploded harmlessly in the tree tops or well beyond the Raiders’ positions) and were soon silenced, their employment was a strong indication that the enemy was preparing another attack.

                Although now aware that the 2d Platoon was fully deployed to his left, Le Francois still felt uneasy for his left flank and reinforced it with a part of his 3d Squad, including automatic rifleman Private, first class, Fred E. Kemp. This move partially filled the gap between his left flank and the edge of a marshy area that began 15-20 yards from the windward side of the road—the same gap that Elliott and Spotts had attempted to fill only minutes earlier. Then positioning himself between the 1st and 2d Squads, from where he could control their fire and assist with the fire from his own submachine gun, he braced himself for whatever might come.

                Meanwhile, as casualties began to mount at an alarming rate in the center and left of the Raider line, Carlson also became concerned and decided to commit a part of his reserve. According to his after-action report, he “. . . directed that one platoon from Company ‘B’ enter the line on the left of Company ‘A.’ This maneuver was skillfully executed by Lieutenant Griffith.”

Lieutenant Griffith, however, recalls that Carlson ordered him to move his platoon up in support of Company “A.” Then as he proceeded to do so, advancing with his platoon in a column of squads for maximum control, Carlson came up and ordered him to deploy “in a line of skirmishers.” Feeling that this was wrong, Griffith started to question the order but Carlson cut him short and repeated it in a peremptory manner which brooked no further discussion. As a result of this order, Griffith soon lost all control over his platoon, as it became hopelessly intermingled with Company “A,” and Carlson squandered an opportunity to maneuver and envelop the exposed right flank of the Japanese position.

                How, or even if, this decision affected the ultimate outcome of the battle is, of course, impossible to say. From the standpoint of control, it probably would have been better to have maintained the organizational and tactical integrity of Griffith’s platoon, holding it in a central location for commitment as required. From the standpoint of expediency, however, since Company “A” had already sustained fairly heavy casualties, Carlson would justifiably have been concerned for its ability to withstand the attack that seemed imminent. Thus his decision to employ Griffith’s platoon as a “replacement draft” might well have been nothing more than a matter of “killing the nearest rattlesnake first.” In any event, the Raiders did not have long to wait for the first test of this decision.

                Under the covering fire of their snipers, machine guns, and grenade throwers, the Japanese finished regrouping and spent a few minutes yelling and shouting to work up their spirits—for all the world like a bunch of college boys at a pep rally. Then after a short period of silence, probably covering the time needed to deploy along the line of departure, their bugler sounded a couple of shrill notes, and the race was on.

                At the first note from the bugle, a wave of Japanese infantrymen burst out of the scrub growth less than 100 yards from the Raider line and charged down the center of the island, firing their rifles on the run and shouting “Banzai!” at the top of their voices, apparently hoping thereby to intimidate the round-eyed barbarians. Fascinated, perhaps, by such a bizarre spectacle but in no degree intimidated, the Raiders held their fire until the charging Japanese were almost on top of them, then opened up with everything they had. Most of the enemy were mowed down by the first volleys, and only a handful struggled to within a few feet of the Raider positions where they were quickly dispatched.

                In the area occupied by Faulkner and the remnants of the 3rd Squad, 2d Platoon, the Japanese came out of a coconut grove and charged across a native cemetery at the waiting Raiders. Supplementing the fire of their Thompson submachine gun and rifles with hand grenades, the small group halted the attack against their sector and wiped out the survivors. For their heroic action in this and a subsequent banzai attack, Sergeant Faulkner, Private, first class, Joseph Sebock, and Private Murphree were awarded Navy Crosses.

                Snipers and machine guns supported the banzai attack throughout by maintaining a steady volume of fire all along the line, and the Raiders’ casualty list continued to lengthen. Corporal “I” “B” Earles of Debosik’s 2d Squad was killed in action at this time, as was Bill Gallagher, Joe Griffith’s radioman, and Private Charles A. Selby, a Thompson submachine gunner from Griffith’s platoon.

                On the right flank of the 2d Platoon, Jim Faulkner was hit for the second time, a gunshot wound on the head, and just a few minutes later a bullet struck him in the right side and finally put him out of action. Nearby, at about the same time, Sergeant Lenz of the 1st Platoon was knocked unconscious and virtually paralyzed by a grazing bullet wound to the head. On the extreme left of the line, Platoon Sergeant Victor Maghakian was shot in the right forearm as he gave hand-and-arm signals to his men; however, he bound up the wound and continued at his post. Several weeks later on Guadalcanal he would be wounded in the left arm under almost identical circumstances.

                Although he came through the action unscathed, Fred Kemp probably got the scare of his life when a stray bullet struck him in the cartridge belt, rupturing several cartridge cases and igniting the powder. As smoke poured from the magazine pouch, he beat at it futilely with his bare hands, then in an act of desperation turned and threw himself into a soggy taro pit, where the moist earth soon smothered the fire.

