Raider Hall at Quantico museum

John Gizzi:

The week of August 17 was a special one for the men in uniform who are considered the fathers of the modern Special Operations Forces so critical to today’s armed forces: The Marine Raiders, whose heroism in World War II was saluted with the opening of Raider Hall at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.

The crucial role played in the Pacific by the four Raider battalions in the early days of World War II was highlighted in remarks delivered by a former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Alfred Grey. Raider Hall features equipment and exhibits about the Marines, who conducted amphibious landings in the island battles in the Pacific and operated behind enemy lines.

The Raiders were the first American combat forces to wear camouflage, to be trained in martial arts and knife-fighting, and to operate at night. To some uniformed cynics, the Raiders were an “elite force within an elite force.” Much-decorated Gen. Chesty Puller, for example, resented such an elite unit’s being created within his beloved Marine Corps because, as one of his comrades-in-arms recalled, “Chesty felt he was as good as any of them.” (Puller’s brother, Maj. Sam Puller, was himself a Raider and was killed in the battle of Guam in 1944).

Students of the contemporary Special Operations units may be a bit surprised to learn of their origins from the Chinese Communists. In the 1930s, Marine Major (later Brigadier General) Evans F. Carlson had spent nearly two years in China learning guerrilla tactics from Mao Tse-Tung and his Communists as they fought against Japanese occupiers. From that experience, Carlson brought back to the U.S. a first-hand knowledge of guerrilla warfare and a phrase that would become the battle cry of the Raiders: “Gung Ho,” Chinese for “work together.”

After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt sought an elite strike force and turned to Carlson, who had once commanded the Marine detachment at FDR’s vacation home in Warm Springs, Ga. (Marine Reserve Capt. James Roosevelt, the President’s eldest son, would become Carlson’s right-hand man). Within three months, the first two Raider battalions were trained and went into action.

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The action by the Raiders had little strategic significance until one of the battalions was assigned to fight with the other Marines at Guadalcanal. Carlson turned out to be a bit of a kook who was subsequently assigned to staff duty.

Roosevelt main reason for pushing the raider concept was to get some headlines of US fighting Japanese at a point when we were not in a position to do much of strategic value. Which is not to say that military media events are not without purpose. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo was a moral booster in the US and caused the Japanese to blunder into a defeat at Midway which became a turning point in the war.

The men who made up the Raiders were brave warriors, and their courage deserves to be remembered. But their mission was not as special as the media made them out to be.

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