- Oct 28, 2010
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HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS!
Today is the date upon which we celebrate the anniversary-- or birthday, really-- of the existence of the United States Marine Corps. The unit is now 246 years old, and still going strong!
Interestingly, the Marines trace their origins to November 10, 1775-- just a few days short of eight months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This makes them the third branch of the five military services to come into existence, with the first, the US Army, having been constituted on June 14, 1775. This was followed shortly thereafter by the commissioning of the US Navy on October 13th of that same year.
And so it was that the Second Continental Congress-- that is, the "underground revolutionary" government of the United States-- was already assembling its fighting forces prior to officially notifying the UK that we'd resigned as a colony of theirs, and more, that we refused to even be considered as a client state of the United Kingdom, in the manner of Canada or Australia.
But by the time the Dear John letter-- or Dear George in this case-- was sent, the USMC was already prepared. And it seems to me that they've remained prepared ever since.
The document that created the Corps was rather brief, as the Continental Congress decreed:
"That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates as with other battalions, that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies; unless dismissed by Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalions of Marines."
It's interesting to note here that one of the original qualifications was that a volunteer for the Corps should already be a "capable seaman", or at least be "acquainted with maritime affairs" enough to serve as a Marine.
Meaning: no landlubbers wanted-- you guys can go join the Army!
Interestingly, one of the first sets of colors that the United States Marine Corps ever used as an official standard was the famous Gadsden Flag:
As seaborne and amphibious infantrymen from the get-go, the Marines quickly established their corps as being a remarkably capable outfit. Even during pitched battles that took place at sea, the Marines proved their worth many times over and became famous for their nasty habit of climbing into the riggings of the vessel they were aboard, and engaging the enemy vessel by means of rather precise musket fire. There are several accounts of US Marine sharpshooters literally sweeping the decks of enemy vessels during various occasions, and they made the boarding of their own vessels extremely problematic by shooting, bashing, and chopping those who boarded their vessel uninvited.
In fact, this is why (unto this day) one will find that a USMC officer's cap will feature gold-colored embroidery resembling rope atop it. The Marines started doing that in the very beginning, just to make sure they didn't accidentally pop their own officers in the smoke-befogged, swirling melees taking place below their perches in the riggings. Meanwhile, yet other Marines would be firing over the gunwales and going sword-to-sword and hand-to-hand on the deck as well.
And of course, when it was time for fighters from US vessels to swarm the enemy's boat it was the Marines who took care of business, with the Navy helping out by raking the riggings of the enemy vessel with grapeshot to get rid of their Marines.
It was during this very early period in the history of the USMC that they became famous for two things: for seeming to consist mainly of uncannily good sharpshooters, and for being uncommonly proficient in close quarters and melee combat.
They have preserved that reputation-- deservedly-- since their very first incarnation as a fighting force.
Practice makes perfect.
***************I would love to carry on at length-- to describe some of the many incredible battles waged by the Marines over the years... but damn: the last book I saw that dealt with that subject comprehensively was over 1,100 pages long, and I have NO desire to compete with that!
I will also admit that it seems nearly criminal to admit that I'm not really going to talk much about the exploits of the Corps through any of the 19th Century, even though they had garnered a reputation for excellence in combat that far back. It's just that they fought so well and brilliantly in so many times, places, and cases that it really does take a tome just to touch on it all.
So instead, I'll just mention a couple of battles in which the Marines really caught my attention and personal admiration, along with a couple of comments regarding my family... which was absolutely loaded with Marines.
After all: this post isn't supposed to be a history of the USMC. Instead, I just want to say Happy Birthday to the Corps itself-- and to thank all those who served with the Marines for their duty and service.
Semper Fi, Mac.
So here's what I'll say, and I'll try to make it kinda short:
Though the Corps distinguished itself pretty much every time they went anywhere at all and did anything at all, one of their most brilliant moments had to have taken place during the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood. Though there were other troops besides the Marines at that particular battle-- which would have laid Paris wide open to the Axis, had the Allies not prevailed-- in reality the offensive mounted by the Central Powers at Belleau Wood was considered to be insurmountable and unstoppable, and Paris looked like a goner...
...right up until the Marines showed up, and turned it all around anyway.
