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An inspiring but less than accurate look at Carlson's Raiders
on June 14, 2006
I love a good war movie, but there's something extra special about a war movie filmed while the fight is ongoing - especially when it recounts the story of a major victory that has been largely forgotten by history. America's initial offensive thrust into Japanese-occupied territory took place at Makin Island (Butaritari atoll), and Gung Ho! is the story of that mission as carried out by the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (Carlson's Raiders). The strategic importance of the mission is now a matter of some debate, but at the time it was seen as an important diversion intended to disrupt Japanese communications and draw some of their forces away from more important targets (particularly Guadalcanal and Tulagi). There was no attempt to actually occupy the island - this was a quick, decisive raid designed to take out every Japanese installation (especially the radio tower) and kill every Japanese soldier on the island - get in quick, get out quick, and leave nothing but destruction behind you.
The Makin Island operation provided an important boost to morale back home, and this film obviously was made to further bolster domestic support for the war. As a propaganda film (and I must say I hate calling any film that passionately espouses the causes of liberty and freedom propaganda), it's a real winner: we lost some boys on that island, but the mission was a complete success, and the patriotic speech at the very end puts a great big morale-boosting bow on the whole package. As history, the film doesn't hold much water. Not to take away from the bravery of Carlson's Raiders (which included FDR's son), but the whole mission was basically a mess. Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong - but you won't hear any of this in the film: more elaborate plans had to be altered due to choppy seas and heavy rains (one boat never got the new orders); the landing was chaotic to say the least; overestimating the size of the Japanese forces on the island, Carlson chose to withdraw that evening but could not get his men back to the subs due to the inclement weather, which in turn led him to actually surrender during the night - until, that is, he finally learned that his men had all but wiped out Japanese resistance already; and nine men were unknowingly left behind (and eventually beheaded by the Japanese). Some of his men later questioned his leadership abilities.
Obviously, the true story of Carlson's Raiders would not make for a good movie, especially during war-time. As a morale booster and as entertainment, however, Gung Ho! is highly successful. It follows the volunteer recruits who made the cut all the way from their rigorous, unorthodox training to their overseas journey tucked inside two submarines (this was the only landing via submarine during the entire war) - pausing to take in the remains of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the way - to their landing and fierce combat on Makin Island. The acting is quite good from top to bottom and includes such well-known actors as Randolph Scott, Noah Beery, Jr., and a young Robert Mitchum (who is one fellow I would certainly want in my army). I was a little disappointed in the actual combat scenes, though - after hearing about all of this unconventional training for the mission (Carlson taught his men how to fight dirty, knowing full well that the Japanese would fight dirty at every turn), the actual fighting turned out to be fairly conventional for the most part (but the hand-to-hand combat does portray the viciousness of the fighting pretty effectively).
Gung Ho! is a notable wartime film from 1943, but it turns out that the true story of Carlson's Raiders and Carlson himself is much more interesting than Hollywood's version of the August 1942 raid on Makin Island. Carlson is a fascinating man, having fought in several foreign armies (including a stint with the Chinese Communist Army) before America entered World War II. His Gung Ho! battle cry reflected his training philosophy of ethical indoctrination; to him, every soldier was equal and was to be treated as an equal, for only then could the necessary sense of community make his men the most effective fighting force possible. He was quite a maverick in the military, in both tactics (drawing heavily upon Mao-ist guerilla warfare) and political philosophy (insofar as he leaned noticeably toward Communism).