The Making of a Warrior
Nothing Michael Aragón had experienced in his short eighteen years of life could have readied him for war. Protected and cocooned by the barrio, he wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. Barrio life was difficult with its poverty and gang problems, but it was nothing compared to the horrors of war. His enemy was not the small, yellow skinned, buck toothed, slant eyed, silly creature in an ill fitting uniform that the funny papers poked fun at. The Empire of Japan had a tradition of honor and glorious death in the service of its emperor. Japanese soldiers were formidable adversaries. Intelligent, fearless and capable of great heroics, they could adapt to their surroundings and become one with the bush. What the Japanese lacked in weaponry, the imperial soldiers made up for with cunning. The Imperial Japanese soldiers Michael was about to face were truly warriors of the Rising Sun. He and his fellow Americans were as unprepared as their commanding officers for this cunning, ruthless enemy. Having engaged in the art of war for centuries, the Japanese had disciple in their ranks. This fierce and determined enemy had been at war in Asia for years. The Japanese were determined to conquer and win at all costs. This war was to be a test of wills.
Ten years earlier, in 1931, Japan had seized Manchuria. Determined to see the Rising Sun set on all of China, they’d fought a long, hard campaign against the Chinese. It had been a brutal and ugly war. Chinese civilians paid the price for their army’s resistance. Rules of engagement cast aside, the Japanese inflicted large numbers of casualties on the defenseless civilian population. Torture and rape were the lot of the vanquished. For the victorious there were the spoils of war. With victory on their side, the Japanese expanded south in 1937. A weakened nation divided by civil war, the Chinese could only fight a holding action. Japan struck at will, bombing cities, towns and villages. Burning and pillaging were the marks of the invader.
The Japanese general staff had laid its final plans for the domination of Asia. China was only the first of many planned conquests. Only men like Michael Aragón would stand in the way of total victory. In the war to come there would be no mercy shown. Only the cold hard steel of the Japanese warrior would be felt. And Japan was determined to thrust that steel blade into the heart of America.
Stationed in China in 1938, a young American officer named Carlson was to learn all he could about the Japanese war machine. Joining the Chinese Red Army's 8th Route in Northern China, his military dispatches and diary helped him to write the bible of guerilla warfare for the American armed forces. Carlson’s writings would later be accepted by the Western military establishment as the definitive work on this type of warfare. A few years later, Carlson would create the United States Marine Corps Raider battalions, an elite group of American Samurai. Knowledge of the war in China was to serve him well.
On December 7, 1941, the first thrust of the Japanese blade found its mark. Japan struck its first blow against America. With the destruction of the Seventh Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japan had delivered a decisive blow to the Americans. Now the undisputed masters of the Pacific, the Japanese Empire bought precious time for itself. The war with Japan had begun and America was a paper tiger. The strength of the once great American Navy was limited and her ability to bring on-line more fighting ships was seriously lacking. Unprepared and limited in her capability to extend American power across to Asia and the Pacific, the allies were isolated. America was untested since its brief incursion into Europe during World War I. The Americans lacked resolve. In that earlier war the Europeans had been at it for several years before America became a participant. During that brief but bloody exchange the Yanks had defeated an already exhausted Bismarck Germany. The great USA had won a hollow victory against a tired foe.
By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor the armed forces of the United States had a limited fighting force. Her armies were soft and flabby. Poorly equipped and under manned, the Americans posed no real threat to the Japanese. This enemy was different. Japan was prepared for war, America was not. Having an ample supply of battle seasoned forces the Japanese had several advantages that the Germans had not enjoyed. Germany’s forces were frayed and tired. They were willing to fight, but understood that their earlier victories were more a result of luck than prowess. The Japanese were strong and prepared to defeat the Americans. The gauntlet of war in the Pacific had been thrown down by the Japanese attack and it was up to America to pick it up and stand tall.
Sacred American soil had been defiled by the sneak attack. Thousands of her soldiers and sailors lay dead and dying. As with all men, the times Carlson lived in shaped the events of his life. His time spent fighting alongside the Communist Chinese against the Japanese had prepared him for the task that lay ahead. Meticulously chronicling every engagement, each strategy, and the tiniest pearl of Chinese military wisdom, he was ready. He alone was uniquely qualified to accept the Japanese challenge. Carlson and his fellows gladly accepted the Japanese invitation to do battle. This modern American knight was commissioned to engage them in battle and commanded to win. Now he and his fellow officers needed to prepare to meet their enemy.
While others were confused and afraid of the Japanese threat, Carlson thought only of how to defeat them. His answer was a simple one. Meet them on their own ground, use their own tactics against them, defeat them, and kill them. Beyond that simple formula for war laid a complex blue print for his war machine. The one he would use against the Japanese. He would mold men like Michael Aragón into killing machines dedicated to the American way and create the finest fighting force America had ever seen. Called the Raiders, they would be taught along the lines of the Chinese Communist 8th Route Army system. When the enemy retreats, attack! When the enemy attacks, retreat! But always, always harass him. They were to become the ghosts the Japanese couldn’t see, the demon that delivered the silent death.
Knowing his enemy well, Carlson would choose the best America had to offer. He would ensure his Raiders understood who they were fighting, and what they were fighting for. So Carlson set about preparing an invincible force. To him, the Japanese weren’t little yellow men who were his inferiors. They were battle-hardened veterans of the war in China. These Japanese warriors were disciplined by war and prepared to meet and defeat the Americans. He grasped the fact that the fate of America would be decided on those small islands dotting the Pacific. At that terrible moment in time, American blood would be shed and lives lost in places whose names most Americans couldn’t pronounce. Carlson knew that each island would be won or lost by the inch. His men would stand on the shores of those far-flung islands alone, clinging only to their training and the will to win. His Raiders would depend on each other and no one else. Before battle, when the smell of fear and the stench of cowardice were the strongest, each Raider would know his duty. They would have to meet the enemy head on, alone, and with great courage. Raider adversaries would offer no quarter and give no ground without a fight.
By January 1942, Colonel Evan Carlson and his executive officer Captain James Roosevelt started the Second Raider Battalion. Carlson’s new Raider battalion would be placed under the guiding hand of Roosevelt, the President's son. Roosevelt was a great deal like Carlson, both had good dispositions, were highly disciplined, physically large, and rugged. Each believed in strength of character, knowing toughness came from within. And both believed in the democratic spirit of America. It was this spirit they intended to nourish within the ranks of the Second Raider Battalion. They understood that each Marine Raider would have to know his mission and accomplish it.
Carlson made no secret of his respect and admiration for the Communist Chinese army. Deciding to pattern his Raiders after the Chinese wasn’t looked upon favorably. The United States Congress and General Alexander Vandergrift, head of the Marine Corps, criticized Carlson for allowing the Communists to impress him. Nonetheless, Carlson persisted. Having lived this kind of war and knowing it was unconventional in every way, he was sure that this was the only strategy for victory in the Pacific. The Chinese utilized democracy in the ranks. In the Red Army friendship, kindness, fairness and a commitment to the people was the order of the day. Their army invited criticism from its soldiers and took suggestions from the rank and file on how best to achieve victory. The Chinese understood that teaching men the art of war could only be of value if they were true believers in what they fought for. He had learned well from the Chinese. Carlson understood that creating an army involved more than the training of men in the use of weapons; it was instilling in them the will to win. To defeat the Japanese, the Americans would need to know what they were fighting for and why. Each Raider’s belief in the American way would lead him to victory. Without the will to win, failure would be the only outcome. He knew in his heart that a true belief in one’s cause was the oil that lubricated a fine tuned killing machine. Without it a man’s soul rusted and fell apart in the heat of battle.
He had assessed his mission. In this war, only true believers would survive to return home. Carlson understood the rigors of guerilla warfare. They couldn’t just be believers. The Raiders had to be tough and well-trained. Michael Aragón and the other Raiders were to be guerrillas, which meant fighting behind enemy lines. More than tough, they would have to be special. Each would be made stronger than the enemy and hard as steel. His men would have to be the best. Unable to use field telephones for communications, only radios would be available. As such, Carlson’s men would be isolated with little support. The mission included a scorched earth policy. The Raider’s key to success would be to hit the enemy hard and fast. When the men reached their targets undetected, they would have to be able to destroy them quickly. Trained in the use of the new explosive, plastique, his men would use it to dispose of bridges and rail lines. Once military targets were destroyed, nothing would be left from which to rebuild.
