The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told
Contributor: Thomas Houlihan
Review Date: 30 Sep 2010
This book was a very enjoyable read. Given fair warning in Colonel J.H. Alexander's introduction, I knew I wasn't going to get to read all the good Corps stories, but the ones presented were definitely worthwhile.
The twenty-three stories presented here span the entire history of the Marine Corps. To break them down, there are seven pre-20th Century, one from WWI, nine from WWII, one Korean War, four from Vietnam, one Desert Storm, and one from Iraqi Freedom.
The stories from the first 125 or so years do a very good job of laying the groundwork for an understanding of Marine pride, ethos, and courage. While Marines had served with valor during the American Revolution, it was Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon's expedition "to the shores of Tripoli" that provide one of the early highlights of Marine Corps history. This expedition against superior forces, with U.S. Navy support not only helped immensely in the campaign against the Barbary Pirates, but served to provide Marine officers forevermore with their Mameluke swords, a treasured sidearm even today. Not the only Marine officer to provide gallant service, Lieutenant J.M. Gamble more than lived up to the original requirements for Marines, that "none shall be a Marine that he not be a qualified seaman first," when the young lieutenant took command of a captured vessel, when there were not enough naval officers to take the command.
Three more stories provide glimpses of Marines in combat during the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War. Sergeant John H. Quick rounds out the century with his courage under not only enemy fire, but friendly fire at the same time, as he uses semaphore signals warships offshore to cease their naval gunfire support.
Many books have been written about U.S. Marines in the First World War, but the presentation here of Marines and their officers in Belleau Wood shows the chaos, horror, confusion of the combat here.
Since the Marine Corps was at its peak strength during World War II, so it follows that the bulk of the "good" stories would come from this war. About a quarter of the book is covered by the exploits of Marines in the Pacific Campaign. Guadalcanal is covered with stories of an aviator and the Grunt. Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, bloody hells all, are featured. Two oft overlooked area of the Corps are also covered: Women and Navajo code talkers. While only a fraction of the well-known names of this conflict are presented here, these stories highlight very important points in our Corps' history. So important are these battles that when I visited Iwo Jima with E/2/2 twenty years ago, there was an unusual sense of quiet reverence in our troop berthing area.
A report by Ernie Pyle rounds out the WWII portion of the book with an interesting look at Marines. Pyle had spent most of the war with men of the U.S. Army in Africa and Europe. When he moved to the Pacific and spent time with the Marines, his expectations and the reality he met are interesting to read of. Although the Army and the Marines drew their recruits from the same basic manpower pools, and though there were similaries in their technical and tactical training, Pyle was well-placed to see that there were indeed differences between the two. His observations from his unique perspective are of value to all who would study the Corps.
A story from the Frozen Chosin provides a sequel into the Corps in the Cold War era. This deadly fight illustrates two very important points in the attitude of Marines. When the Marines determined they were surrounded, the feeling was that they had the enemy right where they wanted them. On the other hand, the care and effort put into recovering their dead and wounded during the withdrawal from the Reservoir clearly shows how important it is to Marines to look after each other, either alive or dead. This concept is revisited in Hue City when more men die in the performance of what they consider their personal duty to their fellow Marines.
The battle in Hue City is one of four vignettes presented from the Vietnam era, as Marines struggle to move through that ancient city. The siege of Khe Sanh, another hallowed moment in Marine Corps history is also explored. Unlike WWII, where the American public 'knew' so many Marines, there didn't seem to be as many men who the public was aware of during this war. Carlos Hathcock was one of them, a sniper extraordinaire, and some of the reasons for this are brought out as he stalks his quarry in this story.
It is indeed a shame that there are only two stories from the latter part of the 20th Century in this book, where the capture of Kuwait City and combat in Baghdad are presented. It is of course not Mr. Martin's fault. It is certainly not that today's Marines fight with any less courage or elan than their forefathers did. The Marines who fought against Saddam's forces to free Kuwait, or who fight even as I write this in Iraq (along side my youngest brother in the Army) and in the hills of Afghanistan instead suffer from the politicizing of their wars. The media no longer presents today's version of the old newsreels to a caring public that follows "their" Leathernecks and Dogfaces around the world. Today, political disdain and public apathy relegate these brave men and women to a level of unimportance that they do not deserve. Their exploits go unrecognized save but by a few. I find myself hoping that Mr. Martin continues what he has started here, and includes more of the modern stories, so that more people can learn about Marines, and possibly figure out what it is that makes us tick the way that we do.
That said, is it worth reading? Most assuredly! Should one have any interest in military history, or the Marine Corps in particular, then this book will be most enlightening.
SSGT, USMC (ret.)
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