Tuesday is Veterans Day, a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good. We salute them all. But today belongs to the United States Marines, marking the 239th birthday of the Corps.
Marine Corps birthday celebrations come with a traditional cake-cutting ceremony that would put your usual event marketing to shame. For this, a commanding officer cuts the cake with a Mameluke sword (a kind of scimitar), the first piece going to the oldest Marine present, which is then passed along to the youngest. During the annual birthday celebration, Order No. 47 is read, which says in part, “it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.” Marines are proud of that history.
This birthday presentation started November 1, 1921 by order of the 13th Commandant, Gen. John A. LeJeune, as a reminder of the service of the Corps and its inception. It’s been celebrated this way for 93 years. So a real tradition and part of its “long and illustrious history” and a truly emotional event where loyalty and continuity continues to reinforce the Marine Corps brand.
History and tradition are a big part of the Marine Corps brand, and many expressions that have become part of the American lexicon are related to the Marines.
For example, the phrase “Leathernecks,” hearkens back to 1776 when the Naval Committee of the Second Continental Congress stipulated new Marine uniforms and along with green coats, buff breeches, and black gaiters, the committee mandated a leather collar to protect the neck against cutlasses. Oh, and to help maintain proper military bearing. Marine “packaging” has changed over the past 239 years – they have the best dress uniforms of any of the services – but the name stuck!
The appellation “Devil Dogs” comes from the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. The Germans called the Marines fighting through woods that were thought to impenetrable, and who finally captured ground thought to be an absolute German safe haven, “Teufel Hunden,” referring to the legendary Hounds from Hell.
Marines have sometimes been called “Jarheads,” and that term originates from the “high and tight” haircut that many Marines have, which makes their head look like a jar. (OK, nobody’s perfect, but Marines come as close as you can get to perfect!)
The Marine Corps motto – “Semper Fidelis” (“Ever faithful” and the John Philip Sousa official march of the Marines) – was adopted in 1883. It replaced three traditional but unofficial slogans, which isn’t a bad record for a brand that’s 239 years old (Take a look and see how many times Coca Cola has changed their tag line. And that brand is only 128years old!) The first was “Fortitudine” (Latin for “with courage”), the second, “Per Mare, Per Terram” (“By sea and by land”). The third, “To the shores of Tripoli,” was revised in 1848 to “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
That was incorporated into the “Marines’ Hymn,” the official hymn of the Corps as well as the oldest official military theme song in the United States armed forces. See what we mean about history? Marines stand at attention when it’s played or sung, a real tribute to the Mad Men of the ‘50’s who counseled you could identify a hit brand, theme song, or campaign by “running it up the flagpole, to see if anyone saluted it.” Marines continue to do so. Oh, and when they talk about a song being “top of the charts with a bullet,” in this case Marines mean a real bullet!
But the six words the Marines, and the Marine brand, are perhaps best known for are, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”
A lot of credit goes to ad man J. Walter Thompson for that. Mr. Thompson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1864 so you might say there was some history there too, because l about 100 years later his company helped develop the Marine Corps into the elite brand it stands for today. It is, perhaps, the most-cited slogan of any of the U.S military forces and even appears on Madison Avenue’s Advertising Walk of Fame.
But, like all things Marine, it also has its roots in history. On March 20, 1779, Captain William Jones of the Continental Marines placed a recruiting advertisement in The Providence Gazette (digital banner ads being unavailable at the time), which read in part “The Continental ship Providence, now lying at Boston, is bound on a short cruise, immediately; a few good men are wanted to make up her complement.” If you want a celebrity endorsement regarding that practice, it was George Washington who later commented, “It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones.”
So to the complement of those few good men, past and present, we say “Happy Birthday.”
And (as is traditional) “Semper Fi, brothers.”
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