Brief History of the United States Marine Corps


Since its creation in 1775, the Corps' role has expanded significantly. The Marines have a unique mission statement, and, alone among the branches of the U.S. armed forces, "shall, at any time, be liable to do duty in the forts and garrisons of the United States, on the seacoast, or any other duty on shore, as the President, at his discretion, shall direct." In this special capacity, charged with carrying out duties given to them directly by the President of the United States, the Marine Corps serves as an all-purpose, fast-response task force, capable of quick action in areas requiring emergency intervention.

The Marine Corps possesses organic ground and air combat elements, and relies upon the US Navy to provide sea combat elements to fulfill its mission as "America's 9-1-1 Force". Ground combat elements are largely contained in three Marine divisions, or "MARDIVs". The 1st Marine Division is based out of Camp Pendleton, California, the 2nd out of Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, while the third is based on Okinawa, Japan. Force Reconnaissance companies are composed of Marines specially trained in covert insertion, reconnaissance, and surveillance tactics, and some have even received special operations training. The "Recon Marine's" basic mission is to scout out the enemy and report what they find.

Air combat elements are similarly grouped in the first, second and third Marine wings.

Marine tactics and doctrine tends to emphasize aggressiveness and the offensive, compared to Army tactics for similar units. The Marines have been central in developing groundbreaking tactics for maneuver warfare; they can be credited with the development of helicopter insertion doctrine and modern amphibious assault.

The Marines also maintain an operational and training culture dedicated to emphasizing the infantry combat abilities of every Marine. All Marines receive training first and foremost as basic riflemen, and thus the Marine Corps at heart functions as an infantry corps. The Marine Corps is famous for the saying "Every Marine a rifleman."

While the Marine Corps does not necessarily fill unique combat roles, only when combined do the US Army, Navy, and US Air Force overlap every area that the Marine Corps covers. As a force, the Marines consistently use all essential elements of combat (air, ground, sea) together. While the creation of joint commands under the Goldwater-Nichols Act has improved interservice coordination between the larger services, the Marine Corps' ability to permanently maintain integrated multi-element task forces under a single command provides a special ability to respond to flexibility and urgency requirements.

The Marines argue that they do not and should not take the place of the other services, any more than an ambulance takes the place of a hospital. Nonetheless, when a pressing emergency develops, the Marines essentially act as a stopgap, to get into and hold an area until the larger machinery can be mobilized. The opinions of other military men and politicians have, at times, differed, and President Harry S. Truman considered abolishing the Corps as part of the 1948 reorganization of the military. As Truman said, "The only propaganda machine that rivals that of Stalin is that of the United States Marine Corps." Truman, a former U.S. Army artillery captain, felt that the Marines were useless, despite their many successes in World War Two and Korea.

An example of this coordinated, time-sensitive capability could be seen in 1990, when the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (22nd MEU) conducted Operation Sharp Edge, a noncombatant evacuation operation, or NEO, in the west African city of Monrovia, Liberia. Liberia suffered from civil war at the time, and civilian citizens of the United States and other countries could not leave via conventional means. Sharp Edge ended in success. Only one reconnaissance team came under fire, with no casualties incurred on either side, and the Marines evacuated several hundred civilians within hours to U.S. Navy vessels waiting offshore.

Creation and history

The Marine Corps was originally created as the "Continental Marines" during the American Revolutionary War, were formed by a resolution of the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, and first recruited at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They served as landing troops for the recently created Continental Navy. The Continental Marines were disbanded at the end of the war in April 1783 but re-formed on July 11, 1798. Despite the gap, Marines worldwide celebrate November 10 as the Marine Corps Birthday.

After these early 19th-century engagements, the Marine Corps occupied a small role in American military history. They saw little significant action in the American Civil War, but later become prominent due to their deployment in small wars around the world. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Marines saw action in Korea, Cuba, the Philippines, and China. During the years before and after World War I, the Marines saw action throughout the Caribbean in places such as Haiti and Nicaragua. These actions became known as "The Banana Wars", and the experiences gained in counter-insurgency and guerrilla operations during this period was consolidated into the Small Wars Manual.

In World War II, the Marines played a central role in the Pacific War, and the war saw the expansion of the Corps from two brigades to two corps with six divisions and five air wings with 132 squadrons. The battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa saw fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Imperial Japanese Army. The secrecy afforded their communications by the now-famous Navajo code talkers program, is widely seen as having contributed significantly to their success.

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, a famous photograph of five Marines and one Navy hospital corpsman raising the U.S. flag on Mt. Suribachi, was taken. The acts of the Marines during the war added to their already significant popular reputation, and the USMC War Memorial in Arlington, VA was dedicated in 1954.

The Korean War saw the Marines land at Inchon and assault north into North Korea along with the Army. As U.S. forces approached the Yalu River, the People's Republic of China, fearing an incursion by American forces, sent armies over the river to engage American forces within Korea.

At the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the First Marine Division, vastly outnumbered but vastly better equipped and trained, fought Chinese forces. Recovering equipment left by Army forces who had scattered in disordered retreat, the Marines regrouped, assaulted the Chinese, and inflicted heavy casualties during their fighting withdrawal to the coast.

The Marines also played an important role in the Vietnam War at battles such as Da Nang, Hué City, and Khe Sanh. Marines were among the first troops deployed to Vietnam, as well as the last to leave during the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon.

