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mch, vol. 5, no. 1

Portal to Marine Corps History


by Gregory J. W. Urwin1




Although the U.S. Marine Corps is considerably smaller than the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, it occupies a disproportionately broad space in the American public’s consciousness. The Corps and its exploits have inspired scores of filmmakers, novelists, artists, journalists, and popular historians, and these works tend to underline the claim that Marines embody their country’s best qualities. Yet, despite the leatherneck’s prominence in popular culture, few members of the academy have chosen to specialize in Marine Corps history. For professional military historians who might be tempted to change course and study the soldiers of the sea, the Marine Corps History Division offers a convenient means of access. This article draws on the author’s personal experiences to emphasize the division’s utility to the historical community. 

For more than a century, the Marine Corps has enjoyed folkloric status in America’s imagination. As the twentieth century opened, various far-flung Marine detachments thrilled the public with their defense of Beijing’s Legation District from Chinese Boxers and equally daring exploits in the Philippines, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The press depicted Marines as a sort of sea-going foreign legion ideally suited for defending American interests around the developing world. Then came World War I, and the Corps’ image underwent a revolutionary change. The all-leatherneck 4th Brigade in the U.S. Army’s 2d Infantry Division lost 112 officers and 4,598 men when it cleared veteran German troops out of Belleau Wood in June 1918, but all that bloodletting vindicated Marines’ claims that they constituted a corps d’elite. Their countrymen heralded them as the world’s most indomitable assault troops, and Marines proudly appropriated a nickname bestowed, according to legend, by their enemies, die Teufehlhünden—the Devil Dogs.2

World War II not only provided the Marine Corps with the opportunity to mobilize a record-breaking six divisions, but also to earn an equally out- sized reputation as arguably America’s most fearsome and respected fighting force. The first Japanese thrusts in the Pacific left the U.S. Navy and Army scrambling to rationalize the Pearl Harbor disaster and the loss of the Philippines, respectively, while a few hundred Marines produced a slew of morale-lifting headlines with their two-week defense of Wake Island, a stand that resulted in their country’s first tactical victory of the war and reaffirmed Americans’ confidence in the potency of their armed forces.3 Just three months after Corregidor fell to the Japanese, the 1st Marine Division spearheaded the first American offensive of the Pacific war by landing at Guadalcanal. The division’s dogged defense of the ground it took seemed to eclipse everything else about the six months of attrition that demonstrated the United States possessed the material resources and the moral strength to prevail over Japan. In the wake of that turning point, Marines delivered a series of bloody amphibious assaults that turned such strange-sounding places as Tarawa, Peleliu, Bougainville, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa into household words on the home front. Although the Army provided nearly four times as many divisions to the Pacific and conducted that theater’s largest land campaign in the Philippines, many Americans considered the fighting in the world’s widest ocean as quintessentially a Marine Corps show. Joseph Rosenthal’s stirring photograph of the second raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima validated that perception in the eyes of millions, and it persists to this day, as witnessed by the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific.

The Cold War, with its emphasis on nuclear deterrence, seemed to offer Marines few chances to shine again, but the Corps carved out a strategic role for itself as what Allan R. Millett called “the nation’s principal ‘force in readiness.’ ”5 With the outbreak of the Korean War, the Provisional Marine Brigade hastened across the Pacific to help shore up the Pusan Perimeter. For most Americans, the most memorable incident in that frustrating conflict was the 1st Marine Division’s fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. The ability of those beleaguered leathernecks to check repeated thrusts from units of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army reassured their fellow citizens that the United States possessed the spirit and wherewithal to prevail in a hostile world.6 More than a decade later, the 3,500 men from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade who splashed ashore at Da Nang on 9 March 1965 unknowingly kicked off the Americanization of the Vietnam War. Among the most vivid memories Americans retain of that ultimately unsuccessful conflict are the defense of Khe Sahn by two Marine regiments from 21 January to 9 July 1968 and the role that three Marine battalions played in recapturing the old imperial capital of Hue around the same time at the height of the Tet offensive.7

Since 11 September 2001, Navy Seals and the Army’s Delta Force have encroached on the Marines’ preserve as America’s most glamorized warriors, but the Corps stands ready should any situation arise that requires larger numbers of crack troops for more conventional operations. Young men and women still vie to prove themselves the toughest Americans of their generation by earning the privilege to wear the eagle, globe, and anchor.