Carlson’s base of operations was Camp Elliot in California. Only a thousand were needed to make up his new Raider battalion. He knew that men could take a great deal of punishment and pain only if they were true believers in their cause. For this reason Carlson needed to know why these men wanted to join his Raiders. It couldn’t be for the excitement or simply to kill Japs. Their reason couldn’t be merely the joy of fighting. He wanted men who believed in the cause of freedom. His men would fight for the American way of life. Raiders would fight against Japanese oppression. Carlson needed men who would fight for the right reasons. During those few weeks, he interviewed three thousand men. Those long interview sessions with the recruits recorded many different answers, but few were correct. Carlson's strategy was to dissuade as many as possible, warning the men that the job was extremely dangerous. Tests were invented to discourage the faint of heart and the curious. Honest about the danger, Carlson shared with them that they would probably be killed. These talks eliminated half of the men from the start. Those that weren’t discouraged had to endure further tests. He knew well that hate was not enough to sustain a man in battle. That was why Carlson made sure that each and every man was properly chosen.
Finally, he made his selections and found the few he’d been looking for. Carlson wanted them there and they wanted to be there. Once his battalion was ready, Carlson lectured the troops weekly, speaking to them of the American democratic process. He also taught them about the brotherhood of the Raiders. Gung Ho was the reality. Carlson would shout to them, "Gung Ho" and they enthusiastically shouted it back. Gung Ho, which meant, "Work together", became the cement that held Carlson’s Raider brothers together. This American warrior believed in his country and his mission. Teaching his Raiders by example, he led the men in the singing of their songs. Singing loud and clear, he and his Raiders knew and felt each note of the songs. Once, racing up to his men in his jeep, Carlson leapt out on the parade field and led them in the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. His men loved their country and what it stood for. And they learned to love one another. He lived by the code of the Marine Corps. Carlson was one of them and the men knew it. He made his own bed and kept his gear in a footlocker like the other men.
But more than that, he created a new code, one which made each man, officer and enlisted men, equals. The Raiders had none of the formalities found in the armed forces of the United States. Each Raider was his brother’s equal. Comradeship would be the decisive factor during battle. In the jungles of the Pacific, there would be little use for posturing or the pretense of rank. In the Raiders battalions there would be no officers versus the rank and file. Carlson had a rule; he and his officers stood in the chow line with their men and ate with them. Those who break bread together become close. There was to be no sign of rank, only comradeship. Officers lived together with their men and shared everything with them. They worked KP and ran the obstacle courses together. The battalion came together. At the end of the day, when training was over, Raiders had little to do. His officers stayed away from the officers club. Instead, they spent off-hours with their men. They didn't frequent the PX or buy Coca Colas. No Raider would dare be found drinking a beer. Instead, they attended special lectures.
Next, the new Raiders would have to pass many tests. Physically tough, these men would carry everything they needed to survive into battle. Carlson remembered the long grueling twenty-four hour marches with no breaks that he made while with the Chinese in the 1930s. He spied on the Japanese soldiers in China as they endured endless hardships while wearing full packs on these marches. The Raiders would have to endure far more than their enemy during training in preparation to meet the Japanese Army head on. Working them from morning till night, he drove them to be the best. Carlson grasped what he needed to win and that few men could stand up to this kind of warfare. The Colonel was a man's man, a Marine’s Marine. Though in his forties, he could out march most of his men. His backpack was the heaviest of them all. Proud of his physical strength and stamina, he wouldn’t ask of his men anything that he himself wasn't prepared to do. He drove himself even harder than he pushed his men. And the men knew this and were proud of him. These men had to be willing to fight the enemy and then march for fifty miles carrying full backpacks and extra ammunition. And when they finally arrived at their next destination, they would have to be willing to fight again. Only true believers would rise to the occasion. So he drove his Raiders to the edge. Each week's training was rigorous and exhausting. In addition to the difficult weekly seventy-mile overnight hikes, there were short ten-mile hikes, and two thirty-five mile hikes with full packs scheduled weekly. Making the weekly seventy-mile hikes with full packs, Raiders slept in the open, like the Chinese Communist soldiers, and without tents, like the Japanese. There were no night fires for warmth, only their belief in themselves kept them warm.
These American warriors would have the will to fight the Japanese and the spirit to defeat them. It was this spirit that would guide his men through treacherous waters and onto island beaches under hostile enemy fire. What would follow was the taking of the beach while under heavier enemy fire. Each man needed to be ready for anything and everything. First, they would have to overcome the treacherous waters. There would amphibious landings in the most impossible of situations. The Raiders would then operate as hit-and-run units, fighting and killing for every inch of ground. Spearheading assaults on the beaches of the Pacific islands, their job would be extremely difficult. Access to the islands would be tough. The island terrains were filled with swamps and rivers. For water operations Raiders were taught to swim and to use small rubber boats. The little rubber boats would become their way in and out of tough situations. Since the ocean and river currents were strong, his Raiders would have to be excellent swimmers.
His men would be up against a hardened enemy. The Raiders had to be stronger, tougher, and smarter than the Japanese soldier. So Carlson would make his men harder than their enemy. The Raiders would engage and destroy a well entrenched, experienced enemy and drive him out. Each man would be expected to pass the difficult Raider training program that Carlson laid out. Weapons training included a variety of weapons. In the marksmanship course, each Raider became a crack shot. There was hand-to-hand combat training consisting of a Judo course, Karate, boxing, as well as the use of the trench knife and bayonet. Taught the deadly arts of killing and survival, each Raider had to do his job and be able to return to base. In this way, he could live to fight another day. In the end, each man became a killing machine, his body like hardened steel. His Raiders would be the cold steel knife that would be plunged into the heart of the Imperial Japanese Army. Training in field stalking and knife throwing proved to be a lethal combination. Detection by the Japs was the true enemy. To get to their targets, Raider training emphasized silent movement in the bush, as well as concealment in open country. Carlson’s men learned to be invisible to the enemy, becoming a part of the landscape in which they fought. Each Raider was trained to understand his surroundings and make each new place his home.
Loneliness was also a fearsome enemy. There would be no dreaming of loved ones. His men would have no other attachments but the other Raiders. Men with families, wives, children, or other dependents couldn't make it; their minds had to be on the task at hand. Tough of body, mind and spirit, only defeat of the Japanese could be on their minds. So Carlson chose hard tough men with few attachments. If loneliness was the Raider’s enemy, so too was hunger and thirst. Survival training reshaped his men. Americans were accustomed to having plenty of food and water. Their young bodies had been raised on three square meals a day. Now, without food and water for days at a time, Raiders learned to find the water they needed. These men quickly overcame their softness.
The belief in the American cause of freedom would help his Raiders to climb the sheer face of high dangerous mountains with full packs while under Japanese fire. In the end, his men would be able to track their enemy and slit a Jap's throat without becoming sickened by it. It would be a job like any other.
Lectures included famous Americans, as well as camp personnel. The First Lady, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, took time out of her busy schedule to spend time with her son’s warriors. The President would send his personal regards on her visits. The Raiders were told they were special, the elite of the elite. The men enjoyed the special attention and Michael Aragón had found a home with the Raiders. Love for his country grew day by day, becoming deep and abiding. The President also ensured that high-ranking American military leaders paid regular visits. Officers such as Commander of the Marine Corps, Major General Clayton, spoke. Commander of the Amphibious Training Command at San Diego, B. Vogal, visited many times. Vice Admiral, Wilson Brown, representing the US Navy, came often to offer his support. Twice, Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, came and gave rousing speeches to the men. All came to raise the spirits of these American warriors.
He trained the Raider mind that enemies were not to be feared. Only the thought of failure was to be feared. In the heat of battle every sound and smell could become an enemy to the Raider. And on those long, lonely nights thousands of miles away from home each man would rely on himself and the man to his right and left, and no one else. If these failed, he would put his faith in his training and knowledge of survival. When darkness fell in the jungle, loneliness, hunger, and thirst were made his friends, silence his ally. The difference between life and death was his will to win. America and what she stood for were his reasons for withstanding the ugliness of war. Michael Aragón was such a man. When Michael finally met his enemy, he would kill him quickly and efficiently. It was not a question of bravery only the use of cold hard steel. Now a skilled soldier he relied only on his fellow Marine Raiders. Michael was well-trained and tough. He could kill a man silently, without emotion. The mission was all that mattered.
