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How the U.S. Marines Work

Marine Corps History and Joining Up

First Commondant of the Marines
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marines
Samuel Nicholas, first Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Officially, the history of the U.S. Marines began on November 10, 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized the formation of the Continental Marines for use in the war against England. The first troops were recruited at a tavern in Philadelphia. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines (who were not a very prestigious organization at the time) were disbanded.

In 1798, the Marine Corps was reestablished to help combat pirates of the Barbary Coast who were attacking U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean region. In those early years, the Marines acted as “naval infantry,” working aboard Navy ships and going ashore or onto enemy ships to fight when necessary. They also served as a security and police force on Navy ships. At the time, many Navy sailors were non-professionals who had been conscripted into service. The possibility of mutiny was very real. The Marines on board were often positioned in between the crew quarters and the officers. While at sea, the Marines were under the command of the Navy. When they went ashore, they were under Army command.

pirate book
Photo courtesy of Amazon
The Pirate Coast, a book about the first Marines and the pirates they fought.

The pirate issue came to a head when the African nation of Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801. A handful of Marines with a large group of mercenaries marched overland to the city of Derna and captured it after several hours of hard fighting. The incident was immortalized in the Marines’ Hymn.

Iwo Jima
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marines/Photographer: Joe Rosenthal
Five Marines and a Navy corpsman raise the second American flag on top of Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945.

Marines have seen action to some extent in every U.S. war. They saw heavy fighting in World War I, but it was in World War II that they endured some of the toughest battles ever fought by American soldiers. The Pacific Theater of the war required the conquering of dozens of small islands, airfields and bases that were held by entrenched Japanese forces. Island by island, the Marines ground out costly victories, losing thousands of men for each tiny atoll they took. It was here that they perfected the art of the amphibious assault. On a small island called Iwo Jima, the Marines’ victory was frozen in time by a famous photograph showing Marines struggling to raise an American flag. They eventually took the Philippines and landed in Japan and China to accept the surrender of Japanese soldiers. Almost 20,000 Marines died during the course of the war (Lawliss, 57).

The Marines were no less valuable (and bloodied) in Korea and Vietnam, and spearheaded several major assaults through Iraqi lines during Operation Desert Storm. [Source: The Marines]. During the Iraq War, Marines were in the thick of daily battles with insurgents in Fallujah, Samarra and Sadr City, and are responsible for patrolling and peacekeeping in that region. [Source: The Washington Post].

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marines/Department of Defense
Marines exit their transportation to begin a search and destroy operation in Vietnam, November 18, 1967.

In the future, the Marines plan to constantly examine and adjust their doctrine to improve their ability to deal with modern warfare. In the age of IEDs and roadside bombs, Marines are looking toward cultural training, decentralized decision-making and special anti-terrorism units to combat 21st century warfare tactics [Source: Marines Magazine].

Joining the Marines
Those who wish to become an officer in the Marines can apply for Officer Candidates School, which offers a grueling training regimen and an officer’s commission upon graduation. Potential Marine Corps officers can also attend the Naval Academy, a four-year undergraduate institution with a very rigorous physical and academic program. A Congressional nomination is required to apply.

Officer Candidate School
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense
Officer Candidate School students turn toward the source of a simulated grenade explosion.

Most Marines, however, begin their military career in Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina or at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. The 12-week training program is, by all accounts, more difficult than most armed services in the United States or elsewhere. Recruits are united by their loathing (and later respect) for a hard-nosed and leather-lunged Drill Instructor, who will literally drill Marine Corps values and skills into them. The Marine Corps training matrix provides a detailed look at Marine boot camp. All Marines are extensively trained in marksmanship – another part of Marine doctrine states that every Marine is a rifleman, from the front lines to the cooks and clerks.

Fitness test
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marines/Photographer: Lance Cpl. Dorian Gardner
Pvt. Nicholas L. Warner does pull-ups during the first event of the final physical fitness test.
Recruits should be aware that they will be asked to run 1.5 miles in less than 13 minutes and 30 seconds, do two full pull-ups and 44 crunches shortly after they arrive (female recruits must run the 1.5 miles in less than 15 minutes, do a 12-second flexed-arm hang, and also do 44 crunches). Failure will result in time spent in remedial courses designed to whip the recruits into decent physical condition. In other words, put in some time at the gym before you get on the bus for Parris Island.

Following graduation, Marines get a ten-day leave and then attend additional training in a specific area or career track. There are restrictions and prerequisites for many career tracks and specialties, so not every Marine gets to choose exactly what he or she wants to do. They will then be assigned to a base or airfield. The Marine’s preference for deployment is noted, but the priority for base assignment is where the Corps needs you, not where you’d like to live.