One would think that an institution with such a storied past and universal brand recognition would inspire more innovative scholarly histories. A lot has been written about the Marine Corps, to be sure. Most of these works, however, focus on the Corps’ battles and campaigns. While they ably relate what Marines do, they fall short of explaining just who Marines are and how they got to be that way. We also have far to go in understanding how the Corps evolved from a miniscule and oft-neglected scattering of ships’ detachments and guards at naval yards into an institutionally complex and self-conscious elite whose adaptability and determination to serve national interests enable it to project American power to the most distant corners of the globe. Although the past two decades have witnessed noticeable progress on that front, professional historians have yet to reveal what made the Marine Corps tick at crucial points throughout its development.8

Why, one may well ask, does the historiography on the Marine Corps have yet to exhibit the same scope and level of sophistication as the monographic literature devoted to the U.S. Army? True, the Corps has always been dwarfed by the other armed forces, but bigger does not necessarily translate into better in choosing viable topics for historical research. Indeed, the fact that there have been comparatively fewer soldiers of the sea makes it easier to collect the data required to generalize reliably about them. With cultural studies all the rage in the historical profession these days, one would think that scholars would be clamoring to probe the inner working of an organization as distinctive and conspicuous as the Marine Corps. The fact of the matter is that some historians view Marine Corps history as a minefield that they enter at their peril. The Corps is what military journalist Thomas E. Ricks describes as “a culture apart,” and that can intimidate academics. Furthermore, a considerable number of Marine Corps histories are penned by Marines or Marine veterans, and many of them are unapologetically celebratory. That leads scholars who never wore a Marine uniform to fear that any contributions to this field that take a critical bent would not be warmly received.9 Colonel Robert Debs Heinl Jr., the officer in charge of the Historical Section in the Marine Corps Division of Public Information who oversaw the production of the first generation of Marine monographs on World War II, personified his Service’s intellectual tribalism at its most virulent. Two years before Heinl’s death, he wrote Commandant Louis H. Wilson Jr. to denounce the employment of civilians by the Marine history program:

I doubt if you have much experience with the breed of civil-service military historians; to know them, as I do, is not to love them. They are a seedy, self-serving crew, many unemployable at anything like their Government pay in academia. They shift back and forth from service to service, wherever the grade increases lead them in the civil service game. There are exceptions to all generalizations including the above. But, if you ever want a sample of civil-service military history at its worst, just look at our own dull, unimaginative, poorly written History of Marine Corps Operations in World War II, which was the result of an era in which deadhead colonels routinely dozed over the old Historical Branch and the civilians ran it.10


Graduate students still shiver over the fate of the late professor Craig M. Cameron of Old Dominion University. Cameron cooked up a bold departure from Marine Corps studies with his 1994 book, American Samurai: Myth, Imagination, and the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941–1951. Instead of writing a traditional chronicle of the 1st Marine Division’s combat record, Cameron focused on the myths and cultural imagination that shaped how Marines viewed themselves during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Cameron’s approach impressed the historical profession and resulted in his receiving the 1997 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History. Nevertheless, he infuriated Marine readers by likening Marine training and attitudes to those adopted by the Waffen-SS and other killer elites. Cameron also raised hackles by identifying certain aspects of Marine culture as homoerotic, something that might seem less shocking today than it did a quarter of a century ago. American Samurai’s page on still displays reviews that echo the hate mail that inundated Cameron. One critic, apparently unaware that Cameron had served as a Marine officer from 1980 to 1984, fumed that people like him “are not fit to utter the phrase ‘Marine Corps,’ let alone offer an opinion of its warfighting preeminence. Tens of thousands of voices long dead shout them down.”11