By February of 1942, his battalion was complete. Michael and the others were battle ready. Although the President supported Carlson in his efforts, the Marine Corps leadership was upset with the changes he had made to the traditional squad makeup. To be a marine traditionally meant never to question authority. Understanding their concerns, he realized that any change in traditional thinking was viewed by his superiors as a threat. Carlson also knew that the old ways died hard. His plan was simple. Traditional Marine Corp fighting squads consisted of eight men. His fighting units were made up of three men, with each man counting as three. Managing several weapons during their missions, each Raider was more flexible and knowledgeable than the average marine. His fighting units operated with superior firepower. One man carried a Browning automatic rifle, another, the Garand M1 rapid-fire rifle. The third man used a Thompson submachine gun. This made his Raider fire teams as powerful as the traditional eight- man Marine Corps squad. Their many skills would translate into victory. By the time training was completed Carlson had created the tougher of the two Raider battalions. His men were willing and able to defend the American way of life against all enemies.
In March of 1942, the First Raider Battalion under Colonel Edson was ready. Due to illness in his command, several Raiders were transferred from the Second Raider Battalion for this mission. On April 12, 1942, the Battalion sailed for Samoa. Learning more techniques for survival while there, they became experts at island warfare. Leaving Samoa, Companies A and B were assigned to demonstrate night landing operations preparedness to senior staff officers at Oahu. Admiral Nimitz himself attended the night landings at Oahu. During the exercises, he was disappointed with the Raiders since their landing hadn’t been detected. At the very moment that he began to express his concerns Raiders appeared out of nowhere and surrounded him. Having not been seen or heard, the Raiders proved their point in a very dramatic way. They were ready to meet the Japs head on.
One of those Raiders at Oahu was a tall and powerful young man named Michael Aragón. Joining the Raiders back at Camp Elliot, he’d taken his training seriously. Now a member of A Company, he was proud of his new company and its men. For the first time in his life, Michael felt he belonged. But there was something greater than this feeling of belonging, he was proud to be fighting for the country he loved, America. He believed in America. She was his reason for being a Raider. He would fight for his family back home, but he would win for America. The many lectures he attended had reinforced his love of country. There was no question in his mind about the hierarchy of his loyalty, first to America, then to the Corps, and finally to the Raiders.
Michael worshiped Colonel Carlson and Lieutenant Peter Wellington, his former company commander. Peter Wellington had interrupted his pre-law studies to join the Marines. He had wanted to help the poor. Wellington dreamed of some day joining his father's law firm. As an attorney, he could help defend the poor from unscrupulous landlords and others who chose to defraud them. Michael admired this man and respected Wellington’s sincerity and honesty. He grew to trust the Lieutenant. Sensing that Michael was young and in need of guidance, Wellington took the young man under his wing. They spent a great deal of time together and spoke about world history and life. Wellington taught Michael those higher things of life, honor, duty, and country. The Lieutenant explained to Michael both the greatness and unfairness of American life. And they talked about their dreams for the future. Michael was taught much by this good man, learning that there really were people that tried to make the world a better place to live. The Lieutenant took the place of Michael's dead brother, Arturo. Wellington was good for him. But there were others that were not.
It was during this same period that Michael was attacked by a racist White Southerner. The man named Johnson was the battalion bully on the verge of being kicked out. He was holding on by a slim thread. The man threatened Michael, calling him a wetback. Humiliated and not knowing what to say or do, he looked to his fellow Raiders for support. But there was none. The men, not wanting to get involved, said nothing and walked away. Suddenly, Johnson shoved Michael. Slamming him hard in the chest, a young and inexperienced Michael accepted Johnson’s challenge. He readied himself taking the familiar crouched karate stance. He waited, ready to spring. Michael smiled, having learned his craft well. Confident, Michael knew he was faster than the man that he was about to defeat. Inching forward, Michael was determined as he stared hard into Johnson’s eyes. As he did, the bully blinked, beginning to lose confidence. Johnson now knew that Michael meant to stand and fight. He’d expected the young man to fear him as so many others in the battalion had. He was wrong. Michael’s punches were quick and deadly. Landing two, one to the face and the other to the solar plexus, Johnson was stunned. Kicking Johnson in the knee, Michael dropped him to the ground. It was over as quickly as it had begun.
Michael had surprised himself and the others with his abilities. He could sense their newfound respect for him as he looked into their eyes. As they all looked at the hurting man on the ground, the Lieutenant showed up. The men jumped to attention, except for the man who laid reeling from pain on the ground. Wellington looked around at the men standing at attention and asked what had happened. Everyone agreed that Johnson had fallen. Wellington then asked about Johnson’s bruised face. One man, Arthur Fine, stepped forward and told Wellington that Johnson had fallen hard, very hard. Another man, Corporal Smith, agreed. Johnson had fallen very, very hard. Recognizing the tenseness of the moment, the Lieutenant shouted at the men, "One day you will be in need of someone to cover your backsides out there in the bush and it might be him." He said curtly, pointing to Michael. With that, the group of men laughed and the Lieutenant left. Wellington didn’t bother to look after the fallen man, leaving him to wallow in his humiliation and pain.
On May 25, 1942, Raider Companies C and D of the Second Raider Battalion were shipped out to Midway Atoll. Their mission was to stop Admiral Chuichi Nagumo from taking it. Nagumo was one of the Japanese officers responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
By July, the Joint Chiefs of Staff encouraged Admiral Nimitz to begin preparing for the attack on the Gilbert Islands. More Raiders were sent to take Makin Island. The ocean currents around Makin were strong and the terrain of the island was filled with swamps and rivers. For water operations the mission would involve the use of small rubber boats. The little rubber boats would be the Raider’s way on and off of the island. Getting ready to move out, the Raiders spent every spare minute on preparation for assault landings with the troublesome rubber boats. In less than three weeks the 2nd Raider Battalion was ready to go into action.
By August 1942, to better maneuver the boats in the surf of Makin outboard motors were ordered from supply. When they arrived they were immediately put into action and tested. When swamped by waves the motors had a tendency to fail because they had no motor covers. Now Lieutenant Colonel Carlson was worried about the operation. When he protested to supply, the Colonel was told that there was no time to bring in new ones. Without a solution, he decided to take a chance and go with what he had.
On August 8th, the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus laid in at the Pearl Harbor submarine base. The thirteen officers and two hundred and eight men of the 2nd Raider Battalion, along with supplies and rubber boats were loaded on board. Even with most of the torpedoes taken ashore to make room for the men and equipment, the narrow boats had little room. To make matters worse, extra bunks were stuffed into every corner. The result was a difficult, very claustrophobic eight-day cruise to Makin. Once the hatches were battened down the temperature inside the narrow, tightly packed, four hundred-foot long submarines rose well above a punishing ninety degrees. Because of the cramped quarters, Michael and the others had to stay in their bunks for most of the trip. Unaccustomed to such conditions, the heat and cramped quarters caused illness among the Raiders. To add to the discomfort, the men were only allowed two ten-minute breaks on deck per day. The marines took them in the cool of the early mornings and the cold dark evenings.
Eight days later, on August 16th, the Nautilus arrived off Makin Island. It was three in the morning and the submarine commander was worried about the bad weather conditions. Later that afternoon, the Argonaut arrived. Both submarine commanders were concerned about the worsening weather conditions. Spending the rest of the day studying the tides, the officers fretted over the possibility that the submarines might slide onto the reef. By 9:15 that night, the submarines proceeded carefully toward the Makin shore.
At 2:30 in the morning on August 17th, the subs arrived at the landing point under severe weather conditions. With squalls and strong winds, the commanders left the difficult decision to go ahead with the mission up to Colonel Carlson. Believing his men were ready, Carlson gave the go ahead. Lieutenant Wellington was everywhere at once, giving orders and supervising preparations. As the Raiders started inflating their rubber boats and putting them over the side he personally saw to every detail. Equipment was checked and rechecked. Michael and the other men knew that it was better to be safe than sorry. When told that his men were ready to saddle up, Carlson split the Raiders into two groups. "A" Company was to proceed to one beach, while "B" Company was to land at another. The Raiders were to complete their missions and be back on the beach well before 9:00 on the evening of August 17th. They would need to return to the beach early to prepare to get back to the submarines.
There were problems from the start. Once over the side they attached the outboard motors to the small rubber boats. The signal was given and Michael and the other men were ordered to saddle up and load into the rubber boats. No sooner had the Raiders loaded into the boats than ocean water flooded the motors causing them to fail. As the high seas and strong winds took their toll, the loss of the outboard motors made it difficult to maneuver the small boats. Problems only worsened and orders were given to paddle to shore. The Raiders fought the rough waves and high wind conditions. Things began to become dangerous. The treacherous conditions made paddling ashore hard work. In desperation, Carlson ordered both companies to land on the same beach.
