Forget the Laurels and the Lore...
It's Time to Tell... The 'Real' Marine Corps Story
Story by Gary D. Null
Nov. 10, 1998 marked the 223rd birthday of the Marine Corps. To commemorate this, many newspapers and the like will carry several congratulatory messages from governmental leaders and civilian organizations. In the midst of all this goodwill and before we get too carried away, I think it's about time for the truth to come out. The Marines have a lot to bide in their history. It's true, and as a former Marine, I say let's just take a closer look at those last 223 years.
Right from the beginning there was trouble. The very first Marine recruiting station was a BAR in Philadelphia. What other service started in a bar? And Marines are not even ashamed of it. Look at that Marine Corps ring some of them wear! Right on it is a picture of Tun Tavern, the very bar. Then there is the somewhat suspicious fact that the first Commandant, Samuel Nicholas, just happened to be the owner of that same bar. Not too surprisingly, the first assignment of the new Marine Corps was to guard the ships and stores of the Continental Navy on the Philadelphia waterfront. We all know what sort of establishments are located on the water- fronts of any port in the world.
The Marines were formed in November with winter coming on. Think how cold it gets in the Northeast in the winter. Remember the Continental Army freezing at Valley Forge? What did the Marines do? They quickly ran off to frolic in the Bahamas, visiting beautiful New Providence. Even there they must have caused trouble. They arrived on March 3, 1776, and had to leave by the 17th. We don't know everything they did that made them leave so quickly, but it is known that they stole all the British cannons. They went back again in 1778, and, planning for the expedition, John Trent, Captain of Marines, wrote that they were determined to capture Fort Nassau "and then we could ... take what we pleased." What sort of example is this for our young people?
Still on the problem of taking things, Marines under John Paul Jones (who later became a Russian admiral-just whom was this guy loyal to?) raided the manor at Whitehaven, England. During the raid the owner's silverware was taken. Jones was so embarrassed with that impolite behavior that he later sent the silverware back with a letter of apology to the lady of the house. But first he had to pay the Marines for the silverware before they would return it to him. Talk about unrepentant!
Some of this behavior has come to be exemplified by their choice of mascots. For example, the mascot at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego several years ago was a bulldog named "Chesty." What a choice for a mascot. Chesty was ugly, uncouth, stubborn and couldn't hang on to his stripes. He was busted frequently for being AWOL, and, to add insult to injury, there was quite a bit of talk amongst dog owners in the area linking Chesty to several unwed mothers of the canine persuasion.
During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, a primary duty of Marines aboard those old sailing ships was to get up high on the masts and then shoot important people on the opposing ship. These included the helmsman, gun crews and, most importantly, officers. They were easily identified, because the officers had the nice uniforms while the crew wore ragged canvas trousers, ran around barefoot and in general looked bad. A problem soon surfaced. It was discovered that during boarding operations, when Americans went onto the enemy vessel, the American officers looked like British officers to the Marines high above the decks. Marines have always been good shots, and so this was often hard on the American officers. Their remedy was to take some rope, twist it into a pretty design, and pin it to the top of their hats. The Marines were told not to shoot officers with the rope on top of their hats. Marine officers must still worry about that particular problem because even today they wear that design on top of their hats.
In the First World War one Marine sergeant, exhorting his Marines to attack the Germans, shouted, "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?" Now think about that. Of course they did; everybody does. What kind of argument was he presenting? What's worse, it worked! Now what does that tell you about the thinking processes of Marines?
It was in the First World War that questions of religion began to surface about the Marines. Very suspiciously, the Marines are the only service not to have chaplains. Notably, too, the Germans in that war began to call the Marines "devil dogs." Now why would they come up with the word "devil"? Significantly, the Marines are the only service not to have doctors either. Is there some black-magic ritual that makes Marines believe they are invulnerable, bulletproof, as it were? What conclusions can we draw from this?
In the interwar period, we find Marines stationed in China, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. It was then that the deficiencies of Marine aviators first appeared. These guys turned out to be terrible at bombing, a problem which has lasted until the present. How many Marine B-52 squadrons have you seen? In fact, the Marines were so bad at horizontal bombing that one Marine, a Lieutenant Sanderson, gave up entirely on it as early as 1919. Stationed in Haiti and clearly embarrassed by his inaccuracy, Lt Sanderson dove his aircraft directly toward the target, sighted on it over the nose of the plane and released his bomb at about 250 feet. With this technique he finally managed to hit the target. Soon his whole squadron was copying him. Rather unimaginatively, the Marines called this "dive bombing." Then, of all things, they brag about inventing it!
In the Second World War strenuous efforts were made to keep the Marines out of the settled areas of the world. They have a well-deserved reputation for breaking things, and there are important artifacts in Europe. You will note that there are no photographs of large formations of Marines marching through Paris after its liberation. No, what you get from the Marines are some guys engaged in a civil engineering project - putting up flagpoles on a desolate, small volcanic Pacific island called Iwo Jima. Where else were they? Places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Bougainville. Places no self-respecting tourist ever goes.
In fact, Marines never fight in comfortable places. Right after the Second World War they went to Korea. They thought they had problems with cold in Philadelphia! Just look at the pictures of the First Division Marines coming down from the Chosin Reservoir. Those guys look frozen. And then, when the Corps tried to adjust, it overcompensated. Their next war they went to Vietnam. It wasn't hot enough for them there apparently, so they tried again. That time it was the Persian Gulf. The Gulf war appears to have been a bit of an anomaly in that the Marines took the town while the Army was sent into the boondocks. But the newscasts from Desert Storm clearly show what happened. There it was, the recurring breakage problem the Marines have always had. Kuwait City was definitely a candidate for urban renewal after the Marines were there.
Hopefully, these few examples will give pause and cause the reader to think about the real Marine Corps story on this, its birthday.
Editor's note: With tongue planted firmly in his cheek, this essay was written by Gary D. Null, who served in the Marine Corps from 1961 to 1970, to include 25 months in Vietnam. Mr. Null currently works as a civil service historian for the Air Force at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.
From Leatherneck magazine, November 1998
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