This morning my buddy Grant — a fellow Marine — texted me, “Happy Birthday, Leatherneck!”
It’s not actually my birthday, today is the 240th birthday of the United States Marine Corps! Semper Fidelis!
Most people don’t know, let alone care, but for everyone who has worn the uniform, this is the most important holiday of the year. There are Marine Corps Balls taking place all over the world tonight — there’s probably one in your town.
The United States Marine Corps was created by an act of the Continental Congress, November 10, 1775, so the Marine Corps predates the United States by … (I’m counting, using all my toes) … about eight months.
Marines have fought storied battles throughout history and continue fighting those battles, now in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps Hymn mentions the “Shores of Tripoli” and the “Halls of Montezuma.” In 1805 Marines, along with mercenary Berbers, seized the city of Tripoli during the Barbary Wars. The Battle of Chapultepec occurred in 1847 during the Mexican-American. Marines seized the city and castle — the Halls of Montezuma.
Three battles that really standout as testaments to the Corps occurred in the 20th Century.
On June 1, 1918, the Marines entered the Battle of Belleau Wood, France, against vastly superior German forces that used mustard gas on several occasions. In the next 25 days over 1,200 Marines were killed and thousands more injured. But, they won the battle and signaled, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”
It was during this battle the Germans gave the Marines a nickname that has stuck ever since: “Teufelshunden” — “Devil Dogs,” because of their ferocious tenacity. Often the battle for the Wood was fought with bayonets and fists and to this day, every Marine must qualify with the rifle and take courses in unarmed fighting just to insure we can win at all costs.
Also during this battle the French had retreated and when a French commander told a Marine Company Commander to retreat as well, he replied, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”
It was after Belleau Wood when U.S. Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” The French even renamed the Wood, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine,” or “Wood of the Marine Brigade.”
In February 1945, after skipping around the Pacific Ocean fighting the Imperial Army of Japan for three years, the Marines found themselves on Japanese soil: the island of Iwo Jima. The battle lasted five weeks. Over 6,000 Marines died and nearly 20,000 were wounded.
The iconic moment from the battle occurred on the fifth day when five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. But that wasn’t the first flag to go up on Suribachi.
When a commander on a Naval ship said the first flag on Suribachi was too small, a second flag was ordered so the Marines and Sailor fought their way to the top and raised it. Photographer Joe Rosenthal happened to be in the right place at the right time and took the photo that now symbolizes the battle and the Marine Corps. It was later reproduced as the Marine Corps Monument in Washington, D.C.
It was towards the end of World War II when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made this comment: “The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!”
It was during the Korean War when the Marines found the greatest Marine ever, one Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller. The most decorated Marine in history, he had five Navy Crosses awarded as well as a Bronze Star, for distinguished service in Haiti, Nicaragua, China and World War II.
In November 1950 U.N. Forces had fought their way into North Korea and were about to capture the entire country. But just like Army Intelligence said they wouldn’t, the Chinese entered the war. They eventually forced U.N. forces out of North Korea and tried to annihilate the forces at the Chosin Reservoir in the process, before the troops could evacuate.
It was during this battle for the “Frozen Chosin” Puller cemented his legend in Marine Corps history when he uttered the words, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
Chesty led his men, with their dead and wounded and working equipment, out of the trap set by the Chinese, to the port of Hugnam where all the U.N. forces were evacuated. It was for his actions during the Battle of Chosin that Chesty was awarded his fifth Navy Cross.
Back in the day every recruit had to learn all this history and then some, before getting out of First Phase. Woe be to the private that didn’t know who Chesty Puller was.
The United States Marines have served with distinction since Korea; from Nicaragua to Vietnam; Panama and islands of the Caribbean, Lebanon, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Corps continues it’s long tradition of Honor, Courage and Commitment, the core values of the USMC.
Vietnam — Battle of Huế
After Korea there was the Vietnam War. Marines served all over that country, most notably in Khe Sanh, Huế and Da Nang. Marines were the first combat troops deployed to Vietnam in 1965, and the last Americans out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975 when the colors over the U.S. Embassy in Saigon were lowered for the last time.