Those same rough seas and strong winds forced Carlson's boat back to the sub. Wellington’s boat drew a lucky card and Michael and the others paddled hard. A second boat was ordered to go back to the Nautilus and take Carlson off. The winds and strong currents were punishing, but the exhausted men finally retrieved the angry Carlson. He was thankful for the many hours of training his men spent maneuvering the small boats. Just after over an hour of fighting the strong winds and towering waves, the Raiders landed their boats. It had taken every ounce of their strength. By 5:00 a.m. all boats were ashore and personnel accounted for. All but one of the eighteen boats made it to shore safely. The last boats hadn’t received the change in orders and proceeded with the original plan. Lieutenant Peatross and his twelve Marines landed safely on the second beach. With no sign of the Japanese, the exhausted men proceeded to hide the boats under camouflage netting. The Raiders had achieved the element of surprise they had wanted.
With his command intact, Carlson ordered B Company to establish a command post or CP and perimeter. The men worked quickly to establish the CP. Digging foxholes, the Raiders set up a perimeter. Carlson also sent word that the Raider boats had made their way to shore. The relieved submarine commanders headed out to the safety of the coral reefs surrounding the Makin beaches. At a point four miles off the island, the water was deep and safe. There the subs would wait until the pick-up time. Carlson had B Company remained on the beach in reserve and ordered Wellington to send out scouts. Michael and two other Raiders drew the cards to locate the Japanese. Their orders were to scout out the enemy and report troop strength and exact positions. Within minutes of leaving the main body of Raiders made their way toward the enemy positions. They moved cautiously through the bush beyond the jungle surrounding the beach and sited the enemy on the lagoon side of the island. The Japanese were well dug in and armed with machine guns, automatic rifles, grenades, flamethrowers, and mortars. Michael took notes on each placement and prepared the CP for the worst. One Raider, Roger Smith, was sent back to report the enemy position and armaments. Michael and the other Marine, Arthur Fine, continued determining the enemy troop strength, counting five hundred. Michael provided cover for Fine as he made his way back to the CP to report the information. Once Michael was convinced that Fine was safely away he made his way back to the Colonel and the others. Both Smith and Fine reported their reconnaissance to the CP and then met up with their company. Wellington hadn’t expected such a well-armed force. It was a little before ten in the morning when Michael reached them on the beach.
Carlson then assigned A Company to set up a roadblock and stop all traffic moving to the lagoon side of the island. The honor fell to Wellington and his squads. Ordered to advance, A Company moved out in skirmish style forming a ragged line. As the skirmish line fanned out Michael stayed close to Wellington. Within a few minutes, Michael and several others were ordered to move out and take the point. A Marine named Henderson was to Michael's right. While making their way through the heavy underbrush, Henderson tripped and accidentally fired his rifle. The shot sounded to Michael like a grenade going off. Wellington radioed the bad news to the CP. The advantage of surprise now lost. An alarmed Carlson quickly radioed the offshore subs to alert them. The sub commanders prepared for the worst as the squads fanned out across the island. Fortunately, they were met by a friendly band of native Gilbert Islanders who spoke English. Lieutenant Wellington was told that Japanese troops were now concentrated at Ukiangong Point Lake. The Japanese had secured the wharf as a landing place for their ships. Once alerted, Carlson again radioed the subs that the Japs were now at the lake and at On Chong's Wharf. Conferring with the subs, Carlson requested bombardment of the Japs at the wharf. The Nautilus moved in close to shore and laid down a barrage of twenty-four shells with its three-inch deck gun to soften up the Japs.
As the pounding began Wellington and his men moved forward. So did the Japanese. The Raiders closed in on the road leading to the wharf. They came under heavy machine gun fire. Spotting the first machine gun nest, Michael and two Marines, Smith and Fine, charged it. Just as the Raiders were closing on the machine gun nest, the Japanese staged a banzai charge, shouting, "Marines die." The Americans returned fire killing four Japs. Several more oncoming Japanese soldiers attacked shouting as they charged. The Japs lunged toward three Raiders. Turning quickly to face the Jap attack, Michael and the others were ready. With rifles and swords, the Japanese rushed forward. Michael and the others answered with rifles, Tommy guns, and Browning automatic rifles. It was over in seconds. The Raiders had stopped the first Japanese charge, leaving more than a dozen of the enemy dead in the sand.
While the main body of Raiders moved to block the road Wellington continued talking with the Islanders. They reported two Japanese ships headed out to sea to avoid the Americans. One of the ships was a thirty-five hundred-ton cargo vessel, an inter-island trader. The second was a patrol vessel of about fifteen hundred tons. He radioed Carlson at the CP. After passing the information to the subs the commanders began their bombardment of the two vessels. But due to poor visibility the submarine deck gunners were unable to sink the ships.
Wellington tried to help by getting into position and directing fire but failed. The Nautilus then dispatched its own spotters. Once they arrived, the sailors spotted bursts of fire and corrected the aim of the gunners. Soon, the spotters were pinned down by Jap sniper fire. But it was already too late for the Jap ships. The cargo ship was first to be hit and set afire. The crew and about sixty Japanese Special Landing Troops, the equivalent of American Marines, abandoned ship and began coming ashore. The Raiders were not alerted in time to intercept the Japanese forces and stop them from melting into the jungle. Soon, the second vessel was sunk. A large explosion in her main boiler room crippled her. A second massive explosion killed all hands.
While the Raiders near the beach were watching the fireworks happening offshore and congratulating themselves, the Japanese were busy elsewhere. They had traced Wellington’s movements and placed snipers in the trees several hundred yards ahead of his men. Experts at jungle warfare they quietly moved four machine guns and two mortars into position preparing a trap for the Americans. As the Japanese positioned a flame thrower and automatic weapons, an ill prepared Wellington moved his men toward the island settlement. Unaware of the snipers and machine gun nests, his squads made their way down the road toward the settlement and all hell broke loose. Mortar shells were exploding all around the Raiders. The Japs were effectively using the flamethrower to pin down the Marines. Michael and several others found themselves cut-off.
The firefight was heating up. A few Marines lost control. Johnson, the Raider next to Michael, lost his nerve and ran away from the fight. He became an easy target. Johnson was hit in the back of the skull and died where he lay. This was the same Southerner who had called Michael a wetback. Meanwhile, Jap machine guns opened up and had Wellington and a group of twenty Marines pinned down some fifteen yards from Michael. He knew that it was now or never. The young Raider rushed forward. Michael fired his Thompson machine gun into the machine gun nest. As he did, the sound of the sniper bullets could be heard whizzing passed his head. Once he reached the nest, Michael stood above it firing and killing four Japs. After wiping out the Japs he jumped in and took cover. He quickly pushed dead Jap bodies out of the nest. The corpses became protection from incoming machine gun fire. After a few seconds, he cautiously edged up to the rim of the nest. From his position he could see several Raiders trying to out flank the flamethrower. Two fell to sniper fire. During the gun battle three other Raiders moved into flanking position. With grenades and automatic weapons fire the Raiders knocked out the flamethrower and rushed the remaining Japs. The fighting was hand-to-hand.
As more mortar shells rained down, Smith and Fine joined Michael in the nest. The three men lay low as heavy machine gun fire raked the ground above their heads. The Marines kept their heads down while he quickly figured out their next move. Peering out, Michael could see Wellington and the others pinned down by three other Jap nests. The three Marines agreed that the nests would have to be taken if Wellington and the others were to be saved. Each checked his weapon and reloaded. Then each agreed to attack a machine gun nest in order to draw fire away from the Lieutenant and his men. Shouting, "Gung Ho," out of the hole they went charging in Japanese banzai fashion. Their charge forced the Jap machine gunners to shift position to counter the crazed American Marines. It worked. Wellington had the time he needed. He quickly broke his men up and moved them into flanking position of the Jap machine guns. With the Marines in position, the Japs were getting it from all sides. The firefight lasted for some ten minutes. When it was over twenty Japs were dead and the Americans lost six. Most of the Raiders had been killed by snipers.
A confident Wellington now turned his attention to the snipers. Fine noticed that the Japanese snipers would fire once, soon after a Marine had fired a single shot. This made the Jap snipers vulnerable. Fine decided to carry out his plan. He had Smith fire a single shot at the sniper and waited until the Jap raised his head to return fire. Once exposed, Fine opened up with automatic weapons fire, killing the sniper. This finished off the first round of snipers.
