“Uncle Harry says we’re just police
And he should really know—
We’ve arrested wars since we began,
And dealt the final blow.” – Anonymous

The Marine Corps is one of the smallest, yet perhaps most publicized of the U.S. military services today. As soldiers of the sea, the Marines have always been connected to the Navy yet the Corps has fought in “any clime and place” and “in the air, on land, and sea.” Many facets of the Corps’ lore and history often creep into our lives more than we even know. All of this begs the question, why? The Marine Corps as an institution has, for at least a century, continuously made sure that the American public not only knows its history and lore but also feels invested in the service. One of the most prominent and recognized pieces of Marine Corps culture is the Marines’ Hymn, which in itself represents a prime example of the Corps’ ability to teach its history in interesting ways.

The history of the hymn contains perhaps as much myth as the Corps’ own history. Marine historians generally agree that the hymn was created in the mid-nineteenth century and is musically based on Jacques Offenbach’s comedic opera Genevieve de Brabant.  The Marines gained copyright of the song in 1891 and the first version of the lyrics was established in 1929. While the official lyrics were formalized in 1942 (with the addition of the words “in the air”), Marines have often created their own verses. These verses reflect not only geographic locations, but also attitudes, hopes, beliefs, and even daily gripes. For the purpose of this article, I have chosen a select number of verses from both the official hymn and others written by Marines and their families. The Marine Corps often evokes a great many opinions, both negative and positive, especially when it comes to its (often) mythologized history. Rather than recite the entire history of the Marine Corps (a feat I’m sure the Corps would appreciate), I will go over some of the verses and discuss the important events they cover, tapping into the real history and the myths they represent.

Before we get down to business, here is the “official” Marines’ Hymn as it is sung today and a video of various versions of the Marine Corps Band performing the tune.

“From the Halls of Montezuma
to the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

First to fight for right and freedom,
And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title
of United States Marine.

Our flag’s unfurl’d to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun.

In the snow of far-off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.

If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s Scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.”

We will revisit some of the historical undertones in the official Marines’ Hymn, but let’s first take a chronological look at the Corps’ history through the many verses written over the years.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, Marines have added their own verses to the Marines’ Hymn. A small folder in the historical collection of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division in Quantico, Virginia, contains some of the verses and many of these impromptu versions provide insight into the Corps’ history as the Marines saw it. I have selected a few of these versions in order to provide a short chronology of the Corps’ history.

Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783

The first verse, written at an unknown date by Tad Jones, a self-proclaimed “Poet of the Marine Corps,” introduces the Corps’ participation in the American Revolution. As a forceful verse, this stanza gives much credit to the Marines for their role in the revolution while also making sure to preserve the rhyme of Marines to Queens, despite the fact that the Marines never engaged any queens in the American Revolution!

“When the Eagle’s War-Cry Sounded
To the Sons of Liberty,
And the Call to Arms Resounded,
Thru the Borders of the Free,
Then the Bulldog’s Deep Tones Rumbled,
Shook the Courts of Tyrant Queens,
And Oppression’s Fortress Crumbled
To United States Marines”

The Marines consider their founding date to be November 10, 1775. It was on this date that the Continental Congress called for “two battalions of Marines to be raised…to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies.” While the American colonists were attempting to build a naval force that could meet the mighty British on the sea, the Continental Marines were raised primarily in preparation for an invasion of Canada. General George Washington, however, canceled that plan, as he could not spare any troops for such a dangerous expedition. Because of this, the “two battalions of Marines” never materialized, but the first Continental Marine officer was commissioned on November 28, 1775, thus entering the Continental Marines into service. It is because of this early legislation that the Marines consider their institution to be the oldest among the modern services and since 1921 have celebrated November 10, 1775, as the date of the Corps’ birth.

As for the Corps’ role in the war itself, the mighty soldiers of the sea hardly “shook the courts of tyrant queens,” but they did participate in numerous sea battles aboard ships of the Continental Navy, aided in the invasion of the Bahamas, and even fought with Washington at the Battle of Princeton. Marines also famously joined John Paul Jones aboard the sloop Ranger in his raids around the waters of England. Ultimately, at the close of the American Revolution, the Continental Marines were disbanded and the official U.S. Marine Corps as we know it was finally established on July 11, 1798.

