Today is the 239th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. Two hundred thirty-nine years of being the tip of the spear of American military power. The USMC has changed quite a bit since 1775, as President Obama pointed out (we have fewer horses, bayonets and Naval ships than during World War I), but the mission of the Marine Corps has stayed relatively the same. We are America’s rapid reaction force — first in, last out.
Years ago we had the Fleet Marine Force; units poised to leave their home bases within 24 hours notice and be in the field within 96 hours. And we most often did it with the Navy serving as our taxi service. Ships and aircraft.
Back in the day, and I would suspect it’s still true today, the Navy (and the Air Force) had military versions of civilian airliners used specifically to move large numbers of troops from Point A to War Zone B. A Boeing 727 fitted for military use (i.e. cramped seating and no comfort or amenities like drink service) can move an entire company of Marines across the globe in a matter of hours, as opposed to ships that can take a few days.
We still use the ships of course and for the past 40 years the Navy has outfitted special aircraft carriers for the purpose of getting large numbers of Marines, with all their equipment and aircraft, to anywhere on the globe the Corps is needed.
Just had this short conversation with my friend and roommate John:
Me: “Good Morning!”
John: “Good Morning! How are you today?”
Me: “It’s the 238th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.”
There was a pause as he was apparently doing the math.
John: “That’s before we became a nation.”
Me: “We ratified the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Remember: the first shots of the American Revolution took place in April 1775.”
Another pause as he thought about the ramifications of that timeline.
John: “So we started fighting before we knew what we wanted.”
Me: “Pretty much.”
And so the United States of America was born, April 19, 1775.
Back to the Corps. Nowadays we no longer have the Fleet Marine Force as we old veterans knew it. In use now are the Marine Expeditionary Units that are small and far more mobile. M.E.U.’s are patrolling somewhere in the world on six-month deployments at all times so if the president says jump, a bunch of Marines can bounce as far and high as needed within that 96-hour window.
The Marine Corps got its start November 10, 1775 in a tavern, which might explain a lot. It was formed by Captain Samuel Nicholas as a Naval Infantry and the first recruiting drive took place in Tun Tavern, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to the official history of the Marine Corps, its first mission was to harass British Naval forces and steal their munitions.
But the rum was in the Bahamas so the force, led by Commodore Esek Hopkins, headed in that direction, instead of the coastline of the 13 colonies. The historical record claims Hopkins’ reasons for going to the Bahamas are unknown, but if you’re a Marine you know why the old commodore went to the Bahamas: better weather and more rum. The British had garrisons around the islands and the new Continental Marine Corps was able to relieve them of their munitions along with the rum.
The Corps has a long and honored tradition and history. The “Marine Corps Hymn” commemorates some of the Corps’ earliest battles, like against the Barbary Pirates of the Barbary Coast (where Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon earned the Sword of Mameluke, now an official piece of the Marine Corps Officers Dress Blues uniform) to the battle of Chapultepec Castle (The Halls of Montezuma). The mortality rate of the officers and non-commissioned officers was so high during that battle it was commemorated with the “Blood Stripe” of the Dress Blues uniform, for NCO’s and officers.
It’s a proud moment when a lance corporal gets promoted to corporal and earns his blood stripe — and it’s often painful. It’s a Marine Corps unofficial tradition.
In the first World War, during the Battle of Belleau Wood, France, Marines earned the nickname of “Devil Dogs” from their German adversaries, due to the Marines’ tenacious resolve to win the battle. It’s a moniker that is still used today and when you see a Marine with a bulldog tattooed on his arm, chest or … err … elsewhere, it symbolizes that name. Bulldogs are now the official mascot of the Marine Corps.
During World War II the Corps continued to distinguish itself in the Pacific Theater, from the opening shots of Pearl Harbor, to Guadalcanal, through Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. If you travel on the I-5 in Southern California, through Camp Pendleton, just south of San Clemente you’ll see a n exit for Basilone Rd. It’s named for Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, a Marine Corps hero who earned the Medal of Honor for valor at Guadalcanal after he held off hundreds, maybe thousands, of Japanese soldiers after his company had been reduced to himself and two others.