A second group of snipers was holding down Sergeant Thomason and several of his men. At first, the Raiders couldn’t locate the snipers in the palm trees. Soon, Smith began to strip the fronds from the palm trees with heavy waves of automatic weapons fire. Once the gray-green uniforms of the snipers could be seen, they were killed. Unfortunately, the lesson had been learned too late for Sergeant Thomason. He died there at the hands of a sniper.
With the firefight well under control, Wellington and Michael linked up. As they shook hands, they were surprised by a Japanese banzai counter attack. The Marines dropped down into firing position and laid down a volley of automatic weapons fire killing half of the enemy troops. The other half kept coming. Once again the combat was hand-to-hand. Michael jumped up and intercepted a bayonet charging Japanese warrior. The Jap was large, almost six feet tall. Fortunately for Michael the Jap's bayonet missed its mark. He countered with a kick to the Jap’s groin. They were soon at it with knives. Circling each other cautiously, they lunged. Both shouted loudly as they slammed hard into each other. Wrestled to the ground, Michael lost his knife during the scuffle. The large Jap was strong and fast. Michael thought he was finished as the Jap raised his arm ready to bury his knife in his chest. Just as the knife wielding hand began to come down on Michael, the Jap's face was split open by a bullet. The big man’s lifeless body toppled over on top of him. A badly bruised and bone tired Michael Aragón looked up to see his Lieutenant standing there holding his 45. Winking at him, Wellington joked, "That's for the machine gun nests, me boy!" He continued laughing as he gave Michael a hand up. Dusting himself off, a shaken Michael thanked Wellington and they both went their separate ways.
The day was young and the Japs were still in the ball game. Wellington was worried. These Japanese fought hard and died well, earning his respect. This war was to be no walk in the park. The Japs hadn’t given an inch. He realized that his enemy was to be treated as a fierce opponent. These Japs were good, but not Japan’s best. Lieutenant Wellington hadn't told his men that these were merely Japanese occupation troops. Although these soldiers had proven their toughness, the Raiders were about to face sixty of Japan’s finest battle hardened Japanese Marines. These Japs were as good as his own men or better.
There was a lull in the fighting and the Marines took a needed rest. Michael stood smoking his last Camel cigarette above a destroyed machine gun emplacement littered with a group of dead Japs. He was attempting to make sense of what had just happened when his thoughts were broken. Wellington was ordering A Company forward. Picking up a Thompson, Michael grabbed his gear and moved out. As he flicked the cigarette butt onto the ground, Michael looked back at the dead Japs wondering when he would get his bullet and join them in the great beyond.
Soon, the going got tougher. The Raiders encountered Jap machine gun emplacements around every corner. It was one thing to take the Japanese on with artillery support, but quite another when done without it. The Raiders were forced to take every inch of the island the hard way. Though they’d only been at it for a few hours, the Raiders were dead tired, hungry, and thirsty. Wellington could see that his men were wearing thin and it worried him. These Raiders were exhausted. Though well-trained and brave this was their first time out. Many were suffering from the shock of their first kill. He could only guess what the next few hours held in store. The Japanese Marines were rested and ready for a fight. His men were in a daze. There was a second problem that Wellington knew nothing about. Carlson’s radio operators had listened in on their radios to Makin’s request. The Japs had radioed for reinforcements. Help for the Japanese was on the way. Carlson knew that it was only a matter of time before Jap Zeros appeared in the skies above them and fresh Japanese troops would be landing on shore. The Raiders had no support. The subs had moved out to sea, away from the Zeros.
It was seven o’clock in the evening when Carlson readied the boats to leave the island. He gave the order for the men to retreat back to the beach and Wellington and the other officers moved quickly. Both companies were back at the beach within an hour of receiving the order. On their return, Carlson assessed his losses. There were eleven dead and twenty wounded. The Japs had faired much worse. The Raiders counted fifty-two dead Japs and many weapons destroyed. Though Carlson’s mission wasn’t finished, he felt his Raiders had done a great deal of damage. His raiders had done well.
The surf was towering. Carlson had no choice but to order an evacuation. He expected Japanese aircraft at any minute. The Colonel sent the wounded out on the first boats. Then he considered the possibility of an attack by the Japanese Marine contingent that had landed that morning. It was his decision to remain behind on the beach with two squads of Raiders. Among these were Wellington and Michael. He ordered his men to take up defensive positions along the beach to provide protection for the evacuation. Once dug in, the Raiders waited and prayed. The evacuating Raiders would have been defenseless in their rubber boats without a rear guard. The remainder of the Raiders left in the second wave.
Within minutes, huge waves began swamping the Raider boats. Only seven made it through the rough surf to the open sea. Two made it to the Argonaut and five to the Nautilus. Major Roosevelt and seventy-three of the two hundred marines were now safe on board the subs. The remaining rubber boats had capsized in the rough surf. Many of the Raiders had nearly drowned. Carlson’s men did their best to help those who washed ashore. But the men had taken a beating and were exhausted as they finally lay on the beach. The Raider position was now dangerous. His men had lost nearly all their weapons, ammunition, compasses, radios and canteens. Four stretcher cases and several walking wounded now remained on shore in need of treatment. They would have to be cared for and protected. There were one hundred and thirty-seven Raiders stranded on the beach. Carlson’s situation seemed impossible. His men were tired and there were few weapons at his disposal. He immediately organized his defenses and ordered his men to dig in for the night. Soon, a perimeter was established. It would be a long, cold, lonely night.
Carlson was worried that the Japanese Marines would be arriving soon. He wanted to leave the island but he had no choice. Without boats and radio communications, he had to wait for the cover of nightfall. Early that morning a Jap patrol advanced. Engaging the enemy, Wellington's squads killed three Japs. Those who escaped had little knowledge of Carlson’s weapons and ammo problems. They knew only that he had a large number of men. The Colonel quickly dispatched patrols to find food and ammo. They moved raced to gather as many supplies as possible and returned regularly to camp with supplies of one sort or another. The Raiders were fortunate they found several abandoned Japanese carbines and plenty of discarded ammunition. The weapons were quickly passed out, checked, and cleaned as best as possible. Once cleared, they were given to Raiders defending the perimeter. The Raiders were next sent to previous battle sites and found more weapons including working machine guns. These Carlson quickly positioned and waited until nightfall when he could use a flashlight to signal the subs in Morse code. The Colonel had done what he could. He would have to make the best of it. Beyond that, there were now Japanese aircraft in the skies above the Raiders.
With his perimeter secure, a very determined Carlson wanted nothing left behind which could be used later by the enemy. He sent out several patrols to collect intelligence while destroying all Jap installations they could find. The patrols set fire to the island's cache of gasoline and destroyed as much as possible, anticipating another Japanese attack. Wellington's patrol burned the local radio station and blew up several anti-aircraft gun emplacements. Thankfully the use of explosives by the Raiders attracted Zeros to the end of the island and away from Carlson and his men. The Zeros raked those areas with bombs and machine gun fire. Still, the Japanese attacked Wellington’s retreating patrol. Three Jap Marines were killed at On Chong's wharf. A second Raider patrol near the wharf killed several Jap Marine reinforcements. The retreating Raiders made the Japs pay dearly at each engagement. With their missions complete the Raiders headed back to the beach.
They had been lucky. By the time darkness fell, at 7:30 PM, there had been no attacks on the CP and all patrols had returned safely to base. With the aid of darkness a signalman got to the subs using a flashlight. Initial messages conveyed concern. The sub commanders worried about the Raiders trying to make it through the surf and requested that Carlson and his men move across the island to the lagoon side. The commanders felt this was the safer option. Agreeing, Carlson and his Raiders moved out carrying with them everything they could. During the march across the island the Raiders found an outrigger canoe on the beach. Carlson ordered Wellington and his men to take it around to the lagoon. There they secured four remaining rubber boats to the canoe. Incredibly, two of the boats were still outfitted with outboard motors and to Wellington's surprise they worked. With the rubber boats in tow, Wellington made his way through rough seas to the lagoon. The decision had been the right one. Arriving at the lagoon, they found calm waters. Carlson’s luck was holding out. The Raiders began evacuation from the lagoon to the Flink Point rendezvous and had little difficulty making it to the subs. They reached their destination at 11:30 PM that night. Carlson had lost only few men and for this he could feel fortunate.
Although he viewed his mission as unsuccessful, to his surprise, headquarters saw it as a great success. His superiors, who were normally against Carlson’s tactics, viewed the mission as a great victory. Paying dearly, the Japanese losses in men alone were far greater than that of the Raiders. The Americans had left the island completely inoperable for the Japanese Imperial Army. This Raider story would be repeated mission after mission. Year after year, islands were taken and enemy installations destroyed. Many Raider ghosts were left behind to roam throughout eternity on those obscure Pacific islands.
