The Marine Corps…Honor, Tradition, Commitment.

Lee Emery...what makes the Marine Corps special

by Ed Mattson


The few, the proud, the Marines. What makes some want to join the Marines? That’s a question many of us have asked ourselves over the years. Maybe it’s the tradition; maybe it’s the uniform; or to many, maybe it’s love, honor, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, dignity and humility, that comes with the territory… never given; always earned.

The Drill Instructor-right up there with mom, dad, and God!

Many of us on the other hand never even gave it a second thought. With every branch of the military now being designated “voluntary” a good place to look at why someone chooses to join the Marines over the other branches is, I believe, a commitment like no other. Sure, we are known as Jarhead, Gyrene, Devil Dog, and probably the most revered title, Grunt, but when uttered by fellow Marines, are all names we wear proudly. The story behind each, like the entire history of The Corps itself, is based on terra firma (firm ground), and every syllable earned.

The Marine Corps was created on November 10, 1775, in Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by a resolution of the Continental Congress, and in 1834 the Marines became part of the Department of the Navy. Known since its inception as the “First to Fight”, the Marines have been in the forefront of every American war since its founding. The Marine Corps even took it’s place alongside Washington’s army during the Revolution in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence was signed! Marines have made more than 300 landings on foreign shores and served everywhere one can think of where American’s have been involved in conflict. Throughout its history Semper Fidelis (Semper Fi), meaning always faithful, has become the tradition, because in 236 years, there has never been a mutiny.

The name “Leatherneck” can be traced back to the leather stock or neckpiece, which was part of the Marine Corps uniform from 1775 to 1875. Some say the leather collar was designed to protect the jugular vein from saber slashes, but probably more correctly, it insured that Marines kept their heads erect and maintained during the aiming of the rifle. Some say it made a Marine look like a long-neck goose but it did improve one’s military bearing. While it is no longer used, it is commemorated by the standing collar on the dress blue and dress white uniform.

“Devil Dogs” can be traced to World War I in 1918 during the Belleau Wood campaign. When the Marines arrive to aid the allied troops which were in full retreat, a Marine officer was noted as telling the retreating command, “Retreat Hell! We just got here!” The Germans soon took note and got a thorough indoctrination into the fighting ability of the Marines. Fighting through supposedly impenetrable woods and overcoming impossible terrain, the men of the 4th Marine Brigade struck terror in the hearts of the Germans, who referred to Marines as the “Teufelhunden”, meaning “fierce fighting dogs of legendary origin” or as popularly translated, “Devil Dogs.”

Around 1900, members of the U.S. Navy began using Gyrene as a jocular derogatory reference to U.S. Marines. Instead of being insulted, the Marines loved it. It is a cross between GI (government issue) and Marine. The term started during World War I and has been extensively used since that time, but gained widespread recognition from the campaign in the Pacific during WWII, when beach after beach had to be taken in what became known as “Island Hopping”. Many Marines always need something to bitch about (that too is tradition), as there were only three ways off an island once a landing had commenced…win the battle, get the million-dollar-wound, and every Marine was intimately aware of the third option. So, adapting to the term Gyrene just seems to fit.

Many have tried to determine the origin of the Grunt moniker. Ask any Marine what his primary MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) is and each and every one will tell you “Basic Rifleman”. Since the origin of The Corps, the Marine has been taught his rifle is his closest friend and the basic instrument of freedom. With today’s more modern military with its high-tech weaponry, helicopters, ground support airplanes, GPS, and even an arsenal of everything from drones that kill to MOABS (Mother of All Bombs), there is no purpose of war if you cannot “take the ground you are fighting for”, and that’s where the Grunt comes in.

While I suppose some will argue that a Marine assigned to an air wing or a seagoing Marine is no longer thought of as a “Basic Rifleman”, every Marine must learned to fire his weapon with an efficiency that is unparalleled. Only the Marine Corps requires marksmanship proficiency at 500 yards. As a Hollywood Marine (having survived basic training at MCRD – Marine Corps Recruit Depot-San Diego) and for every enlisted Marine, no one will ever forget the experience or the importance of Camp Mathews or Edson Range during that period of rifle qualification.

So, like every other term Marines are called, “Grunt” is used and probably is an anachronism for what other branches affectionately call Marines…Given Rifles Unfit for Normal Training  and awarded an MOS proceeded by the number “03” as in “0311-Basic Rifleman”. About as grunt as you can get in the Corps (also referred to as Ground Roving Unit – Not Trained).

Such respect is what leads to inter-service rivalries in most conversations that involve Veterans, on the playing field of inter-service sports match-ups, and what makes the entire US Military team unbeatable in any conflict if the politicians would just the hell out of the way. Along the way in building the Tradition of the Corps, military leaders around the globe and the leaders of every other branch of U.S. military service have bestowed upon the Marines, “Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue” – Referring to the victories in World War II, especially at Iwo Jima, the largest all-Marine battle in history. Those words were uttered by Admiral Nimitz’s in his ringing endorsement of Marines fighting on Iwo Jima and has carried over and applied to the entire Marine Corps.

Following this Veteran’s Day weekend is the perfect time to extend the honor of the Day for what makes the Veteran so special. I suppose, in all fairness, I will have to write about the other branches after opening up this can of worms, but with so few Americans really understanding the sacrifice made by their military, and so many simply taking freedom for granted in these very trying times, I felt the need was far greater than a one-day thought. Wednesday I will conclude the story of The Corps and look toward future articles about the illustrious history of the other service branches. Semper Fi.


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Following his service in the Marine Corps Ed Mattson built a diverse career in business in both sales/marketing and management. He is a medical research specialist and published author. His latest book is Down on Main Street: Searching for American Exceptionalism Ed is currently Development Director of the National Guard Bureau of International Affairs-State Partnership Program, Fundraising Coordinator for the Warrior2Citizen Project, and Managing Partner of Center-Point Consultants in North Carolina. Mr. Mattson is a noted speaker and has addressed more than 3000 audiences in 42 states and 5 foreign countries. He has been awarded the Order of the Sword by American Cancer Society, is a Rotarian Paul Harris Fellow and appeared on more than 15 radio and television talk-shows.