Some people work an entire lifetime and wonder if they ever made a difference to the world. But the Marines don’t have that problem.
President Ronald Reagan, letter to Lance Corporal Joe Hickey, September 23, 1983
On November 10, 1775 the Continental Congress passed this resolution authored by John Adams:
“Resolved, That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said battalions but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve with advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present War with Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by names of First and Second Battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the Continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.”
At the various birthday celebrations by the Marine Corps today, the song given pride of place will of course be the Marines’ Hymn. The oldest of the official songs of a branch of the US military, the composer of the Marines’ Hymn is unknown, but is thought to have been a Marine serving in Mexico during the Mexican War, hence the “Halls of Montezuma”. The music is taken from the Gendarmes Duet from the Opera Genevieve de Brabant, written by Jacques Offenback in 1859.
Prior to 1929 the first verse used to end:
” Admiration of the nation,
we’re the finest ever seen;
And we glory in the title
Of United States Marines”
which the then Commandant of the Marine Corps changed to the current lines. On November 21, 1942, Commandant Thomas Holcomb approved a change in the words of the first verse’s fourth line from “On the land as on the sea” to “In the air, on land, and sea”.
My favorite rendition of the hymn is in the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) This film earned John Wayne his first Oscar nomination as best actor. (Broderick Crawford would win for his stunning performance in All The King’s Men.) Wayne was initially reluctant to take the role, partly because he had not fought in World War II, and partly because he saw script problems and didn’t like the character of Sergeant Styker as initially written in the screen play. (There is evidence that Wayne, 34 at the time of Pearl Harbor, and with 3 kids, did attempt to volunteer in 1943 for the Marine Corps with assignment to John Ford’s OSS Field Photographic Unit, but was turned down.)
Wayne was convinced to take the role because the film had the enthusiastic backing of the Marine Corps, which viewed it as a fitting tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific, and to help combat a move in Congress, at the behest of Truman who, an old Army man, never had any use for the Navy or the Marines, to abolish the Corps. Marine Commandant Clifton B. Cates went to see Wayne to request that he take the role and Wayne immediately agreed. (Thus began a long association of John Wayne with the Marine Corps, including Wayne narrating a tribute to Marine Lieutenant General Chesty Puller.)
Appearing in the film were several Marine veterans of the Pacific, including Colonel David Shoup, who earned a Medal of Honor for his heroism at Tarawa, and who would later serve as a Commandant of the Corps, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Crow who led a Marine battalion at Tarawa. The Marine Corp hymn is sung in the film after the death of Wayne’s character, one of ten films in which a Wayne character died, and as the raising of the flag is recreated.
Taking part in the flag raising were Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley, the three survivors of the six flag raisers who survived the battle. (The three men who raised the flag and subsequently died in the battle were Franklin Sousely, Harlon Block and Michael Strank.) (First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, who led the flag raising party that raised the first, smaller, flag on Mount Suribachi, and who was awarded a Navy Cross and a Silver Star for his heroism on Iwo Jima, also appeared in the film.) The flag on top of Mount Suribachi could be seen across the island, and was greeted with cheers by the Marines and blaring horns by the ships of the Navy. A mass was said on Mount Suribachi at the time of the flag raising and I have written about that here.
The film was a smash hit, and plans to dismantle the Corps were quietly shelved.
- 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 unfurled 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.