                Supporting the wave of infantry-men that hurled themselves against the Raider line with such verve, were four light machine guns and a flamethrower, whose operator (fortunately for the Raiders) was killed by a burst of fire from an automatic weapon before he got close enough to use his weapon. The light machine guns, however, were a different story. As the charge faltered and ground to a halt, their crews, well camouflaged with foliage and aided by the suppressive fire of the snipers, managed to infiltrate to within 20 or 30 yards of the Raider line before opening fire with devastating effect.

                The machine gun that Piskor’s squad had already knocked out twice once again was remanned and joined in the action. Before it could be put out of action for the third and last time, however, it wounded Lieutenant Le Francois, who had just joined the 1st Squad at the taro patch. He was standing over Thomason’s body, also looking for snipers and wouldn’t stay down. The machine gun opened fire in his direction, and five bullets struck him in the right shoulder and upper arm. Rendered effectively hors de combat by his wound, he evacuated himself to the aid station.

                The very persistent machine gun that wounded Le Francois probably was the same one that killed Private Selby. Ben Carson recalls having seen Selby’s body lying near the edge of the marshy area on the windward side of the road and observing that he “. . . had been in one helluva fire fight. Every one of his ammo clips was empty and he had been hit by a volley of bullets that tore up his chest.”

                Piskor’s men finally knocked out this machine gun with a volley of hand grenades and, since they were no longer pinned down by snipers, were able to move to the position and determine how the gun had managed to remain in action for so long. Around the gun were 15 or 20 bodies, and it appeared that the Japanese had infiltrated replacement crews almost as fast as the Raiders knocked them out until there were no more to infiltrate.

                Under the covering fire of their remaining snipers and light machine guns, the few survivors of the assault withdrew up the island to their rallying point. Then, after a lull of several minutes during which the pep rally was repeated, the bugler again sounded his shrill two-note call, and a second, albeit much smaller, wave of infantrymen charged toward the Raider position in an encore of the first banzai. By now, however, the Raiders were better acquainted with the terrain and enemy tactics and defeated this attack with relative ease. This ended what came to be called the “Battle of the Breadfruit Trees” after the two large breadfruit trees that stood near the point of origin of the Japanese charges.

                “By 0700,” Carlson wrote in his after-action report, “the pattern of the enemy defense was apparent. It was built around four machine guns, two grenade throwers, automatic rifles and a flame thrower, with infantry supporting the automatic weapons and with a corps of snipers operating from the tops of cocoanut [sic] trees.” A more realistic assessment of the situation, however, might have read: “By 0700 organized resistance was at an end, although snipers continued to be a problem.”

                After the second banzai attack, there probably were fewer than two dozen Japanese left alive on the island, all located in the vicinity of Stone Pier, and a few minutes later my boat team would kill five of these. Without leadership, means of communications with the outside, or weapons other than their bolt-action rifles, they no longer had the wherewithal to conduct a concerted defense. They could only hope to stave off the inevitable and sell their lives as dearly as possible for the glory of their emperor.

                Nevertheless, Carlson seems to have believed that the enemy was much stronger than he actually was and, instead of maneuvering aggressively to clean out the survivors as soon as possible, cautiously kept his Raiders deployed in a long skirmish line where they bogged down in a four-hour duel between individuals or fire teams and the handful of isolated snipers. As a consequence of this delay, there probably would not have been enough time to complete the assigned mission in one day, even if things had gone as planned.

                Carlson’s estimate of the enemy’s strength and his perception of “the pattern of the enemy defense” undoubtedly were colored somewhat by the information he had received from the natives about an hour earlier. He of course had no way of knowing whether 80 or 150 was the more accurate figure for the garrison strength, but apparently he chose to err on the side of safety and assumed the larger figure. Concerned over the reinforcement capability of the troops said by the natives to be concentrated on Ukiangong Point, he now decided to request the submarines to fire on the suspected concentration area, hoping thereby to eliminate these troops or at least to isolate them from the battle area.

                At 0547 the Nautilus had lost all radio communication with the landing party and did not regain it until 0656, at which time she heard parts of transmissions requesting a fire mission on Ukiangong Point in an area of a suspected enemy concentration. The Argonaut apparently did not hear this request, but the Nautilus opened fire immediately, although she had no bombardment ammunition. After expending 24 rounds (12 salvos), she checked fire to respond to a request for a fire mission on a more critical target: a small transport and a gunboat located near the edge of the lagoon at about 8,000 yards and 350 degrees, magnetic, from Government Wharf.

                At 0711 the Nautilus again lost radio contact with the Raiders, but that notwithstanding, opened fire on the lagoon at 0716, covering the target area by making successive changes in range and deflection, a technique of fire similar to the “search and traverse” so familiar to machine gunners of that era. The Nautilus ceased fire at 0723 after firing 23 salvos, her captain having concluded that further expenditure of ammunition in unobserved fire was unwarranted. However, thanks to a combination of gunner’s luck, the restricted waters of the lagoon, and the technique of fire used, both vessels were sunk.

