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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.
Vol. 12, No. 1
(626) 791-8973
©1998, 2014 William A. Cohen, PhD

Building Your Organization into a Commando Team*

Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson was already considered eccentric . Maybe that was why he was instructed to build a team of Marine commandos, and given command of the unit during World War II. It was called the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion

Carlson had enlisted in the Army before he was of legal age and was demonstrating outstanding leadership he was soon commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant during World War I. Discharged from the Army after the war, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private. It wasn’t long before he became an officer again. He fought in Nicaragua and earned a Navy Cross. That’s the second highest award to the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration. Afterwards they sent him to China to observe the Communist 8th Army’s methods. Outspoken in favor of the Chinese on his return, but this was before we were at war with Japan, and he was officially reprimanded for speaking out. So he resigned his commission in the Marine Corps and wrote two books about what he had learned in China.

Convinced that war with Japan was coming, he re-enlisted a year before the Pearl Harbor attack. Given command of a unit he had helped established, he really shook things up with his teambuilding methods. When he called for volunteers, he got 7000, though he needed and accepted less than a thousand. His acceptance criteria baffled many, but it came right from the Chinese 8th Army theory. Political views regarding the enemy and attitude toward the war was considered of primary importance. Carlson abolished all traditional officers’ privileges. He re-organized his unit around fire teams, the basic idea being that there would be no weapon in the battalion that could not be carried by one man.

He adopted the motto “gung ho” for the Raiders. This is sometimes still heard in the U.S. military. Today it means someone who is almost fanatical about what he is doing. However, that wasn’t Carlson’s meaning. The literal definition from Chinese confirms the value he put on teamwork. Gung ho means “working together.” But to Carlson this was not merely a motto. It was a basic leadership concept. He held open ” Gung Ho Talks” with his troops in which everyone was expected to express his opinion. Moreover, Carlson insured that leaders were those who were recognized by their ability to lead, rather than holding a certain rank. Perhaps his most controversial move was insisting that both officers and enlisted Marines be called by their first names. Interestingly, according to an article in The New Yorker, the U.S. Army’s super secret Delta Force of today: “. . . called each other by their nicknames and eschewed salutes and all the other traditional trappings of military life. Officers and noncoms in Delta treated each other as equals.” However this was absolutely against U.S. military doctrine in any unit at the time.

Speaking about Carlson, Cleland E. Early, later a retired Marine Corps colonel commented: “He was primarily concerned about the stringent control officers and NCOs held over enlisted men. He thought you could get more if you acted as a team instead of just issuing orders.” Almost everything Carlson did except fighting was contrary to traditional Marine Corps methods.

Carlson’s first chance to demonstrate his commandos’ teamwork was against the Makin Atoll in the South Pacific. Admiral Nimitz was fighting a close battle with the Japanese 1000 miles to the southwest in the Solomon Islands. To distract the Japanese re-supply effort, Admiral Nimitz ordered Carlson’s commandos to attack Makin as a diversionary action. He hoped that the Japanese would send more men there and take the pressure off of his actions. Carlson’s Raiders were assigned the mission of eliminating an auxiliary seaplane base based on the atoll. Two of Carlson’s companies would participate. Each company of 100 men was crammed aboard an obsolete submarine in Hawaii for a clandestine ten-day voyage.

Landing on the atoll on the 17th of August 1942, only eight months after the U.S. defeat at Pearl Harbor, the situation turned sour almost immediately. High ocean swells made it extremely difficult to disembark. Carlson managed to get his troops into their boats, but it was a near thing. However, the ocean conditions were such that Carlson made an immediate decision to direct all of his 19 boats to a single location on the beach instead of two separate landing areas he had previously designated.

The Raiders immediately came under heavy fire. They called for and got fire support from the submarines. As two enemy boats approached the shore to reinforce the defenders from another enemy-held island, Carlson coordinated the fire from one of the submarines, which even though it was firing blindly, managed to sink both enemy boats. Suddenly, Japanese planes appeared. The submarines were extremely vulnerable against attacking aircraft and immediately submerged. This first appearance was only a reconnaissance and the Japanese followed with several aerial attacks. The second wave of planes bombed and strafed the island to cover the landing of two large flying boats in the lagoon. Each was filled with troops. With smooth teamwork coming from prior practice, the Raiders opened fire and destroyed both planes.

However, one of Carlson’s platoons never got the word regarding the change of landing sites earlier in the day during the embarkation from the submarines. Eleven men under the command of a lieutenant found themselves at the wrong place and behind enemy lines. But Carlson had trained his commandos for teamwork. He coordinated their activities with his own fight. While most of his force fought against the enemy’s front, this platoon attacked against the enemy’s rear, and then went on a rampage, destroying the enemy’s radio station, buildings and equipment. Under Carlson’s orders, they withdrew and made it back to their submarine with only three men lossed.

By afternoon, Carlson knew he had accomplished his mission. He began a withdrawal back to the boats. Unfortunately, the surf and swells were even higher than in the morning. Many of his boats swamped and he could get only half his men off the island. Major Roosevelt, Carlson’s operations officer and President Franklin Roosevelt’s oldest son got four more boats off the next morning. Those that remained spent the day gathering more intelligence, and destroying the remaining enemy installations. Then with difficulty and under aerial attack, these too also escaped from the island.

Thirty Marine Raiders were lost in this operation. Nevertheless, the Marine commandos had not only accomplished their mission, but temporarily destroyed the enemy presence on the island, a truly amazing feat!

Seven month’s later; Carlson’s Raiders were able to demonstrate their remarkable teamwork to an even greater extent. This was at Guadalcanal. Landed at first to secure a beachhead for Army engineers who were going to build an airfield, the Raiders were ordered to penetrate Japanese lines and cause a diversion behind the lines. This they did. They harassed, ambushed, blew up installations and raised hell all over the island. This was the longest patrol of this type of commando action in the war. It lasted thirty-one days, from November 4th through December 4th, 1942. Carlson received his third Navy Cross for this exploit. He retired from the Marine Corps after the war as a brigadier general. Many cite Carlson as one of the fathers of U.S. Special Operations forces today.
*Adapted from William A. Cohen Secrets of Special Ops Leadership AMACOM, 2006)


“Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of their mutual aid, will attack resolutely.” – Colonel Charles Ardnant du Picq


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