Relief map of Makin

Makin (172.842E 3.225N) is a low coral atoll in the Gilbert Islands, some 105 miles (170 km) north of Tarawa. It is about 18 miles (29 km) long. Its principal islands are Makin (Butaritari) and Kuma. Both are long, narrow islands on the south of the atoll, averaging about 500 yards (460 meters) across. Little Makin is a separate atoll just north of Makin. The two atolls have a combined land area of just 7 square miles (18 km2).  

The atoll has a number of passes on its west side, which required careful navigation due to the presence of some coral heads. The lagoon itself provided a deep and spacious anchorage. Makin island is covered with coconut palms and salt brush, and has extensive mangrove swamps on the lagoon side of its western end. Much of the center of the island was also swampy. It is surrounded by a reef 100 to 200 yards (90 to 180 meters) wide on the ocean side and 500 to 1500 yards (460 to 1370 meters) wide on the lagoon side. The lagoon side reefs were deep enough for landing craft at high tide but fully exposed at low tide.

The atoll was discovered by Gilbert and Marshall in 1788 and became a British protectorate in 1892.  The British build their administrative center just west of the center of Makin and also built a road along the entire lagoon side of the island. There were four piers on the lagoon side of Makin. The population was about 1700 Micronesians.

A small Japanese force seized Makin on 8 December 1941, expelling the natives and setting up a seaplane base.

The Makin Raid.  Just before sunrise on 17 August 1942, a force of 222 Marine Raiders of 2 Raider Battalion, led by Colonel Evans Carlson, was landed on Makin. The raid was intended to divert Japanese attention from the landings at Guadalcanal, which had taken place ten days earlier. Like the Guadalcanal operation, the raid was planned in great haste, but Navy planners correctly estimated that the Japanese garrison was weak. (There were 73 men from 62 Guard Force commanded by a sergeant major on the island.)

The Raiders were transported to the atoll aboard submarines Nautilus and Argonaut, which left Pearl Harbor on 8 August and arrived at Makin early on 16 August. The submarines spent the day reconnoitering by periscope, then came close ashore in the predawn hours to launch the Raiders in rubber boats equipped with outboard motors. The heavy surf led to difficulty manning the boats and Carlson made a snap decision to land all the boats at one point instead of the two landing sites originally planned. However, one boat did not get the word. Fifteen of the boats landed at the correct point, three others landed a short distance north of the others, and the boat that had failed to hear the final orders landed a mile south of the others.

Shortly after landing, one of the Raiders fired a shot that alerted the Japanese garrison. Knowing that surprise was lost, Carlson ordered one of his companies to rush the coastal road on the lagoon side of the islet. The Raiders made contact with the Japanese garrison at 0630 and began a systematic advance south. They were aided by shore bombardment by Nautilus, which also sank a transport and a patrol boat in the lagoon. The Japanese resisted fiercely, sniping from trees and fighting to the death around machine gun positions. During this struggle, twelve Japanese aircraft of various types bombed and strafed the island while two Mavis flying boats arrived with reinforcements. One was destroyed and the other driven off by machine gun fire, but not before about 35 troops made it to shore.

Late in the day, the Marine advance reached palm groves that provided excellent cover for snipers. Carlson had his men pull back into more open terrain, and the Japanese responded by advancing out of their cover. They were promptly bombed by their own aircraft.

Meanwhile, the twelve Raiders whose boat had landed far to the south began rampaging through the Japanese rear, destroying the radio station and picking off Japanese soldiers. Eight of these men made it back to the submarines that evening.

Just before sunset, Carlson began a withdrawal to the landing point, but the surf was so heavy that the boats had great difficulty in clearing the reef. Only seven boats with less than 100 men made it to the waiting submarines. Carlson was forced to remain on the atoll through the night.

The next day, 18 August 1942, Carlson made another attempt to reach the submarines, but Japanese air activity prevented any more than 30 men from getting to the submarines. The Japanese later claimed that Carlson attempted to negotiate the surrender of his men at this point, but this seems out of character for Carlson, and there were few surviving Japanese on the island to surrender to. Carlson's men swept the island during the day, collecting documents for Allied intelligence and killing the few remaining Japanese. After nightfall, Carlson had four boats lashed to a native outrigger canoe, and this allowed him to evacuate most of his remaining men.

However, unknown to Carlson, nine Raiders were left behind who were mistakenly thought to have been killed in action. These men had little choice but to surrender a few days later, when the Japanese reoccupied the atoll. They were transported to Kwajalein and were initially treated relatively well, but on 16 October 1942 the Japanese Navy commander in the Marshalls, Abe Koso, ordered the men summarily beheaded in his presence. Abe was hanged for this crime at Guam on 19 June 1947.

The raid failed to draw any significant Japanese forces away from the Solomons. Nor is it likely, as has sometimes been claimed, that the attack prompted the Japanese to strengthen the island defenses more than they would have anyway. As far as the Japanese were concerned, the raid was a mere pinprick. "Howling Mad" Smith later described it as "a piece of folly" (Gilbert 1989). However, the raid prompted Allied intelligence to establish a section for collecting topographic and hydrographic information that would be of great value later in the war.

The Makin Invasion.  Makin was assaulted by 27 Division under Ralph Smith on 20 November 1943, simultaneously with the landings at Tarawa. It was correctly anticipated that resistance here would be much less than at Tarawa, but it still took three days for the inexperienced New York National Guardsmen to overcome a much smaller (798 man) Japanese garrison built around elements of 3 Special Base Force and service troops.  There was much bitterness in the Navy over the torpedoing of the Liscombe Bay with heavy casualties on 23 November:  The Navy felt that if the Army had secured the island more quickly, the escort carrier would not have been required to linger in the area, a target for submarines.

Following the invasion, Army engineers attempted to construct an airfield on the western end of Butaritari islet, but this area proved too swampy. A 7000' (11,000m) runway was later constructed on sandy ground, though this could not support heavy bombers. This was completed in January 1944.


Blair (1975)

Gilbert (1989)

Morison (1949)

Prados (1995)

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