                Where Jim Green of my group had observed only the “before” and “after” of this action, Tiny Carroll of the Company “B” antitank section was in a position on the right flank near the lagoon and witnessed the entire engagement. According to his laconic statement written for the Nautilus war patrol report:

                0700. Got into position on right flank near lagoon side. Saw two ships in lagoon. One seemed to be a tanker or transport, the other a gunboat. Both just at edge of lagoon. Both at anchor at that time. Guns started firing and they started running in circles in lagoon. Tried to head out towards sea and the tanker was hit near water line and burst into flames a little later. Gun boat sank after being hit in lagoon. . . . saw tanker sink near island in lagoon entrance.

                How long the ships had been in the lagoon is not known; however, they almost certainly were not recent arrivals for, as Tiny’ Carroll noted, both were at anchor when the Nautilus opened fire. Perhaps they had brought reinforcements and supplies for the garrison and, after unloading, anchored in the lagoon to wait until Monday to depart. Or perhaps they had arrived late on Friday and were waiting until Monday to unload. In any event, they would be going no farther, but their presence raised some troubling questions: If they carried reinforcements, had they already unloaded them? If so, how many? If not, how many had survived the sinking of the ships, and where were they?

                Later that morning, natives reported that the patrol boat “had” 60 marines aboard, but apparently no one asked when they were aboard. If the ships had only recently arrived and were waiting to dock and unload, it would seem highly unlikely that the natives would have had an opportunity to have discovered what the were carrying. But on the other hand, if they had already unloaded, the natives quite easily’ could have counted the marines as they debarked, which seems the more likely explanation and would account for the discrepancy between our estimate of 40 to 50 and the 80 or so Japanese bodies counted on the battlefield.

                In any event, the presence of the two ships seems to have heightened Carlson’s apprehension, and he now deployed his only uncommitted unit, the two squads of my platoon. According to Private Denton E. Hudman, “We were ordered to move to the left to protect the boats if the Japs came down the beach. The only shots I fired were during this move to the left flank when five or six of us shot at two different snipers in trees. One fell out; the other didn’t. He was tied in, we discovered later.” Carlson had now committed his last maneuver unit, but the stalemate continued.

                So far the landing force had not been molested by enemy aircraft; however, at 0901 the Nautilus had a radar contact and sighted a plane; then another at 1039. She made an emergency dive on each occasion, remaining submerged for almost an hour on the first and for more than two hours on the second; consequently, information of these sightings was not, or more precisely could not be, communicated to Carlson.

                The Raiders were unaware of the presence of enemy aircraft in the area until around 1130, when two Japanese reconnaissance planes arrived over the island and began to circle the battle area. In compliance with standing instructions, everyone took cover and held their fire as the planes orbited for about 15 minutes. Then, seemingly satisfied by what the had seen, or failed to see, the planes dropped two bombs, apparently aimed at “whomever it may concern” but falling among their own, and flew away.

                It was about this time that the small Japanese car burst out of the brush and came scurrying down the road into the fire of my waiting boat team, but whether it was these “friendly” bombs or action by the Raiders that flushed it is impossible to say. To Mel Spotts, however, “these bombs looked small but when they went off they made a helluva noise and shook the whole island”, and they easily could have motivated the Japanese to make a final desperate attempt to get to a radio so as to forestall another bombing by their own planes.

                At 1255 the Nautilus had radar contacts at 12 and 14 miles, and simultaneously the officer of the deck sighted about 12 planes approaching at high altitude. The submarines, their radio communications with the shore still out, could not warn the Raiders of the approaching aircraft and could only hope, as they sought safety in the depths of the Pacific, that the Marines would hear the planes in time to take cover.

                The Raiders did indeed hear the approaching aircraft and had already begun to pull back from the area that had seemed to be the focus of attention of the two reconnaissance planes; however, this withdrawal was not in anticipation of an air raid. As Carlson wrote in his after-action report:

                . . . At that time the center of our line was located in an area thick with foliage which provided an advantage for snipers. I decided to attempt to draw these snipers on to ground more advantageous to us by withdrawing my right and center two hundred yards to a line where there was a good field of fire [Essentially the position held by the 1st Platoon when the battle began.], while leaving my left extended so as to enfilade the advancing snipers. This maneuver was successfully accomplished. . . .

                Although this withdrawal failed to draw out any snipers, the results probably were the same, since the air attack was directed at the area occupied only by Japanese survivors of the morning’s fighting. Thus, Carlson’s decision to withdraw probably saved the lives of several of his men. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of excitement for all.

                Mel Spotts. who had reached his fall-back position before the air raid began recalls

                [W]e got our real scare for Jap planes started over in large numbers. . . . [O]ne four motored flying boat. . . . cruised around for 15 minutes and then landed along with one sea plane in the lagoon. . . . The rest of the planes cruised back and forth over the front lines for a few minutes and then began to bomb and machine gun their own troops. This was really an answer to our prayers. The Jap pilots had mistaken the position of the front lines.

Copyright:  ReView Publications

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