The next three years of war in the Pacific would take its toll on Michael Aragón. Island after island and battle after battle, there was killing and dying. Few were left to sing the song of Carlson’s Raiders. Michael would always remember his buddies. The smiling faces and the childish pranks of his dead Raider friends would always be with him. Lost was Toliver, the tall redheaded kid from Iowa. He’d followed Michael around the islands like a lost puppy dog. Before each skirmish, Michael would find the kid pressing close to him, a quivering bucket of nerves. The real shame was that Michael couldn’t even remember the name of the small atoll where the kid took a bayonet in the back for him. As he lay dying, he asked Michael to pray with him. Toliver, a Catholic, died there in the dark in Michael’s arms as they said Hail Mary’s. And then there was Johnson, bully turned coward. He took a sniper bullet to the back of the head. If he had stood and fought, Johnson might have lived to fight another day. Sergeant Thomason, a burly, good-natured man who loved his two sons, also lost his life to a sniper. Many, many others each with a name and an unforgettable face were gone.
He had seen it all. At twenty-two, Michael Aragón was already an old man. After killing so many men, he no longer felt the disgust. When he saw death in their eyes it no longer had meaning. At the squeeze of a finger and life, that temporary thing, was gone. That vessel called man was emptied of his bright red blood which flowed onto the white sand of an island beach. One moment, a man stood laughing with a friend and the next, the friend was taken. There was no rhyme or reason to it.
It was toughest when all became silent. Each man knew what was coming. Always the same, it began with the deafening sound of bombs or artillery shells smashing into the earth next to him. Then, the random machine gun fire and mortar rounds began exploding, killing everything in their path. Soon, the numbness of battle set in. Though the noise of exploding bombs and rifle fire was everywhere at once, everything suddenly became quiet, almost peaceful. Standing there in the heat of combat, exposed and vulnerable, the bullets whistled silently by. Life passed the Marine by in slow motion as he watched life pour out of his friends. In time, even the banzai attacks seemed eerily choreographed. As the Japs rushed the Raider skirmish lines they were impervious to pain and without regard for their lives. Japs charged the Marines with swords slashing and bayonets fixed. Their bodies absorbed round after round of American ammo, the grey-green uniforms becoming redder from wounds and blood. Finally, the uniforms became crimson with their leaking humanity. In the blink of an eye they fell, emptied of their humanity, vacant vessels, an offering to the god of war. There was no pomp, no circumstance, only the hot lead that punctured their bodies releasing their souls. Then, they lay on the ground like broken dolls, disfigured, mangled, no longer bleeding. The ground had soaked up that precious red substance, blood. But it wasn’t blood anymore. It wasn’t sacred, just a red fluid that had once carried precious oxygen to the dead men’s organs. Separated from the body, the blood became only a liquid poured from an empty host, nothing more and nothing less. There was no death, only a vacated body. Marine or Jap, it had all become the same to Michael.
As the months marched on, he became the old man of the group. There was only he, Wellington, Smith, and Fine left now. All the others had gone on to glory. They had started with many. Now they were the precious few, the last, the survivors. Michael and the other two Raiders had agreed God must have had a reason to save them. None wanted to say what they were really thinking. Their time would come, if not today, on this lonely island then on another. There would be an island with a name they couldn’t pronounce. The Raiders would fight their way onto a beach and lay there gasping for air. Their lungs burning, each would hear Wellington’s order to saddle up, to lock and load. Each would move forward after summoning up whatever courage he had left in his tattered soul. Then, they would charge the Japs and kill and be killed. Each Raider was no different than his lost friends. He would kill and Japs would die. Stabbing, clubbing, bayoneting, and shooting, Japs would fall in front of him and at his side. He would lose friends and men he’d met only that morning. Finally, it would be his time. A little missile, a lead projectile sent from a Jap rifle barrel would puncture that carcass he calls a body. His precious bright red fluid would begin to leak out and he too would cease to exist.
But that wasn’t to happen that day. Michael and the others were to be given a reprieve. These fine young warriors had been tested and judged strong and brave. They were found worthy of rest and relaxation. The brass had decided that this ragged band of Marines would be taken off-line. They’d killed enough and bled enough to earn some R&R. These Raiders were in need of rest. After all, they would be needed to fight another day. So the orders came. Before being sent to Espiritu Santo by ship, the 2nd Raiders were to rest and relax at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. Having been to hell and back they needed to forget the close friends they had lost.
Peter Wellington and Michael spent a week enjoying themselves. They drank too much and raised hell. The high ideals of Carlson’s Raiders had long since passed. The only songs they sang now were in the honky tonk bars as they chased the beautiful brown Hula girls. Blowing off steam was their way to get in touch with what humanity they had left. In the mornings when finally sober, Wellington and Michael took in the sights. Smith and Fine stayed drunk, preferring to feel nothing. The numbness helped their injured souls heal. While sightseeing, Peter and Michael said little. They no longer spoke of life and what it held in store. Neither was the same man from those days of long ago. Their idealism was lost somewhere in the Pacific. The days of drinking soft drinks and dreaming of victory had given way to the reality of war. They weren’t knights fighting for good against evil, but efficient killing machines. War was the taking of lives, the killing of another human being, and the spilling of blood. Honor, God, and country couldn’t cover the stench of death. Even Wellington had finally come to the conclusion that they were nothing more than killing machines. Pretty songs and uniforms couldn’t take away the blood on their hands. That sacred liquid had stained their souls forever. Both could think of nothing else but home. It was at home where they could run and hide and forget their dead, home, where they could be who they once were. These Marines were desperate to be free of the burdens of war. Michael wanted to smell his mom’s refried beans and handmade tortillas instead of dead Jap flesh, burned to a crisp by flamethrowers. But first, they had to pass their greatest test, Guadalcanal.
With that short week of R&R behind them, the raiders were returning to war. First, they would go to Espiritu Santo to receive more training. After several weeks of practicing the art of war they were ready. Ranks now filled with new offerings to the god of war, the Raiders next stop was Guadalcanal. The Japanese had begun the attack. The battle for Guadalcanal was on. The First Raider Battalion had been sent to Tugali across the Coral reef, on the other side of Laguna Channel. This is where the 2nd Marine Division landed at Guadalcanal. Tugali was the sight of the new Japanese naval air base at Lunga Point. The Japs had just completed the construction of the base. But when the American marines stormed ashore, they found only an empty base. The Japanese garrison of Pioneer units or construction battalions had fled into the jungles south of the airfield, abandoning heavy construction equipment and over a hundred trucks. The Americans found food still on tables in the cooking tents when they walked the base. Word of the American invasion was sent from the radio station at Tugali before it was abandoned.
The Japanese command had received the bad news at Japanese headquarters at Rabaul and Truk. Soon after the message was received American guns from the cruiser San Juan silenced the radio station. There was no more word from the Southern Solomons. To the amazement of the Japanese command, the Americans had captured Guadalcanal in a matter of hours. Now holding the base and its airfield the Americans quickly renamed it Henderson Field after a fallen Marine officer killed at Midway two months earlier. There was one question on everybody’s mind--could the Americans hold onto it?
Immediately, the Japanese command at Rabaul sent scout planes to assess the situation. Within a matter of hours Japan had confirmation that Guadalcanal had been taken and the seaplane base at Tugali destroyed. At the Kagoshima anchorage in Japan, Admiral Yamamoto was taking a great interest in the arriving intelligence reports. His concern was with those reports related to the American fleet. The Admiral’s suspicions had been confirmed. The Americans would not be easily intimidated. To his thinking, barbarians had great courage but only time would tell if they had heart. His immediate consideration was the destruction of the American fleet. To this end, Yamamoto dispatched Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagoma and elements of the battle fleet south. The weakened American fleet was to be engaged and destroyed. Yamamoto's major strategy had always been to destroy American naval presence in the Pacific. The Japanese military was convinced that America could be held at bay and negotiated with later. With this in mind, the great Admiral’s planes and ships searched for Admiral Frank "Jack" Fletcher's carrier task force, but to no avail. Fletcher had moved his task force far to the south, and out of harms way.
Several hundred miles north of Guadalcanal at Rabaul, on New Britain Island, the Japanese prepared for the attack on Australia. General Hyutake believed Australia would be the solution to Japan’s population growth. A continent wide-open and with few people was the perfect solution to Japanese expansion. This conquest would give the General a place in history. General Haruyoshi Hyutake was more concerned with this task than with the Southern Solomons. In his view the Solomons were a navy problem. His place in history was the only thing that mattered to him. The Southern Solomons would have to wait.
