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About Evans Carlson
The Carlson's Raiders

Carlson's ideas about warfare were formed during a remarkable career in and out of the Marine Corps. After serving as a Captain in the army during World War I, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Private in 1922. Stationed in Nicaragua during the Sandino regime, he clashed many times with the so-called native "bandits". Their basic tactic, he found, was to travel at night and ambush during the day. After a few brushes on them, he improved on their methods and not only travelled at nights but ambushed at night. Leading a detachment of fifteen marines on horseback, he once routed one hundred Nicaraguans and chased them over the border into Honduras. For this he was awarded the Navy Cross.

A week after the Sino-Japanese started in 1937, Carlson arrived in Shanghai to serve his third hitch in China. Attached to the Chinese army as an observer, he watched the superior Japanese forces crushed China's Army in the major cities. Then he decided to take a look at one section of the Chinese army that was making progress.

Up in North China, the 8th Route Army, the Red Army, was waging large scale guerilla warfare against the invaders. Within inferior numbers and little heavy equipment, Chu Teh, the 8th's General, was quietly mopping up province after province. After being rigorously investigated by officers in the Red Army and travelling several thousand miles, Carlson was brought to Red Army Headquarters. He told them he wanted to study the inter-relationship of military and political war as the Reds fought it.

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With Chu Teh, Commander of China's Crack Red Army,
Lieutenant Colonel Carlson poses in 1937 while he was attached
to guerilla forces as an observer. From 8th Route Army, Carlson
got his ideas for the political organisation of his Marine Raider Battalion.

Carlson spent two years with the Red Army. He found he did many things in the same way Sandino did them in Nicaragua. He was impressed by the mobile, self-sustained force whose soldiers endured any hardships. He liked the 8th's Army Leaders because they were unselfish and did not practise the traditional war-lord custom of self-aggrandisement. He was most taken by the officers' interest in the welfare of their men.

In Carlson's opinion the 8th Route Army was the best organised, best led fighting force in the world for its size and purpose. It fought by first organizing the people in the area in which the fight was to take place. This was done by sending in political missionaries who taught the people how to hold elections, establish schools and form the younger people into guerilla bands. Thus the enemy was constrained to fight a totally hostile people who would, at every opportunity, take great pleasure in lopping off any overstressed arm of occupation. To support its military operations, the Red Army fostered the growth of the Chinese Industrial Co-operative which at that time were just beginning to blanket the country with a skein of small manufacturing units on which the industrial future of a reconstructed country can some day be based.


When he finished his tour of observation, Carlson immediately got into trouble by speaking his mind. In interviews with newspaper correspondents, he said that the Red Army and the Co-operatives were the best hopes of China and that the U.S. was undermining one of its best friends by supplying Japan with scrap, oil and other material. For this he was officially censored. Angered, he resigned his Marine Corps commission in May 1939 after seventeen years in the service, and as a civilian kept up his fight for China. He joined Henry Stimson's committee for an Embargo against Japan and lectured for them. He also wrote two books, Twin Stars of China and The Chinese Army.

In 1940-41 he was in China again, this time as a civilian at his own expense to inspect the co-operatives. What he saw during that winter convinced him that Japan would attack the U.S. Flying from Hong Kong by clipper, he stopped off at Manila to warn General MacArthur and to suggest that the mountain area in Luzon north of Manila be set up as a base of guerilla operation. This, however, was never done. Then he hurried on to Washington and reported what he knew. He was wrong only in that he figured Japan would attack in May or June of 1941 instead of December. He was given a commission as Lieutenant Colonel, a great higher than the commission he had resigned, but now he was in the call as a reserve officer.

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Evans Carlson in Hawaii
after the successful Makin raid, 1942.

His new job was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. He was ordered to the second Marines as Operations Officer with the James Roosevelt, then a Major as his assistant. Carlson began to think of a force trained for long, swift marches, radio-equipped, carrying a high percentage of automatic weapons and living on dehydrated foods for long periods. He and Roosevelt worked hard on the plan and put it across. He organised his raiders on the line of the 8th Route Army.

In San Diego where the Second was then stationed, he called for volunteers for a select raiding force. He got 7,000 of whom he selected 1,000. The process of elimination was unique in U.S. military history and baffled many of the men turned down as well as some of the other officers, who believed that the rules for an armed force were already set and needed only healthy men to fill ranks. Carlson's attitude was that physical fitness was something taken for granted, that to be a Raider, a man also had to understand the things for which he fought. In bald terms each candidate was told that to be a Raider meant hardship, danger, gruelling and continuous training, war absolutely without quarter. In each interview, the candidate's opinion on the political significance of the war was asked.