Speaking as a non-Marine who has published on Marine Corps history, I would say that I have never found the field to be unwelcoming. The perception that the Corps cannot tolerate critical scrutiny is false. Indeed, openness to what the past may teach is essential to that Service’s continuing health. Allan Millett, a Marine who also arguably ranks as the leading military historian of his generation, put it in these words: “In the continual struggle to match performance with elitist rhetoric, in the daily challenge to separate organizational mythology from relevant military doctrine, the Corps must understand its own past without excessive self-congratulation.”12

The official histories produced by the Marine Corps History Division play an indispensable part in the process Millett outlined. Those titles operate as the first draft on subjects that interest historians who toil outside of the Corps, and their footnotes and bibliographies provide leads to sources for continuing research. As I learned through my career, the division also functions as a readymade portal to help initiate civilian historians into the mysteries of Marine Corps history.

My involvement with Marine studies owes more to accident than design. After I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1977, I decided—with a young man’s characteristic hubris—that I was too educated to ever work again with my hands. I therefore started writing historical articles for pulp magazines like Air Classics. I began by churning out biographies of World War I flying aces, but most Air Classics readers preferred World War II. The editor accordingly blackmailed me by threatening to publish my World War I material only if I wrote some pieces on the subsequent global conflict. Momentarily stumped, I then remembered the 1942 Paramount film, Wake Island, which I had seen on television as a boy. The “last stand” character of that dramatization had always been appealing, and I remembered that the Marines who defended Wake and their Japanese foes had both used airplanes.13

Consequently, I conducted a quickie research job and wrote a pot-boiler called “The Wildcats of Wake Island” about Marine Fighting Squadron 211 (VMF-211) and the 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter planes it flew in a desperate attempt to defend the atoll. Under the article’s title, the editor added this florid teaser: “In their planes or without them, the men of VMF-211 proved that U.S. Marines could fight anywhere with anything and hit their enemy hard.”14

The article appeared in the September 1977 issue of Air Classics. About a month later, the editor forwarded me a letter from a reader that bore the signature of John F. Kinney, “Brig General U.S. Marine Corps (Ret).” That must have made my eyes bug out. Nearly 36 years earlier in December 1941, Second Lieu- tenant Kinney had distinguished himself in Wake’s defense as VMF-211’s engineering officer. In May 1945, he and four other American officers successfully escaped from the Japanese in China. Much to my delight, General Kinney asked me if I was interested “in writing the whole story of WAKE.”15

Although I had majored in history while an undergrad, the idea that one could interrogate living sources was something that had never occurred to me, and I jumped at General Kinney’s invitation. As our relationship grew, the general introduced me to other American veterans of the Wake Island Campaign. Many of those men were reaching retirement age, which left them more willing to talk about their wartime experiences. One was Charles A. Holmes, a former warrant officer with an antiaircraft artillery battery on Wake who served as the historian of the Defenders of Wake Island, the garrison’s veterans association. Holmes took me under his wing and became my chief promoter, encouraging his comrades to speak or correspond with me. As I gathered first-hand testimony, I initially intended to write a more accurate article about Wake’s defense. It soon dawned on me that I was accumulating the kind of data that would permit me to write the history of a small American battle from the bottom up—something along the lines of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle.16 I accordingly chose Wake Island as the topic for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, whose graduate program I entered in 1979.

Although my oral history work uncovered a lot of interesting information, I realized that I could not test the reliability of what my interview subjects related unless I researched the Wake Island campaign from the top down. In order to understand why Wake’s defenders could hold their Japanese opponents at bay for 16 days, I also needed to familiarize myself with Marine culture and the state of the Corps on the eve of World War II. That necessitated spending a month or more plumbing the Marine Corps Historical Archives, which then resided in the Marine Corps Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. The archives housed after action reports and other un- published materials of potential use in unraveling the Wake Island story. A generous Marine Corps Historical Program research grant provided the funding required for an extended research trip, and I headed off to our nation’s capital in early January 1982.

