Important Moments in Marine Corps History
By the National Museum of the Marine Corps
On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized two battalions of Marines to be raised. Two weeks later, Samuel Nicholas was commissioned a Captain of Marines by the Continental Congress. He is traditionally regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. According to legend, Captain Nicholas began recruiting men on November 10, 1775 at Philadelphia's Tun Tavern, pictured in the illustration at left.
During the Revolutionary War, the Marines built their reputation onboard Continental Navy ships as sharpshooters in battle and enforcers of order within ships' crews. In early 1776, Marines led the first amphibious raid by Americans against British forces in the Bahamas. The nascent Marine Corps also established enduring ideals: readiness for battle, a respect for tradition and a close relationship with the U.S. Navy.
In March 1805, a 400-man expeditionary force began an epic, grueling 600-mile crossing of the Libyan Desert in North Africa. The force included U.S. Marine First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon and eight Marines, along with Naval Midshipman Pascal Peck, Arab soldiers and foreign mercenaries. Their goal was to storm the harbor fortress of Derna and force the overthrow of the king of Tripoli, who was holding American hostages. The force seized the fortress by surprise, and overtook the city, and O'Bannon raised the American flag over a battery of cannons. It was the first time the U.S. flag was raised over fortifications in a foreign country. The success at Derna in Tripoli is echoed in the official Marines’ Hymn: "...to the shores of Tripoli."
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, many Marine officers from the South resigned to fight for the Confederacy, some as Confederate Marines. This division was on display as Marines fought on opposing sides at the first battle of Bull Run in Northern Virginia and subsequent engagements. In the spring of 1862, Corporal John Mackie led a gun crew of U.S. Marines on the ironclad ship USS Galena. For his valor and bravery, Mackie would become the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor. It was awarded to him by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
The Marine Corps grew rapidly during World War I. By the war's end, the Corps was 75,000 strong—more than seven times its prewar size. The first Marines landed in France on June 27, 1917. Through the winter of 1917-1918, they guarded lines of supply and trained for combat. The Marines’ courage and commitment to duty was tested when they halted German soldiers pushing toward Paris on June 3, 1918. Marching through a wheat field and straight into machine gun and artillery fire, the Marines refused to retreat. Three weeks later, they emerged triumphant—at a cost. In a single day of fighting at Belleau Wood, France on June 6, 1918, more Marines were killed than any previous battle in the Marine Corps’ history.
During World War II, Marines mainly fought against Japan on islands in the Pacific. Enduring defeats at Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines, the Marines continued to fight. As the United States made progress on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, Japanese forces began attacking from heavily dug-in defensive positions. When the Marines landed on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Japanese forces were deeply entrenched, fighting from caves, tunnels and concrete bunkers. Early in the battle, the Marines fought their way up the sides of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A flag-raising was ordered at the summit. To ensure that all could see it, a second, larger flag was raised, which was immortalized in the above photo by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.
During the Korean War, after an extremely risky landing at Inchon, the Marines and United Nations forces recaptured Seoul from Communist forces in September 1950 and then continued to push north. In December 1950, ten Chinese divisions surrounded a single division of Marines near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The Chinese Army Group hurled more than 100,000 men against the 20,000-man 1st Marine Division, whose units were strewn along miles of bad roads near the frozen Chosin Reservoir. The snow fell and the temperatures dropped. But the Marines fought through; their gritty defense of Toktong Pass remains one of the most compelling stories in American military history. No Marines ever fought under worse conditions of weather and terrain (pictured above). Superbly supported by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, the division fought an epic withdrawal to the sea, turning back the Chinese and bringing out their own wounded and dead.
American involvement in Vietnam escalated after the French colonial regime crumbled in 1954. Marines assisted in the evacuation of 800,000 refugees fleeing from communist North Vietnam. Increasing Soviet involvement in the region prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and later President John F. Kennedy, to send advisors and assistance to South Vietnam. By early 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered combat Marines to Vietnam. In 1968, the 77-day siege of the isolated Marine base at Khe Sanh, involving two North Vietnamese Army divisions, was the longest battle of the war. The Marines withstood the siege and deployed one-fifth of their force to defend the hills overlooking the critical Khe Sanh airstrip, their sole source of resupply. The Marines would be involved in Vietnam in an advising or combat role for 21 years.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the declaration of a “global war on terror,” Marines have participated in operations worldwide in support of the eradication of global terrorism cells. These efforts have severely upset the functions of well-known terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. The Corps was a coalition member in both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq. Additionally, the Marines continue their role as a global expeditionary force in readiness to support the nation’s objectives, including supporting disaster relief and humanitarian operations—the most common mission of the Marines since Vietnam.
Pictured, above: U.S. Marine Sgt. Elena Moreno, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Detachment 31, attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force–Southern Command, and U.S. Army Sgt. King David, a crew chief with Joint Task Force–Bravo, 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, unload emergency supplies at a distribution point in Jeremie, Haiti, October 9, 2016. They were part of Joint Task Force Matthew, a U.S. Southern Command-directed team deployed to Port-au-Prince at the request of the government of Haiti, on a mission to provide humanitarian and disaster relief assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samuel Guerra)