One of the first things the enemy learned about USMC at Belleau Wood was this: that the Marines never did forget just how effective a single rifleman can be, so long as he's capable of shooting worth a shit. And with the development of rifling in firearms bores, followed by the advent of smokeless powders and jacketed bullets that were more aerodynamic than ever, by the time the Marines showed up in France they'd brought the art of marksmanship to such a high level that it more or less startled the entire world.
That is, the German troops-- who had become accustomed to engaging enemy troops at ranges of only a couple of hundred yards, max, while wandering around carefree in the wide open of broad daylight at ranges beyond three hundred years-- suddenly began to take causalities let and right as those fuckin' Marine sharpshooters began picking them off from 500+ yards away!
***************Now, don't get me wrong: it's not as if nobody else ever fired and successfully scored from such great distances until the Marines showed up in Belleau Wood. And it's not as if accurate shots at such distances couldn't be made until the advent of smokeless powder and various improvements in bullet design had taken place, either. There's dead men who'd tell you about getting it from 800 yards with a mini-ball in the US Civil War-- if they could still talk, anyway. There have been sharpshooters out there all along...
So instead, what I am saying is that while sharpshooters who were capable of that kind of performance were a rare breed in the past, it was the United States Marine Corps that insisted on training its troops until every pretty much any of 'em could pop a guy at 500 yards much of the time.
That made enough of an impression on the Central Powers for them to rapidly revise their battlefield tactics. It was no longer safe to do quite a few of the things that were once common-- if you could be seen, you could be shot-- and it was at this point in time that the Germans began to refer to the Marines as "Teufelhunden", which translates to "Devil Dogs"...
The Germans didn't nick them that so as to praise them. Instead, this was a way for them to express their utter contempt for these deadly bastards who suddenly showed up, halted their previously effortless roll into Paris, and then began to shoot them at ungodly, indecent, scarcely-heard-of distances...
Why, those damned Marines took all the fun out of war!
USMC SHARPSHOOTER GETTIN' SOME AT BELLEAU WOOD
But, the Marines-- being Marines-- were more than merely amused to hear that they were being cussed out and referred to as "Devil Dogs". Instead, they took pride in the fact that the enemy feared and loathed them to such an extent... and thus, the Marines began to refer to themselves as Devil Dogs, and still do so today.
Also to this day, the Marines still continue to place great emphasis in the worth of a single rifleman... that whole "one shot, one kill" thing is USMC for sure... and the Marines are the only riflemen who are trained to engage targets out to 500 yards in basic training. In the other branches, the max range is usually 300 yards or less, except for various US Army airborne infantry soldiers and SOCOM troops from every branch, who engage targets at 500 yards as a routine part of their training.
***************But this ain't about the Airborne. This is about the Marines...
My God, they fought so well... and in so many places... and under such impossible conditions... that I almost feel remiss for cutting short the whole Pacific Theater effort of World War 2 and the crucial role they played in that arena. Though the Army was forced to fight as amphibious troops in Europe on D-Day, and while they did the same thing in Okinawa-- and while the Army has landed more troops via a seaborne attack than the Marines in terms of sheer numbers-- let's not forget that the Army troops who fought as amphibious troops were trained to do that by the Marines.
And here's another fact: though the Army did land a greater number of troops via seaborne landings, they didn't perform so many seaborne landings as they Marines did. If you look at how the Corps fought in the Pacific Theater in WW2, one will quickly note that almost *every* fight they got into started out as an amphibious operation.
If the Marines weren't noted as the experts in this sort of warfare, the Army never would have used them as trainers. Period.
So it seems a shame that I can't write for about the next ten or twelve hours about so any of these incredible landings the Marines made while fighting from one island to the next, in places that didn't even have a fucking name sometimes...
It also feels bad not to talk about some of the really big, famous islands where really big, famous battles were fought... but at least here I get to mention that in all but a couple of those battles, which were almost always fought against superior numbers and a dug-in enemy... the Marines generally prevailed anyway.
It sucks ass to cut it so short that all I can really say here is that they fought like a bunch of fuckin' Rambos no matter where they fought or who they fought... and while they took heavy casualties quite often, they also inflicted even heavier casualties on the enemy... Every. Single. Time. That's even true of Wake Island, where they died to the last man, but took about ten-to-one when it came to how many enemy soldiers it took to overcome them.
Glad they're on our side, man!
***************I'd like to mention that out of my six uncles, four were USMC-- and all of those guys fought in some of the toughest battles of the Pacific Theater.
