The Marines, 240 years young

Greg Nash

In all the history of the Marine Corps there is no such battle as that one in Belleau Wood [1918]. Fighting day and night without relief, without sleep, often without water, and for days without hot rations, the [Ma]rines met and defeated the best divisions that Germany could throw into the line. — U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, 1918

While Europeans romanticize the (predominantly German) French Foreign Legion as glamorous, the rest of the world knows that the most famous expeditionary military force is the United States Marine Corps.

The “Corps of Marines,” as it was known at its founding in 1775, has engaged in combat in West/Southwest Pacific islands, China, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, Panama, France, Southeast Asia (Vietnam), China, Korea, the Philippines, Kuwait, Iraq, Djibouti and the “shores of Tripoli.” In short, the Marines have fought in North and Central America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The 240th birthday of the United States Marine Corps is Tuesday, Nov. 10. On this anniversary of the birth of the U.S. Marines in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern, one can still enjoy a cold beer there today.

{mosads}The Marine Corps has always been small, except in World War II. For example, in 1805, Lt. Presley O’Bannon and eight enlisted Marines hired Arab and Greek mercenaries then marched hundreds of miles across North Africa from Cairo to those Tripoli shores, where they devastated the Barbary pirates who had kidnapped Americans. Hundreds of Marines fought at the “Halls of Montezuma” in Mexico in 1846. They landed in Iceland in 1941 to protect it from Nazi Germany; that Marine Corps numbered 14,000 men. The Marines grew to 600,000 by the time Japan surrendered in 1945 (after being pummeled by Marines on Pacific islands including Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tarawa, Okinawa and Iwo Jima).

The Chinese were severely punished by Marines in 1900 (during the Boxer Rebellion) and 50 years later in Korea, at the “Frozen” Chosin Reservoir. Marine bayonets slew Germans at Belleau Wood. In 1919, Bolsheviks were confronted by U.S. Marines in Arctic Russia. 1920s Nicaraguan rebel bandits were strafed by pioneering Marine pilots. “Special forces” Marines infiltrated Haitian rebel groups on the Haitian half of Hispaniola and Spanish-speaking Marine horse soldiers terrorized Dominican rebels in the other half. During the 1930s, half of the 4th Marine Regiment encamped in San Diego and the other half was stationed in Shanghai, China. Then came Pearl Harbor, Korea and Vietnam.

It was the new, modern 1991 Marine Corps that raced across the Kuwaiti and Iraq desert, capturing thousands of Iraqi prisoners and defeating 400 Russian-made Iraqi tanks at the battle of the Kuwait International Airport.

The Marine Corps returned to Iraq in 2003 and fought farther away from the sea than ever in history. Light armored reconnaissance Marine Corps Reserve units entered the 5 million person Iraqi capital Baghdad from the east; the U.S. Army entered from the west. Battle ribbons for Fallujah and Ramadi joined epic battles like Iwo Jima.

Simultaneously, the Marines added Afghanistan to its faraway fighting places. For much of the Afghanistan war, U.S. Marines were the largest U.S. troop contingent on the ground and air. Considering that the Marines are “seagoing infantry,” fighting in landlocked Afghanistan was a new one for the Marines.

After every recent war, the Marines have had to fight critics for survival. Now, in 2015, the Corps is also fighting President Obama and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Shall the United States Marine Corps allow women into the fighting infantry? Yes, suggest Obama and Mabus. No, say the Marines after a yearlong multimillion dollar study. Marine units with women don’t measure up, concluded the study. Shall the most successful military of the 20th century lower standards and expectations for political correctness? The answer was written almost 97 years ago by then-Navy Secretary Daniels:

The [M]arines fought … according to American methods — a rush, a halt, a rush again, in four-wave formation, the rear waves taking over the work of those who had fallen before them, passing over the bodies of their dead comrades and plunging ahead, until they, too, should be torn to bits. But behind those waves were more waves, and the attack went on. … The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled … officers seeing their lines cut to pieces, seeing their men so dog tired that they even fell asleep under shellfire, hearing their wounded calling for the water they were unable to supply, seeing men fight on after they had been wounded and until they dropped unconscious. … Without water, without food, without rest, they went forward — and forward every time to victory.

How many American women could do what those 1918 Marines did, or the 1942 Guadalcanal jungle Marines did, or the totally surrounded-and-outnumbered-by-five-to-one Marines who magnificently fought their way out of Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in the subzero December of 1950 did, or those who fought door to door in bloody Fallujah in 2004?

Happy birthday, Marines, feliz cumpleaños. Semper Fi.

Contreras served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1959 to 1967. He formerly wrote for Creators Syndicate and the New American News Service of The New York Times Syndicate.

Tags Marines U.S. Marine Corps

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