He was severely wounded and was sent back to the States to recover and sell war bonds. After a while he became disenchanted with that and asked to return to the war. He was granted his wish and in the first day of battle at Iwo Jima the salty gunny was killed. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Basilone had been in the Army before the Marines, but said he switched services because the Army wasn’t “tough enough.” My Army veteran friends, I’m just reporting …
In the Korean War Colonel Chesty Puller became famous for leading Marines and soldier out of the Chosin Reservoir. His actual name is Lewis Burwell Puller. He is the most decorated Marine in history, having fought in more wars and battles than any other Marine in history. From Central America to China, the Pacific and Korea, Chesty served with bravery bordering on insanity. At the Chosin Reservoir, he said, “We’re surrounded. That simplifies the problem.”
And then he marched the First Marine Division out of that position, along with other United Nations troops, going more than 30 miles to Hungjam Harbor, completely surrounded by the enemy, out numbered 22 to 1, and inflicting the highest enemy casualty ratio during the war. It’s one of the greatest moment in Marine Corps history. Marines will sometimes say, at the end of the day, “Good Night Chesty, wherever you are.” If you believe in Heaven and Hell, any good Marine knows there’s as good a chance Chesty is in Hell as in Heaven. But then, people who served with him will tell you they’ve already been to Hell with Chesty Puller and it sent him back, so who knows?
He had retired from the Marine Corps before Vietnam, after having a stroke (probably a reaction to new uniform regulations), but his son Lewis, Jr. and his son-in-law Colornel William Dabney both served in Vietnam with distinction. Colonel Dabney was the commanding officer of two companies during the Tet Offensive, right outside of Khe Sanh, holding Hill 881s during a 77-day siege. He was recommended for the Navy Cross, which he didn’t receive until 2005. The helicopter carrying his C.O. and the paper work was shot down and the citation lost.
Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr. was severely wounded by a landmine, losing both legs and parts of his hands. His father was so distraught seeing his wounded son for the first time he wept.
Marines were there on April 30, 1975 when the Colors were lowered at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon for the last time. It remains one of the saddest days of my life.
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Since Vietnam the Marines served in Cambodia, rescuing the Mayaguez and all its crew (may 1975) and then in 1983 the Corps has men and women in Lebanon. It was on October 23 of that year two truck bombs were exploded outside the barracks where most of the Marines were sleeping. The bombs killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. Rather than retaliate President Regan pulled our troops from Lebanon. It was then, Osama bin Laden said, he decided that we Americans were weak.
Marines served with valor in the first Gulf War and then in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have had many units return to Camp Pendleton during these last two wars, multiple times, holding memorials for the Marines who didn’t make it back. Regardless of our opinions on the war, these young men and women served with distinction and many gave their lives doing it. Many more have been permanently scarred, both physically and emotionally, so they all deserve our respect.
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As do all other veterans.
Tuesday, November 11, is Veterans Day. You know, we vets appreciate the free meals, free drinks, the pats on the backs and even the parades and concert on the Mall in Washington. But if you really want to thank a vet — thank a Marine — write your representatives in Washington and demand they increase the funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs so it can properly care for our nation’s vets. Quit screwing around, playing politics, just get it done.
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If you have to ask what I or any other Marine means when we say, “Semper Fi, Motherfucker,” then you weren’t a Marine. “Semper Fi” is shorthand for “Semper Fidelis” — “Always Faithful.” It’s just a reminder we’ve all worn the uniform so don’t forget it. Respect the emblem, the Birdy, Ball and Hook, we all earned it.
Apparently some video game maker made the saying famous and I found a YouTube clip of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, saying it in a movie. Don’t know how I feel about that, but what the Hell, this is America and game designers and filmmakers can pretty much do whatever they damn well please. That’s part of the freedom we all claim to love and I’m fairly certain Dwayne Johnson has a lot of respect for the military and the Marine Corps in particular.
To all my fellow vets I say happy Veterans Day. You can eat free at Applebee’s and Hooters and a few other places. You can eat free all fucking day!
To all the Marines out there: Semper Fi and: have a good Marine Corps Birthday, Chesty — wherever you are.
And finally, to my niece Nancy, the Navy Corpsman in the family: Semper Fi, you’re my hero.
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.