The most significant battle for the Marine Corps occurred during the Tet Offensive, in January 1968: the Battle of Huế, which included the air base at Phú Bài, 16 miles south of Huế. It was the third largest city in Vietnam and the country’s cultural center. Vietnam was heavily Buddhist and Confucian, with a strong Roman Catholic community introduced by the French.
On the morning of January 30, 1968 — the Lunar New Year — North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong infiltrated the city and soon took it over, except for two points: The 1st ARVN Divisional Headquarters and the Marine Corps’ MACV headquarters south of the Perfume River.
The battle went on for 26 days as the Marines cleared the city, with the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam), one building at a time. It is considered a classic example of how to conduct urban warfare. The Marines developed tactics to flush out the enemy, which was using civilians as shields, and then eliminate them.
Despite winning the battle, it sent a dark message to the American public, which was watching it every day on the news. The battle completely destroyed the city and over 5,000 civilians had been killed, many of them executed by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
In 1982 President Reagan ordered the Marines to Beirut, Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping mission. On October 23, 1983 a suicide bomber with a truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 220 Marines, 18 Sailor and three Army Soldiers. A second truck bomb hit the French at the same time. A few months later all American forces were pulled from Lebanon. Ask any Marine today, of any age, active, retired or otherwise: we still wanna go get us some payback.
Then there was Panama and Grenada. Of the latter, Army General John W. Vessey, Jr. famously asked, “We have two companies of Marines running rampant all over the northern half of this island, and three Army regiments pinned down in the southwestern corner, doing nothing. What the hell is going on?”
First Gulf War
Then came the first Gulf War after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush assembled a multinational force to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. One group of Marines was used as a decoy landing force and another opened up the southern border allowing American forces to pour into Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
General “Stormin’ ” Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of all coalition forces said, “I can’t say enough about the two Marine divisions. If I use words like ‘brilliant,’ it would really be an under description of the absolutely superb job that they did in breaching the so-called ‘impenetrable barrier.’ It was a classic — absolutely classic — military breaching of a very, very tough minefield, barbed wire, fire trenches-type barrier.”
Iraq and Afghanistan
Now our Marines are in Afghanistan, having pulled out of Iraq for, let’s hope, the last time. The have served with distinction in places we didn’t even know existed, like Falujah. There is some controversy over the weapons used against the Iraqi insurgents, but I say, tough shit, it’s war and war is a dirty business.
One of the Marine Corps heroes to emerge from the Iraq War is General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Besides being a brilliant anti-insurgency tactician, Mad Dog, as part of his pacification of Fallujah, said this to Iraqi tribal leaders: “I come in peace, I didn’t bring artillery. But I am pleading with you with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
Marines have been fighting in our longest war, Afghanistan, from the beginning. Marines have sustained terrible casualties and due to the wonders of modern science many of these brave men and women survive to tell the story. And due to the wonders of modern communications technology, they can tell us moments after it happens. They too will all be coming home for good — and not soon enough.
Support Our Troops and Veterans
Like every other branch of the military, the Marines have served their country, whether the cause was supported by all Americans or only a few. Marines follow orders. Yeah, we grumble and tell each other this officer or that is a fuckin’ moron or ask, “Who the fuck is in charge of this clusterfuck?”
But then we go and get the job done. That’s what we do, without question or hesitation. He who hesitates dies. That’s just a fact and before a recruit can wear the title of “Marine” he or she not only learns that lesson, it’s drilled into our very cores to react correctly without taking that second to think.
So, to all Marines and their loved ones, Happy Birthday Marine Corps! It doesn’t matter how long ago we wore the uniform or if we still wear it, the policy is, “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.” The custom was set years ago and then set in stone by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, James F. Amos: “A Marine is a Marine. I set that policy two weeks ago — there’s no such thing as a former Marine. You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform and you’re in a different phase of your life. But you’ll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego or the hills of Quantico. There’s no such thing as a former Marine.”
Yeah, General Amos is a fighter pilot, but like every Marine, he’s a rifleman first. Our current Commandant of the Marine Corps is General Robert B. Neller and our Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps is Ronald L. Greene.
So here’s to all the Marines, past and present, living or not: Semper Fi. Ooo-Rah!
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, remember our vets.
Top photo: Marines on a dawn patrol in the Nawa District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative college newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment issues, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the business of government and business was so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that reality.