by Ed Mattson
Monday I opened up what I thought would be a can of worms prompting mail from veterans and members of the other branches of the military when I started wrting about why young men and women chose to join the Marine Corps. Without conscription every branch of military service has had to solicit volunteers, and the competition has certainly prompted recruiters to sell the benefits of their particular program with slick advertising campaigns, but it is tradition that keeps the Marine Corps strong.
Despite the fact that not everyone joins the military service for the same reason or comes away from it with the same positive results, the fact is that for most, a very high percentage say they are glad they served and most who have served say they would serve again if the need arose. This is even true for the Vietnam Veteran era military, which upon returning home from the war were treated by many as less than second class citizens; spat on and called “baby killers“. The statistic regarding military service in the Sixties is probably typical however, for the military today though back then there was the element of conscription where 25% were drafted (by contrast 63% of those serving in WWII were draftees and 54% for the Korean War). 91% say they were glad they served and 74% say they would go again if called.
Throughout my time as a volunteer project coordinator with the National Guard International Bureau developing humanitarian and disaster relief projects I have had the opportunity to work with many in The Guard who have served in multiple branches of the service, some serving in every branch over a thirty-year period. While each tells their own story, those who have served in the Marine Corps say they did so because of its traditions. There are no pretensions about The Corps; those who join do so knowing, in most cases, they will be the first to fight.
According to Tom McLeod, Museum of the Pacific Historian, 1st Marine Division Association, the emblem of The Corps, the eagle, globe and anchor, symbolize all that marines hold dear:
EAGLE Wings: Spread over the globe, the wings are the symbol of a proud nation. We are a land of justice and freedom loving people, ever reluctant to make war, but ever ready to fight for preservation of, or freedom for oppressed people.
The GLOBE: This is worldwide proof of America’s history, which under a democratic government, men can have justice and be free. It is symbolic of the area covered by Marines in service. “Our flag is unfurled to every breeze, from dawn to setting sun. We have fought in every clime and place where we could take a gun.”
The ANCHOR: The anchor is symbolic of the close association between U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, on whose ships Marines have fought with skill and valor. The anchor is also a symbol of steadfast faithfulness, even unto death. Marines have always defended American principles, ideals and territory.
The Marine Corps Hymn, adopted in 1929, typifies everything about The Corps. No one knows who wrote it, but it was in widespread use by the mid-1800s. Col. A.S. McLemore spent several years trying to identify its origin but could only trace the origins of the melody. In 1878 he told the leader of the Marine Band that the tune had been adopted from the comic opera Genevieve de Barbant, by Jaques Offenback. Yet, others believe the tune originated from a Spanish folk song. Whatever! As to the lyrics there isn’t even a clue.
Regardless of its origin, The Marines’ Hymn has remained a revered icon of the United States Marine Corps for almost 200 years… This my friends is tradition and means “I don’t know…#*@& just happens“, the origins of that phrase are much easier to define and can be traced back to an 18th century philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776) who uttered the phrase (This, of course, is worthy of its own article in the near future).
The lyrics of the The Marine Corps Hymn are historically accurate and tell how traditions become traditions. Courage and bravery under fire has been exemplified throughout the history of our nation but exhibited by Marines in every war.
The Shores of Tripoli: Pirate ships and crews from the North Africa’s Berber states making up the Barbary Coast, although nominally governed by the Ottoman Empire, were the scourge of the Mediterranean. They captured merchant ships and enslaved or ransomed their crews which provided the Muslim rulers of these nations with wealth and power.
After the first seizure of an American merchant ship, the brigantine Betsey, Thomas Jefferson, decided to send envoys to Morocco and Algeria to try to purchase treaties and the freedoms of the captured sailors held by Algeria. Morocco was the first Barbary Coast state to sign a treaty with the U.S. on June 23, 1786. This treaty formally ended all Moroccan piracy against American shipping interests. Specifically, Article 6 of the treaty states that if any captured Americans, be it done by Moroccans or by other Barbary Coast states dock at a Moroccan city, said Americans would be set free and be under the protection of the Moroccan state.