Related Corps Lore: Tun Tavern

Why does the Marine Corps value a Philadelphia pub so highly? The answer lies not necessarily in the Corps’ official foundation, but instead in the fact that many of the Corps’ first officers and men were recruited out of that bar. One of the earliest Marine officers, Robert Mullen, actually owned and ran the tavern and allowed Samuel Nicholas to manage recruiting operations there throughout 1775 and 1776.

Marines in the Halls of Montezuma and on the Shores of Tripoli

The Marines’ Hymn helps to document a few of the next major engagements in which the service participated. While the chronology is flipped to preserve the poetry of the verse, the Corps’ participation in the “War” against the Barbary Pirates and the Marines’ first invasion of Mexico is well represented in the official hymn, which is as follows:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
to the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

First to fight for right and freedom,
And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title
of United States Marine.”

Marines in Tripoli, 1803

As a component of the U.S. Navy, the history of the Marine Corps often parallels that of the history of U.S. expansion both economically and geographically throughout the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a world where powerful navies defined the influence of many countries and empires, the U.S. began to exert its newfound power through its own fledgling navy. Among its first engagements was the war on Mediterranean ship raiders out of Tripoli known as the Barbary Pirates as part of the larger “Quasi-war with France.” For the Corps, this engagement quickly became legend within their own history.

After Tripoli declared war on the United States (taking advantage of the U.S. Navy’s lack of protection from the British and French fleets in the Mediterranean), Marines directly participated in naval engagements with the Tripolitans. Marines also took part in the brazen rescue of the crew of the stricken frigate Philadelphia, which had run aground near Tripoli. Most famously, however, was the ill-fated, yet legendary action of Marine Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. Lieutenant O’Bannon led an expedition of a few Marines and many more mercenaries up the Nile River and across miles of African desert, where they eventually managed (at great human cost) to capture the Tripolitan port of Derna.  Unfortunately for Lieutenant O’Bannon, the U.S. had already negotiated a peace to end the war, but the bold expedition and the Corps’ role became legend back in the U.S.

Marines in the Mexican War, 1846-1848

Perhaps the most universally remembered line of the Marines’ Hymn is its first, “[F]rom the Halls of Montezuma.” To begin: No, the Marines did not engage in an epic battle of Past vs. Present against the Aztecs. Marines were, however, present at the capture of Mexico City, and particularly the Battle for Chapultepec Castle in 1846, part of the War with Mexico. The details of the engagement, and particularly the Corps’ role in it are not entirely clear, yet Marines did fight alongside the army in taking the castle. Marines played a pivotal role in anti-sniper and security patrols as the main engagement took place. A testament to the Marines’ “expanded” role in the battle is perhaps best presented by the fact that most of the army’s histories fail to mention the exploits of the Marines who were there. Conspiracy? Hardly. Rivalry? Perhaps. Despite the army’s omission, the Marines made sure to keep the Battle for Chapultepec Castle well preserved in their lore.

Related Corps Lore: The Blood Stripe

The “blood stripe,” a red stripe down a Marine’s trousers is an integral part of the Marine Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and Officer’s uniforms. In today’s Marine Corps, it is an honor that is earned through promotion into the NCO and officer ranks. The Corps’ own historical pamphlet on its lore highlights the blood stripe as a commemoration to:

“[t]he courage and tenacious fighting of the men who battled before Chapultapec in the Mexican War and whose exploits added the phrase ‘From the Halls of Montezuma…’ to the Marine Hymn. The red stripe on the trousers of all Marine officers and NCOs is said to symbolize the blood shed by these Marines of another century.”

The real reason the Marines introduced the red stripe to the uniform is perhaps less deserving of mythic status. The uniform regulations of the 1830s actually demanded that the stripe down the trousers match the color of the jacket facings, which, for the Marines at the time, were red. Those stripes, however, were changed to solid red in 1849 with the stripes that are seen today emerging in 1904.

Marine Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) uniforms showing the red Blood Stripe.
Marine Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) uniforms showing the red Blood Stripe.

Marines in the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War, 1898-1902

Not all of the impromptu versions of the Marines’ Hymn speak of heroic engagements and legendary actions by Marines. This verse, written by Colonel Henry Davis at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba around 1911 touches on the Corps’ experiences (and frustrations) in the Philippines as well as in Central America at the turn of the twentieth century.

