1. According to legend, the first Marine Corps recruitments took place in a bar.
Marine tradition holds that the Corps was formed in a bar. The story dates to late-November 1775, when newly commissioned Captains Samuel Nicholas and Robert Mullan supposedly organized the first Marine Corps muster at Tun Tavern, a popular watering hole in Philadelphia. The two officers are said to have lured potential Marines with mugs of beer and the promise of adventure on the high seas, and their recruits later made up the first five companies that served aboard Continental Navy ships. While there’s little hard evidence to back up the tavern tale—some historians maintain that a pub called the Conestoga Wagon was the more likely recruitment site—it remains a part of Marine lore to this day. The National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia even contains a restaurant named “Tun Tavern.”
2. The Marines’ first battle took place in the Bahamas.
The first amphibious landing in Marine Corps history came on March 3, 1776, when a force under Captain Samuel Nicholas stormed the beaches of the British-held island of New Providence in the Bahamas. The 220 Marines had journeyed to the Caribbean with a Continental Navy flotilla in search of military supplies. After landing unopposed near Nassau, they captured the town and took possession of its two forts, both of which surrendered after a token resistance. New Providence’s British governor managed to ship more than 150 barrels of gunpowder out of the town before the Marines arrived, but Nicholas and his band successfully seized several brass cannons and mortars that were later put to use by George Washington’s Continental Army.
3. The Marine Band is nicknamed “The President’s Own.”
First formed in 1798, the Marine Corps’ military band is famous for having performed at the inauguration of every American president since Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Jefferson nicknamed the Marine Band “The President’s Own,” and since then, its main purpose has been to provide music for the commander in chief at state dinners, parades and other functions. The band is best known for its marches—“The Stars and Stripes Forever” composer John Philip Sousa was once its director—but it has also played classical and opera music according to the tastes of the president and his guests. It once even performed a Scott Joplin ragtime tune at the request of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice.
4. The Marines first won fame for fighting pirates.
Following a brief disbandment after the American Revolution, the Marine Corps was revived in July 1798 and later sent into action against the Barbary pirates, a group of North African corsairs that had spent years raiding American merchant shipping and extorting costly ransoms and tributes. In 1805, Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and a small contingent of Marines arrived in Egypt and assisted American naval agent William Eaton in assembling a mercenary army to overthrow the Barbary ruler of Tripoli. They then took their soldiers-for-hire on a grueling 50-day march across the desert to Derna in modern day Libya. With the help of a bombardment of U.S. Navy ships, the Marines participated in a daring assault on April 27 that successfully seized the city and its fortifications. The victory was the first ever battle fought by the United States on foreign soil, and helped lead to a favorable peace deal in the First Barbary War. The Derna campaign has since been enshrined in the Marines’ Hymn with the famous line “to the shores of Tripoli.”
5. The Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy.
While the Marine Corps is its own branch of the U.S. military, it falls under the administration of the Department of the Navy. This close working relationship dates back to the American Revolution and has been affirmed by several acts of Congress. Marines serve aboard Navy ships and often train alongside sailors, and many Marine officers attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Marines have also operated under the authority of the Army, most famously during World War I, when the Fourth Marine Brigade was attached to the Second Infantry Division in Europe.
6. More Marines died at World War I’s Battle of Belleau Wood than in their entire history up to that point.
Marines served in every American war of the 18th and 19th centuries, but their original role as naval troops and ship’s guards meant that they were only rarely tested in land battles. That changed in June 1918, when Marines under General James Harbord clashed with German forces positioned in a French hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. Ignoring calls to withdraw—one captain famously said, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here”—the Marines held their ground against a German assault and later spearheaded an Allied counterattack on June 6. Over the next three weeks, Marines and Army troops made a half-dozen attempts to seize the woods. They braved withering machine gun fire and poison gas, and were often forced to fight hand-to-hand with bayonets. Finally, on June 26, the Marines successfully drove the last of the Germans from Belleau Wood. Media coverage of the victory played a major role in establishing the Corps’ reputation as an elite fighting force, but it came at a sobering cost. Over 5,000 Marines were killed or wounded in the battle—more than in all their engagements of the 18th and 19th centuries combined.
7. Marines served in the European and African Theaters of World War II.
The Marines of World War II are best known for their island hopping campaign in the Pacific at battles such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but they also had a small presence in the war’s other theaters. A Marine brigade occupied Iceland during the early stages of the war, and Marines later served as advisors and trainers during British and American amphibious operations in Africa and Europe. During the Normandy invasion, Marine sharpshooters used their rifles to detonate floating mines and clear the way for Navy ships. At least 50 members of the Corps also served as intelligence agents and saboteurs for the Office of Strategic Services. They included Colonel Peter J. Ortiz, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France and was later twice awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts in aiding the Resistance. All told, roughly 6,000 Marines took part in the European and African Theaters in some capacity during the war.