American diplomatic action with Algeria, the other major Barbary Coast states, was much less successful than with Morocco. Algeria began piracy against the U.S. on July 25, 1785 with the capture of the schooner Maria and the Dauphin a week later. The crews of the Maria and Dauphin remained in captivity for over a decade, and soon were joined by the crews of other ships captured by the Barbary States. In 1795, Algeria came to an agreement with the U.S. that resulted in the release of 115 sailors they held, but at the cost of over $1 million.
The problems went on for years with the continuing demand for tribute (ransom) and ultimately led to the formation of the United States Department of the Navy, in 1798. This would eventually lead to war with the US, as American civilians were pushing for direct action by the government to stop the piracy against U.S. ships. Jefferson became President in 1801 and argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks. As in today’s political climate, the debate to go to war between Federalist and Anti-Federalist forces hinged on the burden of taxation for a new nation.
Even Jefferson’s own Democratic-Republicans believed that the future of the country lay in westward expansion, and did not want to see conflict thousands of miles away in some remote part of the world (sound familiar?).
Without a formal declaration of war, Jefferson sent a small force to the area to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression by the Barbary pirates, insisting that he was unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense. Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli “and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.”
On the night of February 16, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small contingent of the U.S.’s first Marines in the captured Tripolitan shipped renamed, USS Intrepid, to deceive the guards on board the captured US ship, Philadelphia. Decatur’s men stormed the vessel and overpowered the guard, and with support from other American ships, set fire to Philadelphia, denying her use to the enemy. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson, himself known as a man of action and bravery, is said to have called this “the most bold and daring act of the time”.
The turning point in the war came with the Battle of Derna (April–May 1805). Ex-consul William Eaton and US Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a mixed force of eight United States Marines and 500 Greeks from the island of Crete, to assault and capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time in history that the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil… hence “the shores of Tripoli.”
The halls of Montezuma: Every American has heard of the Alamo, and many have heard the word “Montezuma”, most often uttered as revenge from drinking non-potable water in Mexico. Marines know of Montezuma from the Marine Corps hymn, but most don’t know the story behind the words.
In 1847, Army Gen. Winfield Scott, commanding general, sent American troops including a contingency of Marines, to attack Mexico City. In one of the most historic battles of the Mexican War, Marines secured the Halls of Montezuma which can best be described as the site of Santa Anna’s encampment whose west side was guarded by the Hill of Chapultepec. It was 600 yards wide by 200 feet high surrounded by a 12-foot wall with a school that was once a palace topping the hill… a near impenetrable fortress to assault.
Army Brig. Gen. John Quitman led the 4th Division, which included the Marines. The assault of 120 handpicked Marines and soldiers attacked the fortress, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets as they struggled up the steep hill. The battle ensued at 8 AM on September 13 and lasted for 1-1/2 hours before the Marines could reach the castle and raise the American flag over the fortress at 9:30 AM.
During the battle at Chapultepec, 90 percent of the Marine officers and non-commissioned officers who fought were killed. After the war, Marine commissioned and non-commissioned officers added scarlet stripes to their blue dress trousers, which are now referred to as “blood stripes,” to commemorate the Marines’ whose blood was shed at Chapultepec.
Much of what makes up Marine Corps tradition is folklore, but if you’ve been around Marines long enough or have read W.E.B. Griffins best-selling novels on the Marine Corps, you’ll probably reach the conclusion that even in folklore, most of it is true. Nothing says it better than this quote posted on a website posted by Thomas A Leigh-Kendall:
“I am a United States Marine
My commander is The President of the States of America.
My duty is to serve the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps
To protect The Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence,
And the Constitution of the United States of America.
My allegiance is to United States Citizens
I serve to keep our freedom alive and well.
I have two colors; Marine GREEN, and Marine Blood, RED
There is no yellow, black or brown in our ranks, just GREEN.
We do not muddle in politics it’s not in our MOS.
We vote, we fight for that right.
We support the elected no matter whom.
I have one flag- color; red white and blue.
One banner: the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
If you are not issued it, you don’t need it.
My work tool is a weapon;
It’s my major duty to know it well.
Treat it like my right arm,
To keep those who have served before us, proud.
To be at 110% 24/7.
We pledge our allegiance to God and Country,
Our Lives to the United States Marine Corps”
Gung Ho and Semper Fidelis
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.