“From the pest hole of Cavite,
To the Ditch of Panama,
You will find them very needy
Of Marines – that’s what we are;
We’re the watch dogs of a pile of coal,
Or we dig a magazine”

Perhaps one of the most difficult foreign assignments for Marines at the turn of the century was duty in the Philippines. Soldiers and Marines deployed to the Philippines, some based out of the port city of Cavite, as part of the continuing American effort to pacify rebels in the country after its transition to U.S. control from the Spanish. While most of the duty in the Philippines was a show of force, the Marines often sent patrols out to subdue those Filipinos who were considered “rebels.” One of these patrols, known to history as the Samar Expedition of 1901, quickly devolved into one of the lowest moments for the Corps. Marine Major Littleton W.T. Waller took a group of volunteer Marines and Filipino scouts to southern Samar and while the group successfully attacked guerillas in the area, they fell prey to harsh terrain and poor weather. Waller’s group lost 11 men to exhaustion and starvation from the march and his treatment of the Filipino scouts under his command afforded him a court-martial.  Fortunately for the Marine Corps, the disastrous Samar Expedition did not garner great attention in the mainstream American press, especially compared to the Corps’ exploits in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion a few years earlier, yet the negativity of the verse is certainly understandable.

Marines in Panama, 1903-1906

With the Marines, American presidents enjoyed considerable freedom as to their deployment compared to the army. Only Congress could send the army to foreign shores, and for that reason, the Marines, as part of the navy, were often deployed to areas where American “interests” were in danger but which did not necessitate a declaration of war. The majority of these interventions in the early 1900s were directly tied to America’s economic and strategic interests in the Caribbean and Central America. Because of the suspect economic nature of American police actions throughout this region, these conflicts were called the Banana Wars. One of those interventions took place in Panama as the U.S. attempted to secure the country for the construction of the Panama Canal. One of the Marine units in Panama was led by then Major John Archer Lejeune. Lejeune would go on to lead the 2d U.S. Army Infantry Division in the First World War, which included the only Marine brigade in Europe. Lejeune also became one of the Corps’ most important Commandants.

Related Corps Lore: The Birthday Message

Major General Commandant John Lejeune understood the importance of the Corps’ history and traditions. In 1921, as part of an overall push to formalize those customs, Lejeune issued an order that directed the Marines to celebrate the original birth date of November 10, 1775. Lejeune also ordered Marines to read aloud a passage the Commandant had provided at the birthday celebration each year. The four-part message celebrates the Corps’ history and states that “[I]n memory of them [all the Marines before them] it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.”

A ceremonial birthday cake-cutting aboard the USS Boxer in November 1963.
A ceremonial birthday cake-cutting aboard the USS Boxer in November 1963.

Marines in Siberia and Iceland

The official Marine Corps hymn cites that the Corps has “fought in every clime and place,” and just as the Banana Wars represented the “sunny tropic scenes,” the Corps’ experiences in Siberia and even Iceland during the years between the two World Wars certainly help to account for the “snow of far-off northern lands.”

“Our flag’s unfurl’d to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.”

Marines in Siberia, 1918-1922

As the First World War neared its end, the U.S. military, by direction of President Woodrow Wilson began an intervention of the ongoing Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks. The U.S. sent thousands of U.S. Army troops in “polar bear expeditions” to both Archangel and Vladivostok, Russia from 1918-1922. As part of the naval campaign, the U.S. also sent ships of the Asiatic fleet to the port of Vladivostok to support operations there. For the greater part of this mission, the Marine detachments of those ships stayed aboard. However, before the soldiers had arrived in Vladivostok, Marines were sent ashore on a few occasions to protect the American consulate there. On June 29, 1918, Marines stormed the town to aid in riot control as tensions in the city began to mount with the arrival of the Bolsheviks. While most of the casualties the Marines incurred in Siberia were more a result of the Spanish flu than combat, this operation did live up to the “northern lands” claim of the hymn’s official verse.

Marines march in the streets of Vladivostok, Russia in a parade along with military elements of other nations involved in the intervention in 1918.
Marines march in the streets of Vladivostok, Russia in a parade along with military elements of other nations involved in the intervention in 1918.

