United States Marines are widely known as the toughest military force on earth, and it's not a stretch to see why. The branch, which serves as the rapid-reaction force for the United States Armed Forces, is trained to fight on land and at sea and often serves as the first boots on the ground in dangerous missions on hostile terrain.
Marines are multifunctional fighters who are tasked with a wide range of duties, including disaster relief and security. The Marine Corps, however, is an organization concerned with excellence in combat above all else. Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr., the 29th commandant of the Marine Corps, once said, "Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary.”
However, being a Marine rifleman (or belonging to a Marine rifle company) involves much more than just stellar marksmanship. Their world-class training prepares Marines to improvise and adapt to changing conditions both on and off the battlefield, to be masters of complex equipment, weapons, and tactics, and to persevere through extraordinary and difficult conditions for extended periods of time. In the end, the primary objective of all Marine Corps missions is victory at any cost—and that cost is often high.
Tens of thousands of Marines have died on the battlefield across every major American war and many smaller conflicts. From Iwo Jima and Chosin to Hue and Fallujah, Marines often find themselves chosen as the first to engage the enemy in the most ferocious battles. The number of casualties they suffer is often dramatically disproportionate to their relatively small numbers. For nearly 250 years, the United States Marine Corps has reassured America's allies, terrified its enemies, and embodied the hardest and most aggressive version of the United States Armed Forces fighting spirit.
Here's a look at the numbers behind the people, the missions, and the legacy of the U.S. Marines.
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On Nov. 10, 1775, the Marine Corps was established to supplement the U.S. Navy. According to Military.com, the organization's birthplace is considered the Tun Tavern on Water Street in Philadelphia, where the first Marine recruiting station was established. The Marine Corps was decommissioned after the Revolutionary War for economic reasons but was reinstated in 1798.
"Semper Fidelis," the motto of the Marine Corps, means "Always Faithful." There had been three traditional mottos before "Semper Fidelis" was established as the official motto in 1883.
Three core values drive the behavior of Marines both on and off the battlefield. They are honor, courage, and commitment.
The special mission of the Marine Corps Band, known as "The President's Own," is to play music for the president of the United States and the commandant of the Marine Corps. Founded in 1798, it is the longest-running continuously active professional music organization in the U.S. The Marine Corps Band performs more than 500 public occasions every year at the White House and beyond.
Established in 1947, Marine Helicopter Squadron One, known as HMX-1, is the home of some of the finest pilots in the world. In 1957, HMX-1 was enlisted to shuttle President Dwight Eisenhower to an emergency meeting at the White House. That day, HMX-1 was given one of the most prestigious missions in the United States Armed Forces: direct support of the president. HMX-1 Nighthawk pilots fly the president in Marine One to this day.
After the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps is the smallest branch in the military. According to the Marine Corps Times, there are only 220,000 members of the Marine Corps and its reserve components.
By comparison, the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard boast more than 1 million combined members. There are five soldiers in the United States Army for every one Marine.
About 16% of America's overall enlisted personnel are women. In the Marine Corps, the number is only 8%, the lowest of any branch by far, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The next closest is the Army, where women make up 14% of enlisted personnel.
Women account for only 7.4% of officers in the Marine Corps, lower than any other branch of the armed forces. Women represent at least 18% of officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
According to the Heritage Foundation, there were 35,200 Marines deployed around the world as of February 2018. Their stated purpose is "to assure our allies and partners, to deter our adversaries, and to respond when our...citizens and interests are threatened." They performed 104 operations in 2017 alone.
The basic combat unit of the Marine Corps, which is America's primary expeditionary force, is an infantry battalion. Each battalion includes about 900 Marines spread across a headquarters and service company, a weapons company, and three rifle companies.
As recently as 2011, the Marines maintained 27 infantry battalions. As budgets have gotten tighter, however, that number declined to a low of 23 in 2015. Today's Marine Corps maintains 24 infantry battalions.
The Marines must make do with not just less money and fewer resources and personnel than other branches, but also fewer bases. There are 21 Marine bases scattered across the world. The Army, on the other hand, maintains 17 combined bases in Virginia and Germany alone.
