Since the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States Marine Corp excelled at two things: winning wars and making Marines. Around the world, people associate Marines with honor and pride for our country and its military.
While the Marine Corp flag is a well-known symbol today, the current flag wasn’t the original one. The symbolism of Marines raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945, became one of the most enduring images of World War II and possibly the 20th century.
The Beginnings of the Marine Corp
On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a motion to create two Marine battalions.
Tradition says the Marine Corps first formed in a bar. In November 1775, Captains Samuel Nicholas and Robert Mullan supposedly formed the first Marine Corp muster at a favorite public house, the Tun Tavern. Officers lured potential Marines with tales of high sea adventures, and mugs of beer.
These recruits made up the first five companies that served on the Continental Navy ships. After the ending of the Revolutionary War, the government sold the Navy ships and separated the Navy and the Continental Marines.
While it is unknown if this story is truth or fiction, it makes a great tale, and, even today, the National Marine Corps Museum in Virginia contains a restaurant named Tun Tavern.
The First Battle
The Marines first amphibious landing was also their first battle on March 3, 1776. Captain Samuel Nicholas, one of the very men attributed to the creation of the Marine Corps, led a force that stormed the beaches of the British-held island of New Providence in the Bahamas.
They then traveled to nearby Nassau on a supply mission and captured the town and forts. New Providence’s British governor managed to ship more than 150 barrels of gunpowder out of town before the Marines arrived. Still, Nicholas and his Marines seized cannons and mortars that George Washington’s Continental Army used later.
The First Flag
Some evidence suggests the flag the Marines carried ashore at New Providence in 1776 was the Grand Union Flag, also known as the Continental flag. It consisted of 13 stripes and the Grand Union flag in the top inner corner. Thought to be the first American flag, it influenced the 13-star Betsy Ross edition but was never formally recognized.
Another possibility is the infamous Gadsden flag or the rattlesnake flag with the image of a snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”
19th Century Flag
Marines carried a white flag with a gold fringe in the 1830s and 1840s. The flag consisted of a picture with an eagle and an anchor with the words “To the Shores of Tripoli.” Later, when the Mexican-American War ended, they expanded the slogan to say, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”
During the Civil War and the Mexican-American Wars, Marines in the field carried a flag that alternated white and red stripes. The United States seal emblazoned in the canton included a half wreath and 29 stars.
Marines carried a version comparable to today’s American flag, with the words “U.S. Marine Corps.” embroidered in yellow thread with a red strip in the center by 1876.
20th Century Flag
Various United States flag codes and orders stopped the manufacturing of any U.S. flags with yellow fringe or the words “United States Marine Corps” in 1921. In the 1940s, the code banned the altering of the American flag with any symbols, words, or marks.
In 1914, Marines carried “Old Blue,” a blue flag with the Marine Corps emblem that held a globe, eagle, and anchor. Above the emblem was a scarlet ribbon with the title “U.S. Marine Corps.” Beneath the emblem, a scarlet ribbon said the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis.”
Officially adopted in 1918, the colors gold and scarlet represented the Marine Corps, although a flag with those colors was not designated until around 1939. This flag, mostly designed the same as the current Marine flag, included a gold fringe and a scarlet field. The Marine Corps emblem is in the center with a banner in the eagle's mouth that said “Semper Fidelis.” Below the emblem, a large banner reads “United States Marine Corps.”
The Current Flag
“First to Fight”
At the forefront of every war from its inception, the motto “First to Fight” is often associated with the Marine Corps.
They fought beside Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. During World War I, more than 100,000 Marines died or were wounded in France, and another 87,000 were wounded or died during World War II. During the Vietnam War, 88,000 Marines were wounded and 13,000 died. More than 92,000 Marines deployed to the Persian Gulf between 1990 and 1991. Over 9,200 Marines died or were injured in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as of July 7, 2007.
They’re brave, honorable, and they fight for our freedom. Semper Fidelis indeed.