After Vietnam, Marines served in a number of important events and places. In 1983, a Marine barracks in Lebanon was bombed, causing the highest peacetime losses to the Corps and leading to the American withdrawal from Lebanon. Marines were also responsible for liberating Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, as the Army made an attack to the west directly into Iraq. In 1995, Marines performed a successful mission in Bosnia, rescuing Captain Scott O'Grady, a downed Air Force fighter pilot, in what is called a TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel).

Most recently, the Marines served prominently in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation, where a light, mobile force was and is especially needed. Perhaps most notably, the Marines spearheaded both assaults on the city of Fallujah in April and November 2004.

Reputation of the Marine Corps

The Marine Corps has a widely-held reputation as a fierce and effective fighting force and the Marines take pride in their gung-ho attitude, are indoctrinated with a strong belief in their chain of command and the importance of esprit de corps, a spirit of enthusiasm and pride in themselves and the Corps. The Marine Corps is popularly seen as possessing a degree of fame and infamy among the enemies they fight, and examples of this effect are readily seized upon and publicized by the Corps and its supporters. During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf used a public demonstration of a Marine landing on Kuwait and the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr to pin down Iraqi units, while the Army then executed a sweep from the West.

Most recently, Iraqis in the Persian Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq were said to have taken special note of Marine Cobra helicopters and the distinctive look of the Marine combat uniform. The Marines have taken steps to build on this psychological advantage by, for instance, developing a new utility uniform that makes Marines easier to distinguish from other US servicemen. See the Web site of the Permanent Marine Corps Uniform Board (PMCUB) for illustrations of the various Marine uniforms.

The Marine Corps has also recently initiated a martial arts program, an idea borrowed from the South Korean Marines, who train in martial arts and who, during the Vietnam War, were widely rumored to all be black belts. This program marks another step in a series of calculated efforts to bolster the perception of the Marine Corps as a fierce and effective "warrior culture" both with outside observers, and with its own servicemembers.

While the reputation of the Marine Corps has remained largely positive in recent years, at least within the United States, the Corps has still struggled with occasional negative press and perceptions. In many conflicts, members of the other armed forces of the United States have complained that the Marine Corps often emphasizes its prowess at the expense of the reputation of Army or Navy units which are nearby. An example occurred at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War, when a Marine officer (probably Lt. General Lewis "Chesty" Puller) disparaged the undermanned Army infantry regiment which took the initial Chinese attack. Additionally, the aggressive tradition of the Marine Corps, and the Corps' widespread efforts to inculcate its Marines and the American public with this image have also sometimes backfired, leading to numerous accusations of sexism, racism and bullying over the years. In its post-World War II history, the Marine Corps reputation was damaged severly three times. The first major event was the Ribbon Creek Incident on April 8, 1956, when the junior DI, Staff Sergeant Mathew Mckeon, led his assigned platoon into a tidal stream on Parris Island in the purpose of disciplining his platoon, while violating several basic Marine and training regulations. In the end, 6 recruits died, McKeon was court-martialed, and under a big press coverage, an extensive Congress investigation took place.

The last "incident" was the release of the movie Full Metal Jacket, which, although it meant to associate loosely to the incident in 1956, was completely located in the Vietnam era. Still, it projected quite some attention on the then-current basic training of the USMC.


The Marine motto "Semper Fidelis" means "Always faithful" in Latin. This motto often appears in the shortened form "Semper Fi!" It is also the name of the official march of the Corps, composed by John Phillip Sousa.

The colors of the Marine Corps are scarlet and gold. They appear on the flag of the United States Marine Corps, along with the Marine Corps emblem: the eagle, globe, and anchor, with the eagle representing service to the country, the globe representing worldwide service, and the anchor representing naval traditions. The emblem, adopted in its present form in 1868, derives partially from ornaments worn by the Continental Marines and the British Royal Marines, and is usually topped with a ribbon reading "Semper Fidelis".

Two styles of swords are worn by Marines. The Marine Corps officer sword is a Mameluke sword, similar to the sword presented to Lt. Presley O'Bannon after the capture of Derne during the First Barbary War. Noncommissioned officers carry a different style of sword, similar in style to a Civil War cavalry sabre, making them the only enlisted personnel in the U.S. military authorized to carry a sword.

Marines have several generic nicknames, mildly derogatory when used by outsiders but complimentary when used by Marines themselves. They include "jarhead" (it was said their hats on their unifom made them look like mason jars), "gyrene" (perhaps a combination of "G.I." and "Marine"), "leatherneck", referring to the leather collar that was a part of the Marine uniform during the Revolutionary War period, and "Devil Dog" (German: Teufelshund) after the Battle of Belleau Wood.

This nicknaming extends to the Corps itself. The acronym 'USMC' is regularly reworked into "Uncle Sam's Misguided Children" or, even, "Upper Sandusky Motorcycle Club". The word 'marine' is said to stand for 'My Ass Rides In Navy Equipment' or 'My Ass Really Is Navy Equipment'.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers nicknamed the Marines "Angels of Death". Another so-called term of endearment for Marines was "blackboots". This was due to supply shortages, leaving tan, desert boots unavailable to most Marine units. Somalians and Haitians called Marines participating in relief operations "whitesleeves" because of the way they roll up the sleeves of their utility uniform, called "cammies" colloquially. In Bosnia, they were referred to as "The Devils in black boots", due to their rapid deployment preventing them from acquiring desert boots.

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