- By Kari Imberg
From their valor in the Revolutionary War to the scorching Afghanistan deserts of today, the U.S. Marine Corps has seen much transformation over the years. Today marks the 240th birthday of the Corps, and Marines around the world, both active duty and veterans, are ready to celebrate.
Whether at one of the many Marine Corps Birthday Balls around the nation, on the deck of an amphibious ship at sea or at the local VFW, they will all wish each other a Happy Birthday, raise a glass to Corps and country and indulge in a piece of birthday cake.
“It’s important to take the time once a year on the 10th of November to recognize not only those that have gone before, but also recognize those 18- to 22-year-olds who are the future of the Marine Corps,” says Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, Jr., USMC (Ret.).
Blackman, who is also the president and CEO of The Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, says that what makes Marines unique is the way they honor and gain strength from their history.
There is no bravado in any WWII vet that I have ever met. They just quietly go through life.
— Shayne Jarosz, Iwo Jima Association of America
“They feel a connection to every generation of Marines,” Blackman notes. “Each of these generations has served in uniquely different places. In every clime and place. And they’ve faced different circumstances and different enemies and different weapons, but they’re all Marines. That is what the Marine Corps birthday represents. That is really the link that ties all generations of Marines together.”
Often, when enduring hard times, Blackman says Marines will think to themselves: “You know what, this is nothing compared to what my brothers endured during WWII or the Korean War or Vietnam.” Their greatest strength is not an M32 grenade launcher, it’s their history.
So in honor and celebration of the day, let’s take a look at four of the most defining moments in Marine Corps history — starting with the 1940s and working our way to the present.
World War II — Iwo Jima
The island campaigns of WWII were each unique and horrific in their own ways. But without a doubt, most would probably agree that The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the most critical moments in the Corps’ history.
When you hear someone speak of Iwo Jima, the iconic flag-raising photo of the Marines often comes to mind. But Blackman says while the men who raised that flag certainly deserve great credit, it’s also about much more. The flag represents every Marine who was not only hiding on that island — and would be for weeks to come — but for all the Marines who were fighting in the various island campaigns across the Pacific at that time.
While we may think of these men as heroes, however, the Marines themselves think otherwise.
“There is no bravado in any WWII vet that I have ever met,” says Shayne Jarosz, executive director of the Iwo Jima Association of America, Inc. “They just quietly go through life. Even when they’re telling their stories, it’s just in a matter-of-fact kind of way.”
Jarosz says he feels like “the luckiest guy in the world” because of his fortunate position that allows him to carry these stories forward for Marine vets.
“Iwo Jima was one of the most pivotal battles in Marine Corps history, no doubt, and I think we should absolutely celebrate and remember these events,” says Jarosz. “When you listen to these gentlemen tell their stories, it’s amazing that anyone survived. It’s sobering to think that we still have some of these guys walking around.”
This one WWII battle alone left 27,000 casualties and more than 7,000 KIA (Killed In Action). Jarosz added that out of the 22,000 Japanese on the island, only 200 survived.
Korea — The Landing at Inchon
The year was 1950 when The Korean War broke out between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the north) and the pro-Western Republic Korea (the south).
The war was relatively short, but what it lacked in time, it made up for in deaths. The Korean War left nearly 5 million people dead, including civilians. That number includes the nearly 40,000 Americans who died in action and the more than 100,000 left wounded.
“The Landing at Inchon was one of the most important amphibious landings in history,” says Blackman.
The landing, which was championed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had been criticized as too risky. Nonetheless, Marines made a surprise attack at the strategic port of Inchon, on the west coast of Korea.
Afterward, the U.S. forces were able to break the North Korean supply lines and push their way inwards to recapture Seoul, the South Korean capital that had fallen to the Communists earlier that year.
While the Inchon landing was certainly a big factor in changing the course of the war, Blackman says the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was equally important. That battle, which followed the Inchon landing, was “one of the most iconic battles in our history.”
“The horrific combat that Marines faced up there…” Blackman says. “It was not just the divisions of Chinese regulars, but also the incredible cold of that time of year of what is now North Korea.”
A very special generation of men fought in Vietnam. The war was during a time that the U.S. was undergoing some of the greatest social change in our country’s history. No matter, thousands of troops gave their lives to defend their beloved country.
“Those who chose to serve Corps and country during this incredibly unpopular war are absolutely extraordinary,” Blackman says. “I think we forget just how many young men were lost during those years in Vietnam. But the battles of Khe Sanh and Hue City and all of the operations were executed magnificently by Marines.”
In total, the war — which lasted nearly two decades from 1954 to 1973 — left more than 58,000 American troops dead and nearly 300,000 wounded.
The Vietnam War was, at that time, the longest war in U.S. history.
Iraq and Afghanistan
When you think of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it’s important to recognize the thousands of Americans who stepped up that day and in the following weeks by joining the military.
Still ongoing, the War on Terror is the longest period of continuous combat in our country’s history. It is for this reason that the Marines of today are of great military significance. In fact, Blackman says we may just be looking at the “new greatest generation.”
The Marines who have fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) have endured many of the similar hardships of past wars. But Blackman says there is one thing that seems to set them apart from past generations of Marines:
“These are guys who have fought for a dozen years with multiple deployments; the three, four, five, six deployments. It’s put great demands not only on the Marines, but on their families,” says Blackman. Members of the Marine Corps past and present, we salute you.