Partly because of its sheer size, the Army has long dominated military culture and the Marines have always fought for equal, or even nominal representation at the leadership level. There were no four-star Marine generals before the end of World War II and only "about 50" since then, according to the Marine Corps Times. By comparison, the Army has saluted 218 four-star generals in its history.
No Marine representative held a seat on the powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff before 1978, a full three decades after the organization was established. No Marine chaired the Joint Chiefs until 2005.
What the Marines lack in numbers, dollars, and leadership positions, they make up for with valor, bravery, and ferocity on the battlefield. The fighting organization boasts 300 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade any member of any branch of the Armed Forces can receive. Medals of Honor must be earned on the battlefield, and the battlefield is where the Marine Corps' reputation for determination, grit, and bravery was forged over more than two centuries.
In 1776, 234 Marines embarked on the organization's inaugural seaborne raid under the command of Capt. Samuel Nicholas. They stormed Fort Nassau in the Bahamas, where the British warehoused massive stores of weapons and gunpowder for use in combat against the 13 colonies. The British surrendered just minutes after the Marines hit the shore.
In 1805, the new American nation endured constant harassment by pirates from the Barbary Coast, who raided American merchant ships and killed and captured their crews. That year, Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to the distant shores of Tripoli to attack the city of Derna for retribution and to rescue American hostages. The Marines fulfilled their mission, but not before marching across 600 miles of Libyan desert—the moment marked the end of the golden age of piracy and cemented the Marines' reputation as a no-nonsense global fighting force that could land on any shore in the world at any time.
World War I was the first modern, mechanized, global conflict in history, and the Marines were at the forefront. Pinned down and nearly out of supplies in the Belleau Wood outside of Paris, a Marine force resorted to fixed bayonets to attack German positions, many of which were fortified with machine guns. Marine riflemen established themselves as the finest marksmen in the world after the outmatched force tore through German lines and won the 20-day battle—the Germans called them "Devil Dogs," a nickname Marines still embrace today.
One of the most iconic images in the history of the American military is the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi after a hard-fought victory at Iwo Jima during World War II—and the men raising the flag were United States Marines. About 18,000 Japanese fighters were dug in on Iwo Jima when the Marines landed in what would become the kind of brutal, gritty, and up-close battle for which they are now famous. After 36 days of bloody fighting, 20,000 Marines were wounded and nearly 7,000 were killed—but not before they killed all but 216 Japanese soldiers.
The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir pitted stranded and under-resourced Marines against swarms of well-trained, battle-hardened Chinese soldiers in what is considered the most epic battle of the Korean War. Chosin tested the endurance of even the hardiest Marines, as temperatures that reached 50-below zero froze machines and men alike into blocks of ice during one of the most brutal winters in Korean history. The moment reinforced the Marine mythology that had captured America's imagination during World War II—if the limits of human endurance are to be tested in battle, the United States sends in the Marine Corps.
Just as Iwo Jima did for World War II and Chosin did for Korea, the Battle of Hue came to define the brutality of the Vietnam War—and once again, it was the Marines who were at the center of it all. One of the bloodiest and most extended conflicts of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hue began when the North Vietnamese army and its Viet Cong guerrilla allies launched the Tet Offensive in 1968. It was defined by savage, close-quarter, house-to-house urban fighting that lasted 33 days until the Marines finally took the city.
Sept. 11, 2001, changed military culture forever and focused the attention of the United States Armed Forces on al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps was the first major force to arrive, which they did in December (shortly before the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit captured Kandahar Airport). Eighteen years later, the Marines are still there.
The Battle of Fallujah was a defining conflict of the Iraq War as well as one of the deadliest—51 Americans lost their lives. The Marines, known for their ability to adapt to changing battlefield conditions, put on a clinic of how a stealthy modern fighting force wins in the post-9/11 age of warfare. They used cutting-edge techniques and technology to locate enemy positions, avoid mass civilian casualties, and secure critical infrastructure—then they used the house-to-house fighting skills that their predecessors refined in Hue to clear the insurgent stronghold block by block.
The Revolutionary War claimed the lives of 49 Marines. It was the start of a long and solemn legacy of U.S. Marines making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of honor, courage, and commitment—the three foundational values that define the Corps to this day. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, those 49 men were the first of 41,485 Marines to have been killed in action while defending their country, their code, and their fellow Marines.