Marines don’t really need an excuse to get together and party, maybe fight a little, and be generally glorious bastards for a night. But every November, Marines everywhere come together for a particularly special night of camaraderie and debauchery as we celebrate the Marine Corps birthday.
Shortly after World War I, the 13th commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, created a uniquely Marine Corps holiday, establishing Nov. 10 — the same day in 1775 that the Second Continental Congress established the Continental Marines — as the official birthday of the United States Marine Corps.
Lejeune’s Order No. 47 is a simple, four-paragraph essay calling Marines to remember the warriors who fought before us and to remember what the Marine Corps is — an elite fighting force steeped in tradition. The first birthday celebration was a dinner where Lejeune read his order. As time went on, other traditions were added to the event until it became what Marines now celebrate as the Birthday Ball.
Per tradition, Lejeune’s message is still read at every birthday celebration, and the current commandant of the Marine Corps sends out his own birthday message every year.
The cake-cutting ceremony is a Birthday Ball tradition that has become emblematic of the Marine Corps’ sense of being part of something greater than oneself. A sword is used to cut the cake, and the oldest Marine present passes a piece of cake to the youngest Marine present, symbolizing the passage of knowledge, experience, and tradition from one generation to the next. It encapsulates the concept that each individual Marine is but one in a long line of warriors, and one day the youngest Marine will be the one passing on Marine Corps knowledge, experience, and tradition.
The Marine Corps Birthday Ball combines elements of a state dinner, a wedding reception, a high school prom, and a fraternity party. It is at times somber with tradition but can then turn into a party Bacchus himself would envy. The ball typically starts with a genteel cocktail hour, then proceeds with the ceremonial traditions and a dinner. Younger Marines keep a close eye on senior enlisted members, waiting to see dress-blue collars undone — the signal the party is really starting. Nowhere else will you see a master sergeant pop and lock on the dance floor in full dress blues.
Ever hear of carrier landings? When Marines get tired of dancing and general jackassery at the ball, the dance floor is awesome because there’s SO MUCH ROOM FOR ACTIVITIES! “Carrier landings,” for example, involve Marines pouring beer all over the floor to create a makeshift slip-’n’-slide. While one Marine runs and slides, two others hold a rolled-up tablecloth taut so the sliding Marine can catch it with his legs as he slides underneath it, like a plane catches the cable with the tailhook when landing on an aircraft carrier. Hopefully before he crashes into a wall. I’d hate to be on the cleaning staff after a Marine Corps ball.
To fully understand how the Marine Corps birthday became such an essential part of Marine-ness, it’s important to understand the man who instituted it and when he established it.
Maj. Gen. Lejeune served for 39 years during a critical time of transition for the United States and the Corps. He was a strategic visionary. He saw the United States’ need for a highly disciplined expeditionary force, and during his nine years as commandant of the Marine Corps, he strove to emplace enduring training and logistics structures.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1890, Lejeune cut his teeth during the Banana Wars, when the US used the Marine Corps and the Navy to intervene extensively in low-level conflicts throughout Latin America. Just prior to World War I, morale in the Marine Corps had suffered after decades of fighting in jungles and mountains and securing the business interests of US fruit companies.
In 1926, near the end of his military career, Lejeune wrote in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings:
“The Marine Corps as a whole is now better prepared to carry out its mission than for many years. The intensive program of professional education, which has been carried out consistently since the year 1920, has greatly increased the military attainments of our commissioned personnel. The enlisted force has settled down after the upheaval of the World War and is now well disciplined, well trained, and well equipped. Finally, the part the Marine Corps will be expected to play in the next war, the tasks it will be assigned and the duties it will perform are clearly set forth and well understood; it follows, therefore, that our preparation in peace for our duty in war can be, and is more intelligent and more effective than ever before.”
Prior to Lejeune’s Order No. 47, Marines didn’t really do much for the anniversary of the Corps’ founding. In fact, the official birthday at the time was July 11, the date Congress reestablished the Marine Corps in 1798. (Marines don’t like to talk about the fact the Continental Marines were disbanded after the Revolutionary War; WE ARE 245 YEARS OLD AND WILL FIGHT ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE.)
By establishing an official Marine Corps Birthday that harked back to the beginning of the nation, Lejeune reinforced the esprit de corps Marines won at the Battle of the Argonne Forest in France during World War I. It was a welcome change from decades of dispiriting “small wars” in Latin America.
At the Argonne, despite heavy losses, the Marines destroyed German defensive positions using fixed bayonet charges and wiped out the German counteroffensive with withering, accurate rifle fire. The victory was critical in the Allied Forces’ push to end the war, and it was widely reported with great fanfare back home. With that single battle, the Marine Corps established a worldwide reputation as fierce fighters, recognized by both allies and enemies. Lejeune helped cement that reputation and created a constant reminder of how that reputation was earned.
The Marine Corps Birthday is now a cultural touchstone for Marines. It is an annual reinforcement to every Marine that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. It is a reminder each generation of Marines must make themselves worthy of the sacrifices of previous generations. It is a demand of each generation of Marines to set the example for future generations. Whether Marines are in garrison or in combat, active duty or veteran, in large units or just two old Marine vets at a bar, every Marine pauses on Nov. 10 to commemorate our traditions and refresh the bonds of brotherhood.
Here is Maj. Gen. Lejeune’s order establishing Nov. 10 as the official Marine Corps Birthday, mandating Marine Corps-wide observation and celebration.
MARINE CORPS ORDERS
No. 47 (Series 1921)
HEADQUARTERS U.S. MARINE CORPS
Washington, November 1, 1921
- The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the 10th of November of every year. Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it will be read upon receipt.
- On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them 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.
- The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.
- In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.
- This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.
JOHN A. LEJEUNE,
Major General Commandant