Marine Corps

Emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps

U.S. Marine Corps. Via Wikipedia Commons

The United States Marine Corps has an old and illustrious history, beginning with the raising of two Marine battalions during the American Revolution. A small detachment of Marines landed at Derna in North Africa in 1805 to put an end to Barbary depredations on American shipping. However, the Marines were a very small force until the First World War, when they were the only force immediately available after the U.S. declaration of war. The first Marines in France performed well at the front line, and even better in public relations, so that recruits were many and enthusiastic.

The Marines were originally seaborne soldiers under the control of the Navy who specialized in gunnery, small coastal raids, and (in an age of coming alongside to board) shipboard combat. As technology advanced and naval combat became almost exclusively long-range, the Marines found a new mission as amphibious assault specialists. At the same time, the Marine Corps became an increasingly independent service branch within the Navy Department, although their regular officers were still trained at Annapolis, and Marine divisions adopted a table of organization and equipment quite similar to the U.S. Army. Officer ranks were identical to those of the Army but some enlisted ranks were named differently. The main difference was a heavier allotment of automatic weapons. However, the Marines introduced some important innovations, such as attaching an air wing and a tank battalion to each division. Marine airmen developed close air support to a fine art, having gotten a head start over the Army during the "banana wars" of the 1930s.  These "savage wars of peace", fought in the jungles of Latin America against elusive and often very skilled opponents, also taught the Marines the skills of mobility, avoiding ambush, patrolling, and other small-unit tactics.

After the First World War, the Corps was cut back to 17,000 men, but began expanding again during the troubles in the 1930s. By 1 February 1941 the Corps was ready to activate two divisions. By the end of the Pacific War there were six Marine divisions and five Marine air wings. The Marines also raised a number of specialized Raider, airborne, and defense battalions, but these were broken up for cadre for new divisions as the war progressed.

Marine units were composed exclusively of volunteers, and were picky about whom they accepted, until late in the war. Eventually, combat losses forced the Marines to accept draftee replacements. However, the Marines were usually careful to integrate replacements prior to combat, and always returned a man to his original unit after he recovered from wounds or illness, in sharp contrast with Army practice. This contributed to high unit cohesion in the Marine formations, as did demanding training beginning with "boot camp" and continuing at rear bases between campaigns. The Marines also rotated a man home after three campaigns, which was an important morale booster. An indication of the morale of Marine troops is that a typical Army formation, when shipping out to combat, had an AWOL (absent without leave) rate of about 1%. The 2 Marine Division, when shipping out for Tarawa, had an AWOL rate a tenth of that.

Marine leadership was generally of a caliber to match the troops. During the 1930s the Marine Corps commissioned its quota of 25 Naval Academy graduates each year, along with a small number of its best noncommissioned officers. However, the majority of Marine officers recruited during the Great Depression were Army ROTC graduates. The Army made little use of these potential leaders, and the Marines took advantage of the situation by offering commissions to the best of these men, along with a few Navy ROTC graduates and selected graduates of colleges without ROTC programs. Thus the Marines acquired large numbers of promising young leaders at very little cost.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the Army hated the Marines. The Marines considered themselves elite infantry, and rubbed this into the faces of the soldiers. The Army in turn insisted that its own divisions were perfectly capable of amphibious assault and that the existence of the Marine Corps was an unnecessary and wasteful duplication of effort. The Army also insisted that Marine officers lacked the training and doctrine to handle units of division size or larger, a belief that may have had some basis up to the First World War. Lejeune's successful leadership of 2 Division in France modified the Army position to one of insisting that Marines could not manage units of corps size or larger but otherwise left the attitude essentially unchanged. This attitude was reflected in Richardson's intemperate reaction to Holland Smith's decision to relieve Ralph Smith at Saipan.

There were also sharp disagreements over tactics. The Army advocated a deliberate approach to attack, which was time-consuming but was thought to minimize casualties and better protect lines of communications. The Marines preferred shock tactics, with a strong emphasis on maintaining the momentum of the attack, leaving enemy strongpoints to be bypassed and reduced later. It was acknowledged that the Marine approach meant a higher casualty rate, but it was thought it would hasten victory and thus reduce the total casualty count. The Marine approach seemed to make sense for the kinds of short, sharp island campaigns envisioned by Marine planners, but it failed at Peleliu. Rupertus' prediction of a tough but quick battle proved completely wrong, and his insistence that his Marines keep pressing forward to maintain momentum wrecked the better part of his division. Rupertus' chief of staff, Oliver Smith, and the commander of 5 Marine Regiment, Bucky Harris, seemed to understand this, and Harris adopted a more methodical approach to reducing the Umerbrogal Ridge. He brought in tankdozers, flamethrower LVTs, and tanks and artillery to fire directly into cave mouths to pave the way for the infantry, and, in three days' fighting, his regiment took strategic high ground that the other regiments had failed to take in three weeks. Even with these successes, Harris had to resist continued pressure from Rupertus to hurry up his advance. 

The Marine's reputation with the public was not all positive. According to Wheeler (2007), Eleanor Roosevelt was rumored to have said that Marines rotating home should be put in special camps to keep them away from the public until they had had time to adjust to normal civilian life.

It was the reputation of the Marines that kept them from ever being absorbed into the Army. Navy Secretary Forrestal, on witnessing the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima, said that “[this] means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” So far, he has been proven correct.


Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Gregg (1984)

Hoffman (2001)

Larrabee (1987)

Sledge (1981)

Sloan (2005)

Wheeler (2007)

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