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After the Makin raid, in which eighteen marines were lost,
Carlson's Raiders disembarked at their base. Makin, a small island
in the South Pacific was swept from end to end by the hard hitting Raiders
who destroyed every enemy installation and killed every Japanese.

Selection of officers for the Raiders was even a tougher problem. Carlson did not want older orthodox leaders; he shows instead young reservers, men with initiative, adaptability and a democratic outlook. Like the enlisted men, the majority of them came from the out-door states, New Mexico, Idaho, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma. His own son, Evans Jr., was finally admitted to the Raiders as an officer in the field, but only after the officers had requested it.

Once the ranks were filled, the Raiders settled down to a grinding rehearsal for war. They marched forty miles a day with full pack, became skilled in the knife and bayonet. They swam and climbed, became adept at infighting. They learned to kill silently and quickly. They became, in fact, highly polished dealers in death. Had they not have a purpose, they may well had been assassins.


Following the 8th Route Army's pattern, Carlson abolished the traditional officers' privileges. He required that the officers wear the same clothes as the men, carry the same equipment, live and suffer in as much discomfort. This the officers did willingly. Carlson also scrapped the standard organisational table which governs the make-up of each unit in the Marine Corps as to its fire power. Carlson broke his unit down into basic groups of three which he called fire groups. Each fire group, led by a private first class, was equipped with atomic gun, a Garand rifle and a browning automatic rifle (B. A. R.). Each company, led by a captain, had two rifles platoons and a weapons company which carried light mortars and light machine guns. There was no weapon in the Raiders which could not be carried by one man.

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Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins Carlson's
Second Navy Cross on him for the Makin Island raid. Carlson won
his third Navy Cross for his successful campaign on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

After the war, Carlson contracted malaria and was invalided back to the U.S. and his home in Connecticut while his Raiders, under a new Commander rested up for their next job. The U.S. Marine Corps as a whole is not likely to follow Carlson's pattern of ideological training. Yet many old line officers who thought Carlson was a man of strange political ideas admit that his training methods have paid dividends.

Military historians will be remiss indeed if they failed to take note of this unique officer and his unique contribution to U.S. military tactics.   


Several months after the Makin raid, the battalion got orders to move into Guadalcanal to spearhead an army landing. The raiders landed from convoy on the 4th November, meeting no opposition.

A message for Carlson from General Vandegrift was dropped by plane. It instructed him to take his Raiders inland from the beach and work north through the Japanese lines to Henderson Field. The Raiders were to smash up Japanese positions on the way and were to check a suspected supply trail which paralleled the U.S. lines. Food was dropped - four days rations for each man - rice, raisins, bacon and tea. On the second day, the Raiders cleared the beach and headed into the jungle.

The first day in the jungle a major mistake was made. The "point", a small advance group which works ahead of the main body, was ambushed. Leading the point was a native who knew the trails. He was wounded when the Japanese opened fire and had to be evacuated immediately. This was the last time Carlson ever used the native in the point although he continued to use natives as supply carriers and runners. Like all successful guerrilla fighters he depended on the support of the native population in his area of operations. Such support, he claims, depends in terms on the natives' conviction that the operation is to their own advantage.


From that day on, for thirty days straight, Carlson's Raiders were in action. Not always big action, sometime only cutting off a few Japanese at a time and killing them or locating and wrecking a small supply dump. But a day never went by when they were not ripping and caring at the enemy's position. As the Raiders fought they turned the enemy's tricks against him. They ambushed again and again. Always, they killed, quickly and quietly, and they endured without a murmur the brutal physical punishment they were taking. By the end of November, the men were getting drawn from their slim diet.

Vandegrift ordered Carlson back to Henderson Field. Rather than scourge back into the jungle, Carlson led his men over rugged Mount Austin, a strongly held Japanese point which then dominated the field. There were skirmishes and he lost several men but on December 4th, they reached headquarters. Vandegrift congratulated Carlson on the complete success of his mission and awarded him the Navy Cross for the third time. 

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On Guadalcanal, after thirty days of operating behind the Japanese lines, Carlson (kneeling, centre), and his young Raiders displayed their collections of souvenirs. Included are Japanese snipers' rifles, machine guns
bullets, shells, helmets and Japanese battle flags.

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Lieutenant Colonel Carlson describes a raider skirmish on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

  click here Carlson's Raiders Picture Gallery
   click here Makin Atoll                                      
    click here Jane's Kiribati Home Page               
 click here Janes Oceania Home Page            
Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st October 2003)