The raid was among the first American offensive ground combat operations of World War II. The force was drawn from the 2nd Raider Battalion and comprised a small battalion command group and two of the Battalion's six rifle companies. Because of space limitations aboard ship, each company embarked without one of its rifle sections. Battalion headquarters, A Company and 18 men from B Company—totaling 121 troops—were embarked aboard the submarine Argonaut and the remainder of B Company—totaling 90 men—aboard Nautilus. The raiding force was designated Task Group 7.15 (TG 7.15).
The Makin Atoll garrison consisted of the Japanese seaplane base led by Sgt. Major Kanemitsu with 73 naval air force personnel with light weapons.
The Marines were launched in LCRL rubber boats powered by small, 6 hp (4.5 kW) outboard motors shortly after 00:00 (midnight) on 17 August. At 05:13, Companies A and B of the 2nd Raider Battalion—commanded by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson—successfully landed on Butaritari. The landing had been very difficult due to rough seas, high surf, and the failure of many of the outboard motors. Lt. Col. Carlson decided to land all his men on one beach, rather than two beaches as originally planned. At 05:15, Lt. Oscar Peatross and a 12-man squad landed on Butaritari. In the confusion of the landing, they did not get word of Carlson's decision to change plans and land all the Raiders on one beach. Thus, Peatross and his men landed where they originally planned. It turned out to be a fortunate error. Undaunted by the lack of support, Peatross led his men inland.
At 07:00, with Company A leading, the Raiders advanced from the beach across the island to its north shore before attacking southwestward. Strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns stalled the advance and inflicted casualties. The Japanese then launched two banzai charges that were wiped out by the Raiders, thus killing most of the Japanese on the island. At 09:00, Lt. Peatross and his 12 men found themselves behind the Japanese who were fighting the rest of the Raiders to the east. Peatross's unit killed eight Japanese and the garrison commander Sgt. Major Kanemitsu, knocked out a machinegun and destroyed the enemy radios; but suffered three dead and two wounded. Failing to contact Carlson, they withdrew to the subs at dusk as planned.
At 13:30, 12 Japanese planes—including two flying boats—arrived over Butaritari. The flying boats—carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison—attempted to land in the lagoon, but were met with machinegun, rifle and Boys anti-tank rifle fire from the Raiders. One plane crashed; the other burst into flames. The remaining planes bombed and strafed but inflicted no U.S. casualties. Evacuation of the Raiders
At 19:30, the Raiders began to withdraw from the island using 18 rubber boats, many of which no longer had working outboard motors. Despite heavy surf seven boats with 93 men made it to the subs. The next morning several boatloads of Raiders were able to fight the surf and reach the sub; but 72 men, along with just three rubber boats, were still on the island. At 23:30, the attempt by most of the Raiders to reach the submarines failed. Despite hours of heroic effort, 11 of 18 boats were unable to breach the unexpectedly strong surf. Having lost most of their weapons and equipment, the exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach to link up with 20 fully armed men who had been left on the island to cover their withdrawal. An exhausted and dispirited Carlson dispatched a note to the Japanese commander offering to surrender, but the Japanese messenger was killed by other Marines who were unaware of Carlson's plan.
At 09:00 on 18 August, the subs sent a rescue boat to stretch rope from the ships to the shore that would allow the remaining Raiders' boats to be pulled out to sea. But just as the operation began, Japanese planes arrived and attacked, sinking the rescue boat and attacking the subs, which were forced to crash dive and wait on the bottom the rest of the day. The subs were undamaged. At 23:08, having managed to signal the subs to meet his Raiders at the entrance to Makin Lagoon, Carlson had a team led by Lt. Charlie Lamb build a raft made up of three rubber boats and two native canoes, powered by the two remaining outboard motors. Using this raft, 72 exhausted Raiders sailed 4 miles from Butaritari to the mouth of the lagoon, where the subs picked them up.
USMC casualties were given as 18 killed in action and 12 missing in action. Of the 12 Marines missing in action, one was later identified among the 18 Marine Corps graves found on Makin Island. Of the remaining eleven Marines missing in action, nine were inadvertently left behind or returned to the island during the night withdrawal. They were subsequently captured, moved to Kwajalein Atoll, and executed by Japanese forces. Two are MIA.