On Guadalcanal the Marines immediately came under attack. A few hours after the Americans had taken Henderson Field, Japanese aircraft from Rabaul and several ships attacked in full force. Their mission was to destroy the newly built airfield. With a limited naval presence, the Americans could do little but defend the island. The situation was dangerous for the Americans. The Japanese had won one naval battle after another. In August, the Americans had lost four cruisers and several other ships during the battle off Savo Island. Now in control of the air and sea, the Japanese came down everyday from Rabaul striking Henderson with their bombers and fighters. Every night, Japanese warships came down through the narrow channel off Savo and bombarded Henderson Field and the Marine camps. The relentless Japanese attacks were demoralizing. As the days passed, the Americans on Guadalcanal were feeling increasingly alone and abandoned. Indiscriminate bombing and strafing was taking its toll. The beleaguered Americans and Australians at Guadalcanal sent up the ragtag Cactus Air Force to engage the enemy. The units fought valiantly but were no match for the superior Japanese air force. With little gasoline, due to Fletcher’s inability to defend the seas around Henderson Field, the Americans could only hope to hold on until help arrived. They fought on against all odds.
Still unable to break American resolve, Yamamoto decided to remove the Americans from Guadalcanal. He called upon Japan’s finest. He chose a reinforced battalion of shock troops to do the job. Commanded by Colonel Kiyonao Ichiki, one thousand shock troops and minimal supplies were dispatched. They landed on the southern end of the island. His troops were ordered to break through and take Henderson. By early September, Ichiki's men moved through the tangled jungle from Taivu, east of Lunga Point. The seasoned shock troops were prepared to die for their emperor rather than fail. The 2nd Raider Battalion was chosen to move against Ichiki and his warriors of the Rising Sun.
On September 12th, the destroyer transports, Little and Gregory, unloaded two Raider companies of the 2nd Raider Battalion. Landing at the north end of the island the Raiders were divided into two forces. They searched for, but found no Japanese. The Raiders were then ordered to be taken to Taivu Point. Both Little and Gregory had been destroyed by a superior Japanese force. Two other destroyers had to be dispatched to ferry the Marines. Upon disembarking the Raider forces deployed throughout the island. Again, search parties found no Japanese troops only abandoned field pieces, ammunition, and documents. The Japs had fled into the jungle. The Marines then rested on the beach while HQ made decisions regarding what to do next. That morning, the American marines were surprised by the enemy. Not Ichiki's troops but a remnant of the former Japanese command attacked using mortars and artillery pieces. As the battle raged, the Japanese bombarded the Marines with 75mm artillery. The Americans, having only mortars and lacking artillery pieces, lost several men. As the Japanese again melted into the jungle, the 2nd needed help. Having taken a beating and concerned about enemy reinforcements, the 2nd contacted General Vandegrift's command post requesting immediate reinforcements. Vandegrift answered the call with the 1st Parachute Battalion. They landed the next morning near the town of Tasimboko. The Parachute Battalion found no Japanese, only abandoned field guns, machine guns, and ammunition. All were destroyed. Concluding that there had been no Japanese landing after all, Vandegrift gathered his troops to destroy the enemy at Tasimboko. He ordered both battalions to load onto two destroyers by three o’clock. That night, the destroyers carrying the Raiders headed for Lunga Channel. By dusk, the Raiders went ashore at Kukum.
General Hyukatake had been preparing for battle. His six thousand Japanese soldiers were ready and waiting for their American guests. The Marines were now facing a newly reinforced Ichiki detachment of well-trained, well-armed shock troops. As night fell, the Raiders ran into tough opposition. Thousands of Ichiki’s shock troops engaged the Marines. The battle raged through the night and into the early morning hours, but the Marines held. The formidable Japanese shock troops had met their match in the Raiders. Hundreds of Japs lay dead and dying. Few Americans were lost that day. But the worst was yet to come.
Kiyotake Kawaguchi's military force on Guadalcanal was being augmented nightly. The Japanese were determined to throw a second force against the Americans. It was Vandergrift's good fortune that Carlson’s Raiders had captured several documents while at Taivu Point. To the amazement of the American General, the documents contained General Kawaguchi's entire battle plan. The plan called for a four pronged attack on September 12th. Jap forces already on shore would attack simultaneously on both flanks and from the rear. Next, a frontal amphibious assault would be launched. Three battalions of Japanese were to attack from the south. One battalion would strike west across the Tenaru River. Two more battalions were to cross the Lunga River and attack from the northwest.
A prepared General Vandergrift positioned his command post at the airstrip inland from Kukum and east of the Lunga River. His headquarters was to be protected by the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion on the west. Vandergrift sent the 1st Marine Regiment to reinforce the Tenaru River positions. On the western side was a small grassy ridge, south of Kukum. There he positioned Colonel Biebush's 3rd Battalion and several 75mm pack howitzers. The Pioneer Battalion was placed at the Lunga River. The engineers were just west of Vandergrift's CP. Carlson's Raider battalion was placed along with the parachute troops on the ridge south of the CP.
Starting on September 11th, Japanese planes began heavy bombardment of the Marine positions. By the 12th, although under attack, the Raiders had fortified their positions on the ridge. Stringing barbed wire along the bottom of the ridge at the jungle line, they were ready. The Raiders brought up extra ammo and machine guns. Browning automatic rifles and boxes of grenades were also stockpiled and ready for action. The Japanese had also been preparing. On September the 12th, late in the evening, the Japanese attacked. At nine o’clock, a Jap plane dropped a flare, signaling Japanese ships to begin bombardment of Henderson Field. A half hour passed with the Americans under Japanese bombardment. Then suddenly, a rocket exploded in the sky above the jungle. The Japanese started up the ridge in force, searching along it until they found weaknesses.
"Tenno heika banzai," "May His majesty the Emperor live ten thousand years." They shouted. Their attack was ferocious. Tenacious in their onslaught, Carlson’s Raiders met them head on. The American Marine Corps Raiders had met Japan’s finest and their match. Both sides died valiantly, neither side giving an inch. Wellington and his men fought bravely. As the killing went on for hours, his command was decimated. Michael and the others despaired but never abandoned the line. They killed these brave Japanese warriors, one after another. And yet they kept coming. These were brave men who fought for their emperor. Only the need to survive sustained Michael and the others. His belief in America and his oath to defend his brother Raiders were no longer considerations. As the battle raged, killing became hand-to-hand. Death and dying was everywhere. The groans of his dying fellow Raiders could be heard on Michael’s right and left. He watched as his friends were butchered next to him and in front of him. Michael Aragón kept killing. That night, he killed with his machine gun and knife. He bludgeoned with the butt of a rifle and hacked with bayonet. Choking the life out of one of the Emperor’s finest with his bare hands; he killed for Arturo and Sergeant Thomason. Killing for the men he’d known and watched die, Michael brought death to many Japanese warriors. For the Southerner who had hated him and for God and country, he killed. In the end, he killed to survive. When it was over, Michael Aragón could kill no more.
The brave Japanese warriors had taken their toll. Many marines lost their lives that night. As Michael sat on the blood soaked ground surrounded by the dead and dying, he was empty. He’d spilled so much blood that he was sickened. The young man had lost a part of himself. He felt the insanity of it all as he knelt on the blood-soaked ground. Falling forward onto the palms of his hands, Michael threw up. He wanted to rid himself of the disgust of it all and continued until there was nothing left inside. Then he fell asleep next to the dead, empty bodies of his comrades in arms. Their souls had gone to meet their maker. Michael fell asleep with his arm around his good friend, Fine. His dead body was cold as ice. There a few feet away lay Smith, Michael’s other close friend. Dead, he’d taken a Japanese sword thrust in the neck. Michael had watched as his friend had taken the Samurai warrior with him into the great beyond.
He somehow felt secure touching Fine’s corpse. It was now only he and Wellington; they were the last. As he fell off into a deep sleep, he couldn’t help but have respect for these Japs. They never wavered, these fine Japanese warriors of the Rising Sun. The Japs did their duty to their emperor. They died valiantly, though needlessly. On the morning of September 13th, it was discovered that the Marine lines had held. The Americans had repelled the Japanese. Exhausted, confused, and spent the Marines could only pray.
