When the U.S. Marine Corps established its special operations component in 2006, the new Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, immediately wanted to create a link between itself and the Marine Raiders, a storied, specialized commando force from World War II. But military forces are, as a general rule, steeped in history and lore with complex and often pedantic rules and regulations to uphold those traditions and the honors that come along with them and new documents show the service's own historians were vehemently opposed to the idea.
In August 2014, then Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos announced he had finally approved the decision to rename all of the units under Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, as Marine Raiders. The Marine Special Operations Battalions became Marine Raider Battalions, for example, while the Marine Special Operations Regiment turned into the Marine Raider Regiment. The original Marine Raiders came into existence in 1942 to support operations against the Japanese during World War II, before becoming the 4th Marine Regiment in 1944.
“MARSOC is the modern-day embodiment of the Marine Raiders of World War II,” U.S. Marine Corps Captain Barry Morris, then a spokesman for the command, said in a statement at the time, according to Marine Corps Times. “We feel we owe it to those Marine Raiders still alive and their families to make every attempt” to maintain their legacy.
Behind closed, doors, however, at least two official Marine Corps historians – including one from MARSOC’s own history office – had been apoplectic about the name change. They registered their complaints in writing, which we at The War Zone only recently obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request that dates back to 2015. Censors redacted both individuals’ names for privacy reasons.
“MARSOC claims to the Raider title are based on a perceived legacy that is largely mythological,” the command’s historian wrote in an information paper dated June 2, 2014. “MARSOC has no claim to the Raiders’ lineage and honors, which are currently held by organizations that were formed directly from the original Raider battalions.”
To rewind quickly, the World War II-era Marine Raiders themselves have almost as much claim to controversy as combat achievements. Formed just over two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt had personally ordered the Marines to create the specialized units over the service’s not inconsequential protests.
U.S. Army Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, then in charge of the clandestine Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and who became the chief post-war architect of the Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Marine Corps Major Evans Carlson, were both instrumental in the Raider proposal. Carlson was a veteran of the "Punitive Expedition" to kill or capture Mexican rebel Pancho Villa and one of the numerous American interventions in Nicaragua. He had gone on to serve in China, where he closely studied the tactics of Communist forces fighting the Japanese in the 1930s.
Donovan and Carlson strongly believed there was a unique value in crafting small raiding parties to harass the enemy behind the front lines, forcing them to divert resources to handle the incursions and protect key locations. U.S. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz, who became head of the Pacific Fleet immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, was also eager to get “commando” units to attack lightly defended Japanese island outposts.
Between 1942 and 1944, the Marine Raiders, which eventually consisted of four full battalions organized into a single regiment, were a key part of operations, particularly during the island-hopping campaigns across the Central Pacific. They also became well known for experimenting with new fighting doctrine and tactics, as well as weapons and equipment, including camouflage uniforms.
But despite the success of the Raiders, Carlson proved to be a divisive figure within the Marine Corps. He had active connections with Communist and Leftist groups, which he had established to solicit aid for China in its fight against the Japanese.
The Marine Corps Major had brought the service’s now widely known mantra “Gung Ho” back from China, where Communist insurgents rallied under the slogan “gōnghé,” which literally translates to “work together.” He espoused lessons inspired in no small part by what he had seen in his travels with Mao Tse Tung and Zhou Enlai.
The Marine officer also imparted a concept of “ethical indoctrination” on units under his command, which emphasized the role of non-commissioned officers in helping commissioned officers. The Marine Corps saw this in part as encouraging lower ranking personnel to question superiors and their orders. For the service’s senior leadership, the Raiders represented an organization within an organization, which they found almost completely antithetical to their own experience.
“The Marine Corps has always felt that its infantry elements are essentially raiders and that the Pacific conditions are different from the European which resulted in the establishment of commandos,” the Pacific Section of the War Plans Division within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations explained in a memo in 1943. “It would like to end its raider program so as to make all infantry organizations uniform and to avoid setting up some organizations as elite or selected troops.”
In 1944, the service won out, transforming the Raiders into the 4th Marine Regiment. Carlson died in 1947, escaping what would almost certainly have been serious post-war scrutiny over his leftist activities.