Marines in Iceland, 1941

In July of 1941, months before America’s official entrance into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt aided Great Britain in the ongoing War of the Atlantic by taking advantage of the fact that he did not need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. It was under that premise that the Marines landed in Iceland on July 7, 1941. The Marines landed at one of the most picturesque locations on earth, yet their stay in Iceland was not exactly eventful. Poorly equipped and ill-prepared for the weather and infrastructure, the Marines scraped by on what they could beg, borrow, and steal from their British allies and the locals. Among the most exceptional events that occurred in Iceland was the arrival of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his review of the Marines. Churchill famously enjoyed, of all things, the Marines’ Hymn and is said to have played it through his mind for the entire journey back to England. Churchill also memorized the lyrics and was quick to recount them whenever he was in the presence of a U.S. Marine. Ultimately, the army replaced the Marines as the garrison force in Iceland, but the Marines left proud that they were again the first to arrive. So proud, in fact, that an unnamed Marine penned a new verse for the Marines’ Hymn:

“Again in 1941,
we sailed a north’ard course
And found beneath the midnight sun,
the Viking and the Norse.

The Iceland girls were slim and fair,
and fair the Iceland scenes,
And the Army found in landing there,
the United States Marines.”

Marines in the Second World War, 1941-1945

The scope of the Marine Corps’ participation in the Second World War is far greater than can be covered here. Located primarily in the Pacific theater, the Corps more than earned its place among the best of the fighting units in the U.S. military in hard-earned conflicts for tiny volcanic islands and coral atolls. From 1941-1945, Marines undoubtedly penned countless extra verses for the Marines’ Hymn, but unfortunately many are lost to history. Among those that made it to the archives of the Marine Corps History Division was a verse written not by a Marine, but by his family. In 1943, the Bartlett Family of Hartford, Connecticut wrote to the Commandant to pass on their added verse of the Marines’ Hymn. This verse gives insight into the importance of morale on the home front as well as on the battlefront, especially during the most devastating war in history.

“Our version of ‘Marines’ Hymn’
From the home to far off battlefields
That is where our son has gone
He has learned the art of modern war
And will fight through to the dawn
All Marines are trained to meet the foe
and to work un-ceasingly;
and they’ll all march home triumphantly
with a well-earned VICTORY.”

Related Corps Lore: Two Flag Raisings on Iwo Jima?

The most important photograph of the Second World War for the Marines (and perhaps even the entire U.S. military) was that of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945. The iconic imagery became the driving force behind the entire Seventh War Loan Drive and represented America’s struggle against the Japanese in the Pacific. Nevertheless, shortly after the war, a controversy came down on the Marines because some had claimed that the flag-raising was staged. The Associated Press’ Joe Rosenthal took the famous photograph, yet he had no idea that it would reach such iconic status. When first asked if he had staged the image, Rosenthal answered that he had. Later, however, Rosenthal stated that he thought the reporter was referring to another image of all the flag raisers smiling in front of the already-raised flag. That comment, however, made it back to the states and began an unceasing campaign to prove that the image was staged.

first-and-second-flag

In the stiff breeze atop Mount Suribachi, volcano mountain on Iwo Jima Island, “Old Glory” whips against the sky as cheering Marines raise their voices and weapons in the historic moment for posterity (Official caption)
In the stiff breeze atop Mount Suribachi, volcano mountain on Iwo Jima Island, “Old Glory” whips against the sky as cheering Marines raise their voices and weapons in the historic moment for posterity (Official caption)

There were, in fact, two flag-raisings that occurred on February 23, 1945, and neither were staged by photographers. The first flag-raising occurred as a small patrol from E Company, 2d Battalion, 28th Marines, reached the summit of the over 500-foot Mount Suribachi. The battle still raged below and would continue for over a month. At that moment, however, the men of the patrol decided to raise an American flag on a loose piece of piping at the summit. The troops ashore cheered and the ships of the massive invasion fleet sounded their horns and sirens. The excitement of the first flag raising spurred a request for a much larger flag to be raised so that it would be more visible throughout the island. It was with this flag that Rosenthal climbed Mount Suribachi. The second flag was raised with less fanfare than the first, but its raising was captured in a photo by Rosenthal and on film by Marine combat cameraman Sergeant Bill Genaust. Rosenthal explained why he thought the flag-raising photo was not his best. Poor lighting. Bad angle. None of the Marines’ faces were visible. The list goes on. Yet, it was for many of those reasons that the photo became a symbol not of the individuals in the photo, but of the unseen faces of Marines who lost their lives on Iwo Jima and throughout the Pacific.