Michael felt he had nothing left to give as he was finishing up morning chow. As the tired and worn Marines ate and prayed, the Japanese massed in the jungle behind the ridge. Two thousand Japs moved quietly toward Michael and the other unsuspecting Raiders. Then they charged the ridge catching the Raiders off-guard. Again and again they attacked only to be beaten back by the shattered Raiders. Wave after wave fell to the Marine volleys of automatic weapons fire and mortar rounds. The fighting went on for hours. Through the battle, the Marines killed at least seven hundred Japanese. Finally, it was over; they were finished for the day. The Marines could only hope that they’d seen the last of the insane Japanese warriors. Americans held life dear while the Japs seemed to despise it, throwing it away on command. The Raiders had watched as their Japanese enemy rushed head long into a wall of American fire. Time after time, the Jap soldiers attacked and threw themselves at the Raiders only to die without fear.
That night, a weary and frightened Wellington told his young replacements to keep faith as he prayed with them. Afterwards, he made sure that each had extra ammo. He talked to them about America and what she meant. He spoke of their fallen comrades who had given so much. Wellington praised their courage. And finally, he called upon their honor as Raiders, forgetting that most were Marine regulars. He sang Carlson’s song loud and strong. Confused, the young Marine replacements sat and listened to the lone voice. When Wellington sang the Star Spangled Banner the young boys joined in. Then, the singing was done. There was no more to be said. Each Marine was lost in his own private hell. All sat in silence drinking in the night’s sounds, straining to pick up any sound that might alert them of a Jap attack.
There in the darkness where the fear is the greatest, Michael reached deep down into his soul for courage. As he did, he could hear the others. Many coughed as they smoked. An occasional prayer could be heard. Kneeling down he prayed to his god a silent prayer for Wellington and the others. Michael prayed for Papa and Mama and for victory.
Then, at 10:30 PM they came again. Attacking without fear the Japanese laid down a smoke screen along the ridge. Two thousand charged shouting, "Gas attack, gas attack." hoping to confuse the Marines. The war weary Americans despaired as they faced this fearless enemy. The massive Jap bayonet charge found a hole west of the ridge. Many Marines were cut-off and wiped out. Few made it through the night. The Japs were now more determined than ever to avenge their fallen brothers. When the killing began it was the worst for the Marines. Fear was still in the air. Terror of the invincible Japanese had crept into their ranks. No man wanted to be the one to break and run, so each held. The Raiders killed and killed again, using every weapon at their disposal. When their machine gun barrels became too hot to fire, the Raiders used knives. When the knife fell they used rifles as clubs and killed with bayonets. And finally, when they thought they could hold the line no longer, it ended. The Marines had held their positions. But it was still not over.
Wellington’s men had reached their breaking point. He was honest, telling his men that more Japs were on their way. A good man in a bad spot, he explained to his men that victory couldn’t be guaranteed, only more killing. Wellington called upon them as Marines, "You are the finest fighting force ever assembled and I am proud and honored to be the man who was chosen to lead you." His words rang with passion. At that moment Wellington was a true believer and his young replacements wanted desperately to believe as well. They were now ready to follow him into hell itself. And hell it was to be. The determined Japs soon attacked in force. As the battle raged the Marines were forced back to within fifteen hundred yards of Henderson Field. This was a psychological defeat for the Americans. The Americans then regrouped. As they did, the Japs began infiltration of their lines. A Japanese officer and two soldiers got as far as the command post before being killed, but not before sending two American officers to heaven by way of a grenade. This further shook American resolve.
The Japanese had forced them against the wall. The banzai charges began again. Over and over again, the Japs charged through the mortar fire ringing the ridge. The Japanese were also met by Marine and Raider automatic weapons fire. But the Japs kept coming. Ready to die for their Emperor, they fought long and hard. The Raiders were unable to counter these charges; they could only hold the ridge and repel the invaders. The killing frenzy went on for hours. The men killed Japs as fast as they came up to the line. Many Raiders died. Finally, the Japs were stopped but not before they had killed many more Marines. By 2:30 in the morning of September 14th, the defeated Japanese finally retreated back into the jungle. The Marines had killed over eleven hundred Japanese warriors. The enemy had fought hard and died well.
General Vandergrift had lost two hundred and twelve paratroopers. His Raiders had lost over two hundred and fifty men, many Michael had known personally. He felt sorry for the many young inexperienced kids sacrificed to the god of war. Training hadn’t been enough. Prayers didn’t help. The death angel had gorged itself on these fine young boys.
Michael Aragón and Peter Wellington had unwittingly played part in the American history of war. This battle would become known in Marine Corps history as Bloody Ridge. More Raiders died as the low level battle for Guadalcanal continued daily. The real estate in question wouldn’t be given up easily. The Japanese believed that this piece of land belonged to the Rising Sun.
For the Japanese this was considered the decisive battle of the war. Their Empire would rise or fall upon the outcome of this great battle. By mid-September, the Japanese Imperial Army and Imperial navy had reached an agreement. First, the army was to complete the reinforcement of Guadalcanal with a division of troops. Next, the navy and army would attack jointly. Finally, they would destroy every last American on Guadalcanal. The great Japanese General Maruyama was given specific instructions for the battle by the Japanese general staff. Maruyama was to name the place where General Vandergrift was to surrender. Additionally, Vandergrift was ordered by the Japanese to hold a white flag of defeat on the date of October 15th.
The Japanese had thrown down the gauntlet. It was now up to the American General Vandergrift to accept and prevail. The Americans accepted the challenge and staked their national honor on the outcome of Guadalcanal. Chesty Puller’s 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines was moved into action. The 2nd Raider Battalion was to meet Puller’s forces across the Matanikau River, but the Raiders didn’t make it in time. Puller’s men caught a thousand Japs in a ravine. At the end of the massacre, six hundred and ninety Japanese soldiers lay dead. While this was a great blow to the Japanese army more reinforcements were arriving daily. They would have plenty with which to kill marines on October 22nd.
The stage was set. Carlson's 2nd Battalion and all others were ordered to hold Guadalcanal at all costs. They were to give no ground. Every American soldier was to do his duty. On the 23rd of October, General Sumiyoshi moved against Marine positions at the Matanikau River. Marine artillery stopped him cold, destroying ten tanks and countless infantry. On October the 24th, Japanese infantry attacked the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marines. For the next three days, the Japanese hit the Marine lines, but they never broke. Daily, the Japs hit Henderson Field and yet, the Americans held. Taking constant aerial and ship artillery poundings, the Marines held at Matanikau and Hannkens Ridge. They fought the Japs to a stand still at Coffin Corner, losing one hundred and eighty-two men and the Army's 164th suffered one hundred and sixty-six dead. But it still wasn’t over.
Carlson's Raiders were to join a new fight at Mount Austen. They would have a difficult time ahead of them while making their way through the upper valley of the Tenaru River and the upper Lunga River. Once at Mount Austen, they had to safely pass thousands of Japanese soldiers and come up behind a new Japanese regiment. Marching by day and resting by night, Carlson sent patrols to search out the enemy.
When patrols found the enemy, his larger forces surrounded and cut-off the smaller Japanese forces. This was the Chinese Communist concept of guerilla warfare. It had been successful but it was the end for the Raiders. On November 11, 1944, Carlson sent out his four companies. Company A went west to Asamana Village on the Matapona River. The other three companies were attached to other marine units. Michael was reassigned to the Marine 4th. As with their many other battles the Raiders fought hard and died well. They gave their hearts and souls and killed and killed. Many gave their lives. Finally, the Japanese were beaten.
At the end of the day, few Raiders were left. Fighting for God and country, their sacred blood had been shed on the sandy beaches and in the steamy jungles of the Pacific. Many had kept faith, dying as they had lived, with honor and valor. These Americans had secured the liberty of a thankful nation. On June 20th, 1945, the fighting ended on the largest island in the Ryukyus, Okinawa. Once an obscure island in the Western Pacific, Okinawa had become an American icon.
With the American flag firmly planted, the following two months saw many medals awarded, including the Navy Cross to Michael Aragón. On August of 1945, the 4th left for Japan. It was to be a part of the occupation army. Michael had little interest in Japan, looking forward to starting his life over again. He was ready to leave the killing and death behind him. For Michael the war had ended on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese officially surrendered. The few Raiders who were left were disbanded. The men were reassigned to other Marine Corps units. Michael and the majority of the other Marines remained in the newly created 4th Marines Regiment. Soon thereafter, Michael was returned to the United States of America, arriving in his barrio a hero. A son of the Republic, he was no longer the innocent young man who had left his home on that December day of 1941. Michael came home hardened by war and confused by its realities. Life was no longer the simple road he once thought it to be. There were many choices, many bends in the road. In the end, the road branched off.
02/16/2015 11:15 AM