Though the Marine Raiders have become a fixture in popular culture since World War II, the Marine Corps’ mixture of ambivalence and open hostility to the organization never really went away. The Marines rejected MARSOC’s request to use the name in 2006 and again in 2011. Before then, the service had fought against the idea of sending personnel off to form its own dedicated special operations entity for decades, arguing that its units were already “special operations capable,” essentially the same logic it had used to oppose the Raiders.
“Your allegiance, your loyalty … is to the Marine Corps, based on the title you have on your uniform,” Amos reportedly told a gathering of other generals in 2011. “He made it clear that the tie, the connection to our past is absolutely important to him, but we're not going to name a unit by some naming convention – any unit in the Marine Corps – because we're Marines first,” Brigadier General David Berger, director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters, told Marine Corps Times after that event.
MARSOC’s historian went so far as to cite the 1943 War Plans Division memo detailing opposition to the original Raiders in explaining their own reticence to the idea. They also reiterated that the Raider legacy already lived on in the Marine Corps, with the 4th Marine Regiment.
“The Raider name went away, but these Marines fought on under the Fourth Marines’ colors,” they noted. “I have studied, taught, and written history for three decades, and while I am familiar with the battles they fought in, I have never encountered the glamorization of the Raiders that one encounters at MARSOC. Frankly, it is based on a misinterpretation of history that is so far-fetched it borders on fabrication.”
“Discussions with younger Staff Noncommissioned Officers reveal that they believe the Raider tradition has been passed on to MARSOC through the Reconnaissance community,” they continued. “However, I can find nothing to substantiate this claim beyond word of mouth/social media examples.”
This individual got another jab in at other units already using the “Raider” name without official sanction. In these cases, it appeared to be linked to the Marine Corps’ use of the term “raid” for various types of operations. Marine Expeditionary Units now train to employ so-called “Maritime Raid Forces” for limited missions, such as boarding ships at sea or securing objectives ashore.
“I should add that MARSOC is not the only Marine Corps organization currently claiming the Raider title – it seems to have come into common use among Marine Expeditionary Unit companies trained to perform small boat operations,” the historian wrote, suggesting they were talking about one of these elements. “A video posted on You Tube [sic] depicts one unit using the title “Blackfoot Raiders.” Having lived in Montana, I can assure you that the Blackfeet did indeed conduct raids – but mounted on horses, not in rubber boats.”
The video below is very likely the one the MARSOC historian was referring to in their information paper.
The second document we obtained, which is undated, but appears to have come after the decision to change the names within MARSOC, makes many of the same arguments about the 4th Marines' history. This second individual, a member of the service’s central History Division, also brought up how this would create a problem from the well-established, if obtuse rules about how honors get passed from one unit to another.
“Lineage and honors cannot be shared by two units, nor can lineage and honors be arbitrarily changed,” they declared. “The Fourth Marines have far more than a tenous [sic; tenuous] “claim” on the lineage and honors of the World War II Raider battalions. The MCBUL [Marine Corps Bulletin] 5400, released in January 2015, which ordered the redesignation of the MARSOC units, also states that the lineage and honors will remain with the 4th Marines.”
This last part is both true and notable. When Amos finally gave in, after substantial pressure from private groups such as the Marine Raider Association & Foundation, he approved the name change, but made clear that 4th Marines still “own” the historical achievements of the World War II Raiders.
The two historians do differ in their conclusions. The individual at MARSOC continued to push against renaming the special operations elements as “Raiders,” arguing “that the title Marine is sufficient to mark this Command as unique in Special Operations.”
The record from the Marine Corps History Division ultimately cedes the argument given that Amos had already made his decision. “One can certainly appreciate the desire by Marine Corps leadership to pay homage to the Raiders of World War II,” they wrote.
“One can also understand the desire to keep that storied name alive, and part of the Marine Corps lexicon, a name that has come to symbolize hard training and hard fighting,” it continues. “With the redesignation of the MARSOC units, that desire has been fulfilled.”
Since then, the new Marine Raiders have joined other U.S. special operations forces in important missions around the world, including in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. We don’t know whether MARSOC’s history office still thinks the name change was the wrong decision, but they’re undoubtedly focused more on documenting the new achievements of the modern Raider Battalions.
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