Semper Fidelis has always been more than just a hollow slogan to Marines. These two simple Latin words, meaning "always faithful," are the motto of the Marine Corps. They can be found embroidered of the Corps' battle flags, tattooed on arms, backs and other body parts, and painted on signs, rocks, buildings and vehicles at every Marine Corps post and station. Most importantly, the motto embodies the spirit that Marines have carried into battle since the founding of the Corps on 10 November 1775.
In the classic motion picture Sands of Iwo Jima, the battle-hardened leader Sgt John M. Stryker told his young squad members, "You joined the Marines because you wanted to fight. Well, you're gonna get your chance." Men flocked to the Marine Corps expecting to be part of an elite force that was the first to land. And the Corps lived up to their expectations. Fully 98% of the Men who joined the Corps served in the Pacific. None of the other armed forces approached this level of efficiency in manpower during World War II.
The drill instructor served as the gatekeeper into a unique fraternity. With a compressed time frame, his mission was to turn men of every shape, size and background into basically trained Marines. When new recruits arrived in boot camp aboard the Marine bases in either San Diego or Parris Island, they were stripped of every vestige from their previous existence. Formed into platoons of 50 to 75 privates, they embarked on a journey of six to eight weeks in recruit training.
From dawn to dusk and far into the night, the drill instructors taught their new charges. Learning by the numbers, recruits absorbed a thousand lessons large and small. They attended classes, learned to swim, ran the obstacle course. Slowly, they learned how to walk, talk and act like Marines. For many of the new privates, this was their first time away from home. Their only contact with the outside world was through cherished letters from their friends and families.
Lessons were hammered in through repetition. Hour after hour, the platoons marched across the huge parade deck. They practiced snapping in and then qualified with their rifles. Entwined through it all was the Corps' bedrock--discipline. The Rocks and Shoals of Naval regulations were taught to the recruits. They found out that venereal disease was just as dangerous as getting a combat wound, and maybe more painful.
Mistakes were corrected through repetitive practice. Calling his rifle a gun might earn the recruit a night spent sleeping with it. Dropping it on the deck; a cardinal sin, could result in several laps around the parade deck with the rifle held up over his head. Serious lapses, such as calling the drill instructor anything other than "sir," could end with the recruit marching around the area with his bucket on his head. Officers, seldom seen in boot camp, were lesser gods, to be avoided at all costs.
Although most of them would never own a set of dress blues, every World War II recruit knew what the blood stripe on officers' and NCOs' dress blue trousers meant. It wasn't called blood stripe for nothing. In the class on Marine Corps history, they learned about the legendary GySgt Dan Daly and his famous battle cry in World War I, "Come on you bastards, do you want to live forever!"
Somewhere along the way, they discovered that they were becoming Marines, a special breed of man with one foot in the sea and the other on land. The forest green uniform wasn't just a suit of clothes, but a mark of distinction. And the Marine Corps Emblem--the eagle, globe and anchor--was much more than a badge. It was a way of life. Even the unofficial nicknames for Marines sounded tough. Soldiers might be called "dogface" or "G. I." and sailors were "swabbies." But Marines were leathernecks, and Gyrenes. Anyone dumb enough to call a Marine "seagoing bellhop" or "jarhead" risked a broken nose or worse.
Marines didn't just serve on land. They were soldiers of the sea. During the Revolution and the War of 1812, Marines sailed aboard ships with legendary names such as Bonhomme Richard, Constitution, and Constellation. High in the rigging of the fighting tops, they scoured the enemy's decks with volleys of aimed fire. These early leathernecks began a tradition that went down in history: "Every Marine a rifleman." After the age of sail passed into history, Marines continued to sail aboard battle wagons, cruisers and aircraft carriers.
Exotic locales were part and parcel of the Corps' tradition of small wars. Fighting "to the shores of Tripoli" and "the halls of Montezuma" small units of Marines prevailed against much larger enemy forces. China, Africa, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean. These far-off places were all familiar to old salts who might boast, "Hell, I've worn out more seabags than you've worn out socks." To men like this, defeat was unthinkable.
The Marine Corps lived up to its' fighting reputation. On the first day of the fighting at Belleau Wood in June 1918 the Marine Brigade lost 1,087 men killed or wounded. This was more casualties than the Marine Corps had suffered in its' entire history to that date. A company commander, when advised by a French officer to retreat, was reputed to have replied, "Retreat hell, we just got here."
But after almost three weeks of grinding combat against elite German stormtroopers, the woods were firmly in American hands. On 26 June 1918, after beating off early morning counterattacks, a major on the Marine Brigade staff sent the signal, "Woods now entirely - US Marine Corps." The Germans, never given to overstatement, were astounded at the fighting ability of the American Marines. A German officer whose unit fought against the Brigade in Belleau Wood was rumored to have reported to his commander, "Sie kaempfen wie Teufelhunde." (They fight like hounds from Hell.) The name stuck and ever since, Marines have proudly worn the nickname, "Devil Dogs."
In the opening weeks of World War II, the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and launched a major offensive all across the Pacific. One of their objectives was the American base at Wake Island, defended by a brave but completely outnumbered Marine garrison. Holding out for two weeks against major Japanese seaborne assault, the defenders of Wake sank two enemy ships and repulsed the first enemy attempts to land.
Americans hung on the gallant deeds of Wake Island's defenders. After fending off the first Japanese attack, the garrison commander transmitted a long radio message to Pacific headquarters requesting reinforcements and supplies. The radioman inserted several passages of filler text at the end of the message before encoding it. In the text was the phrase, "Send more Japs." Widely reported in the press, the message became part of the wartime lore of the Marine Corps.
During the war, the Corps grew to a size never equaled before or since. Nonetheless, it remained the smallest of the armed services and was small enough that men had buddies all over the world. Marines knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were in an elite fighting force. Their mission of assault from the sea against heavily defended islands only strengthened this belief. Again and again, they proved the old axiom, "The Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand.
At the end of every Pacific campaign, survivors looked out across a blasted landscape littered with the wreckage of combat. The destruction of lives and resources was horrendous and beyond comprehension to anyone who had not experienced it. Often immense, The death toll was terribly painful for those who were still standing. Filthy, exhausted, with the stench of battle in their nostrils, young men were glad to be alive, but mourned the loss of so many friends and comrades.
In the end, the Marine Corps was a mirror of the United States itself. Forged into warriors, formed into well-trained and -equipped teams, the World War II Gyrenes faced and overcame an implacable foe. They lived up to the very highest traditions of those that went before them. Landing against withering defenses with the cold sea at their backs, those wartime Marines won their own battle laurels, and in the doing, achieved a level of courage and honor that became a benchmark for generations of future Marines and a mark of honor for all time.
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