The Marine Tradition


In the big war companies, 250 strong, you could find every sort of man, from every sort of calling. There were Northwesterners with straw-colored hair that looked white against their tanned skins, and delicately spoken chaps with the stamp of the Eastern universities on them. There were large-boned fellows from Pacific-coast lumber camps, and tall, lean Southerners who swore amazingly in gentle, drawling voices. There were husky farmers from the corn-belt, and youngsters who had sprung, as it were, to arms from the necktie counter. And there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, and a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth. Their speech was flavored with navy words, and words culled from all the folk who live on the seas and the ports where our war-ships go. In easy hours their talk ran from the Tartar Wall beyond Pekin to the Southern Islands, down under Manila; from Portsmouth Navy Yard—New Hampshire and very cold—to obscure bushwhackings in the West Indies, where Cacao chiefs, whimsically sanguinary, barefoot generals with names like Charlemagne and Christophe, waged war according to the precepts of the French Revolution and the Cult of the Snake. They drank the eau de vie of Haute-Marne, and reminisced on saki, and vino, and Bacardi Rum—strange drinks in strange cantinas at the far ends of the earth; and they spoke fondly of Milwaukee beer. Rifles were high and holy things to them, and they knew five-inch broadside guns. They talked patronizingly of the war, and were concerned about rations. They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers: collected from ship’s guards and shore stations all over the earth to form the 4th Brigade of Marines, the two rifle regiments, detached from the navy by order of the President for service with the American Expeditionary Forces. They were the old breed of American regulars, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation; and they transmitted their temper and character and view-point to the high-hearted volunteer mass which filled the ranks of the Marine Brigade.∗ © 1955 Charles Scribner’s Sons.


Well, that is the way a regular officer of the Marines saw them, at a time when they were meeting one of their greatest tests. It has been pointed out that at Belleau Wood in the spring of 1918 the Marines, in mass for the first time, met a professional enemy—and beat him. They did other things, too, of the same order, later in the war, and when the war ended the whole country had heard that marines were great fighting men. (Once again, interservice rivalry rears its irrepressible head. Army people have been known to complain that although the marines were really only a minor part of the famous Second Division, people back home seemed to give them all the credit for everything the Division did; and they add that there were many, many other divisions in the A.E.F. that contained no marines whatever and that made enviable combat records.)

After the First World War there were various alarms and excursions—marines were in sundry Caribbean countries, from time to time, and a certain number of them died there—and then, after a time, there came the Second World War, in which the Corps really came into its own.

Coming into its own meant very hard times indeed for a great many individual marines, for the Corps got some very sticky jobs to handle, all the way from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima; and the memory of all these things is so recent that it hardly needs to be touched on here, except to remark that in some ways the Marines were the victims of their own reputation: they had established themselves as tough guys, a corps d’élite that could take on anyone or anything, and as a result they kept being given rough assignments, particularly in the far-flung Pacific area. It hardly needs to be said that the Army had many first-rate troops in the Pacific and used them to excellent effect, and that the Navy accomplished marvelous things there against long odds, but somehow there were places where the Marines seemed to steal the show—not because they “got the publicity,” but simply because they could be relied on to send in tough, wholly competent fighting men who would carry out the job given them no matter how many of them got killed trying.

For the Marines not only prided themselves on being tough: they were tough, and their much-talked-of esprit de corps grows out of their consciousness of that fact. One result is that they are forever trying to live up to their own pride in themselves, which can be a mighty force in battle. Another is that they go out of the way to act and even to look like the corps d’élite which they insist they are. They go in for spit and polish, both their dress and fatigue uniforms tend to look snappy and eye-catching, and it is not only the officers who insist on having well-fitted uniforms—the enlisted men want the same thing. A leatherneck private wants his shirt and his tunic to look as if they were made for him personally. He even tends to be something of a dandy—a carefully chosen, thoroughly trained dandy, with two hard fists and with muscles to swing them.