Video of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima:

The U.S. Marine Corps Vs. President Harry Truman, 1945-1953

The flag-raising on Iwo Jima was one in a long line of events throughout the twentieth century that brought the Marine Corps into the minds of the American public. By the end of the war, the Marines had achieved a disproportionate amount of notoriety, which belied its status as one of the smallest of the military services. This did not go unnoticed by many powerful figures in the U.S. Army and it especially bothered President Truman. Never one to hold back his true feelings about what he believed the Corps’ role should be, Truman’s comments often became the source of the Corps’ pride on through the Korean War. This verse, penned by an unnamed Marine, captured some of those comments and cleverly turned them against him:

“Our flag’s been flown from every ship
Since the Navy had its start;
A Marine detachment in their midst
Kept the fleet from falling apart

Uncle Harry says we’re just police
And he should really know – – –
We’ve arrested wars since we began,
And dealt the final blow

We have honor, we have glory,
We’re the finest ever seen:
But still our propaganda
Is a second rate machine.

Harry’s Army and his Navy
Never look on Heaven’s scenes,
Cause they know the Angels are in love
With UNITED STATES MARINES”

Related Corps Lore: Propaganda Machine Almost Equal to Stalin’s

President Truman’s disdain for the Marine Corps was most powerfully displayed in an off-hand comment to a Congressman in 1950. Thought to be in jest, Truman said that the Corps was “the Navy’s police force” and that they had “a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.”  Truman had not expected the backlash that occurred in the wake of his comments as the President received such a wave of complaints (perhaps ironically backed by the Corps’ truly strong publicity campaigns) that he was forced to send a public letter of apology to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Photo of President Truman inspecting a Marine Detachment in 1950
Photo of President Truman inspecting a Marine Detachment in 1950

Conclusion

While it was not possible to account for all of the Marine Corps’ historical exploits in this essay, it serves as a brief introduction into the Corps’ history and lore. Indeed, most of human history at one time or another falls prey to exaggeration, myth, and legend. As a military institution, however, the Corps set itself apart by embracing its history and lore and teaching it to the public. Above all, the Marines understood that in order to preserve their delicate place in the military establishment, they needed the American people’s support as much as the military’s. For that reason, the Marines’ Hymn became an important channel through which to teach its history, even if it only begged the question “What the heck does Montezuma have to do with the Marine Corps?”

  1. For more information about many of the Corps’ customs, traditions, and legends, click here
  2. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: Free Press, 1980), 7. To view the originals document, visit https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Speeches/ContinentalCongress.aspx.
  3. https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/pages/Customs_Traditions/Marines_Hymn.aspx. For more information about the Continental Marines in the Revolution, see Charles Smith, Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the Revolution, 1775-1783 (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1975). All Marine Corps History Division publications are free and available for download at https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Publications/Publications_new.aspx
  4. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 13 
  5. ibid, 43-45 
  6. For more information on the Quasi-War with France and the military’s role in foreign policy during the early nineteenth century, see A.B.C. Whipple, To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991) and Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World (New York: Hill and Land, 2005) 
  7. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 80-81 
  8. Historical Branch, Marine Corps Lore (Washington, D.C.: Historical Branch, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1960), 15 
  9. http://www.usmcmuseum.com/museum_lorecorps.asp 
  10. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 153-4 
  11. For more information about the American military’s experience in the Philippines, see: Brian Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000) 
  12. To see the text of the original Marine Corps birthday message, visit https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Speeches/MCBirthdayMessage.aspx
  13. Colin Colbourn, “’Far–off Northern Lands’: Marines Ashore in Siberia,” Leatherneck: Magazine of the Marines, (March 2007): 30-33
  14. For more information on the flag-raising, Rosenthal, and Genaust, see Tedd Thomey, Immortal Images: A Personal History of Two Photographers and the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996)
  15. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 496 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin M. Colbourn is the Senior Historian at Rowan Technology Solutions where he works alongside software developers, cartographers, and other digital experts on the West Point History of Warfare Digital Textbook. Colin is also a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi where he is completing his dissertation “Esprit de Marine Corps: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps through Public Relations, 1911-1947” under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Wiest. Colin recently finished a two year fellowship as an ORISE Historian with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Central Identification Laboratory, where he conducted research to help identify unknown soldiers from World War II. In 2012, he received the General Lemuel C. Shepherd Memorial Dissertation Fellowship from the U.S. Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Colin loves travelling the world, specifically to walk the grounds of past conflict. So far he's had the opportunity to participate in battlefield tours and studies of Italy, Sicily, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Vietnam.