Every last one of 'em had a purple heart. Most of them had decorations for uncommon valor. And they were all the kind of guys that even a total stranger seemed to realize you just don't mess with. None of them were bullies-- but every last one of 'em looked hard as a rock and in fact, was hard as a rock.
And then there was my late father-in-law, Henry Charles Armstrong of Philadelphia, PA, who served with the famous Marine Raiders during the Second World War. The old man was one hell of a fine fellow, and you'd never guess that during the war he was a member of one of the toughest of all US combat formations... but for sure, he was indeed a USMC Raider.
And I even have a photo of him from back in the day:
Henry's the short guy, standing more or less directly above the "meatball" of the bullet-riddled Japanese flag. He's the shortest guy wearing no helmet.
This battle was fought at some dinky atoll that was part of the Marshall Island chain; though it looks barren, when the battle began it was a triple-canopy jungle forest with all the trimmings. But after the naval gunfire, flamethrowers, and grenades galore, the place ended up looking more or less like a parking lot prior to being paved.
The Roman historian, Tacitus, once moaned, "They create desolation and call it peace"...
Just to bust the old man's balls, one day while we were looking at this photo together, I quoted Tacitus and pretended to be angry with Henry for denuding the island of what was probably once a lush and gorgeous tableau.
He shrugged and said, "You never fought the Japanese, apparently. There was no beating them without creating desolation, son. Most of the time, they fought to the last man. In the battle that took place before that photo was taken, we took about four guys prisoner-- and one committed suicide anyway, out of shame. The other three couldn't look you in the eye. And later, we realized that a lot more of them committed suicide when they realized that they were gonna lose this battle than we figured. But some of them always killed themselves, rather than to be captured-- and they usually fought to the death. A bunch of pussies, they were NOT."
Then he asked me who said something so stupid as the quote I had furnished him with. I told him it was Tacitus who said that, and the old man laughed. He said, "Well, I guess HE never had to fight the Japanese, either!"
So much more to say... SO much more!
The incredible endurance and resistance USMC showed at Khe Sanh-- pounded by NVA artillery for almost three months, they made a series of devastating attacks, inflicted casualties that were about ten times greater than those they suffered... and ran off two NVA divisions, all beat to shit, before the battle was over...
And then there was that magnificent battle at Huế City during the Vietnam War... I had a buddy who was in that one, and it was one hellacious kind of battle, to say the least. Urban combat-- the first the Marines had engaged in since the Korean conflict...
...and they pulverized the enemy before it was over. It took a month of really hard fighting, but before it was over USMC had pretty much crippled the NVA's ability to wage a large scale battle for the foreseeable future.
I asked my buddy if he'd any regrets going back to Huế. His response surprised me. All felt bad about, he said, was that they didn't take the NVA advance seriously enough to react before the communist soldiers had murdered about 1,100 civilians or so.
His other regret was that we didn't go in and burn Hanoi to the ground about a month later, as we easily could have at that point in time.
What made Huế an especially difficult battle for us to wage was this: because the battle was conducted in a major city, the US decided that they would not use artillery, naval, or aerial bombardment because of the chance of killing citizens.
Meanwhile, the NVA was deliberately rounding up citizens and executing them wholesale... as I said, to the tune of thousands of innocent lives lost before it was over. Oh, and they had no qualms whatsoever about using artillery and aerial bombardment as part of their battle plan.
So, the Marines were stuck fighting old-style: no real air cover, no artillery, and for sure no big navy guns really blowing shit up. Instead it was all rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, grenades, knives, fists, and boots. Jeff said that he lost count of how many enemy he shot, but he'll never forget that one guy whose face he beat in with a great big rock after the guy jumped over a pile of rubble, stuck him with a bayonet, and then tried to shoot him.
Oh, but now I really am starting to get carried away, here... I really do not mean to tell a bunch of war stories or anything, but then: sometimes you have to at least touch on these things a little just to give another person the idea that some of the shit that the Marines have had to deal with over the years is the stuff of nightmares... they've fought in pretty much every part of the world, against enemies so diverse that just naming them would represent a very, very long list of assholes.
I mostly just wish to convey my appreciation for the Marine Corps... for their existence, for their traditions, for their record as defenders of the United States and the US Constitution... and basically for just being themselves.
So, Happy Birthday to the United States Marine Corps... and many more!