In those days, what eventually became the Marine Corps History Division was a component of the History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. It shared space with the Marine Corps Historical Archives, Marine Corps Historical Library, and Marine Corps Oral History Collection, which were housed on the second deck of the Marine Corps Historical Center, a sturdy old building of white-washed brick.

I remember the day I reported to the Historical Center, anxious to start accumulating some archival dust under my fingernails. After I registered with security, an enlisted man conducted me to the office of retired Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, who had just completed his 10th year as director of the History and Museums Division. The general was a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He possessed a master of arts in journalism from Ohio State University and had established his bona fides as a historian by publishing a popular history marking the Marine Corps’ bicentennial.17 Simmons was an immaculately dressed and groomed man with a movie star’s good looks and a diplomat’s polished manners. He received me graciously and provided a concise briefing on the available research facilities and the general procedures to be followed.

Following that interview, General Simmons entrusted my handling to his subordinates, and a young historian could not have asked for a better set of mentors. Instead of mixing with the “seedy, self-serving crew” derided by Colonel Heinl, I found myself privileged to become the pampered guest of a community of scholars and civil servants whose knowledge of Marine Corps history was equaled by their professionalism, dedication, and commitment to my making optimal use of the time spent among them. Several historians from the History and Museums Division interrupted their own work to offer advice. Jack Shulimson was busy writing an official history on Marines in the Vietnam War, but he generously shared insights gleaned from his personal research to school me on the origins of professionalism in the Marine officer corps.18 I enjoyed equally fruitful conversations with Henry I. Shaw Jr. and Benis M. Frank, who had both worked on the magisterial History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, also known as the “Red Books,” which had superseded the monographs produced under Colonel Heinl’s auspices in the late 1940s. Shaw and Frank knew the sources on Wake Island and the prisoner of war (POW) experiences of its garrison, and they pointed me in the right direction more than once.19 Frank also acted as director of the Marine Corps Oral History Collection, and he helped me locate the transcripts of interviews with retired officers whose experiences would deepen my appreciation of the “old Corps” of the 1920s and 1930s. The ebullient Richard A. Long lent me the transcribed interviews that he conducted for a history of the 4th Marines, the regiment that transferred from Shanghai, China, on the eve of the Pacific war—only to endure combat and capture in the Philippines. This generous gesture also contributed to my broader knowledge of the Service culture that produced the Wake Island Marines.

I spent an inordinate amount of my time in the History and Museums Division’s Reference Section, which turned out to be a storehouse of information on Marine units, bases, and battles, along with detailed biographical data on the Marine officers who figured in my research. I shall never forget how much I owed Danny J. Crawford, Robert V. Aquilina, and their colleagues for assisting me in navigating their innumerable files to find what I needed.

Armed with the photostat copies and notes that I gathered at the Marine Corps Historical Center, along with treasures uncovered at the National Archives and other repositories, I managed to write and defend my dissertation, a 515-page monster titled “The Defenders of Wake Island: Their Two Wars, 1941–1945,” within two years. A revised version of the first half of that opus was published as Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of Wake Island in 1997. That book won the 1998 General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award, which proved instrumental in obtaining a position at Temple University. Following a second visit in 1998 to the Marine Corps History Center at the Washington Navy Yard before it transferred its archival holdings to Quantico, Virginia, I completed my last book-length contribution to Marine Corps history, Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941–1945, which Naval Institute Press released in 2010.

Since my arrival at Temple in 1999, I have directed two dissertations devoted to Marine Corps history. The students who produced them, David J. Ulbrich and Earl J. Catangus Jr., both received dissertation research fellowships from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, which permitted them to interact with a reorganized Marine Corps History Division at its current location in Quantico. Ulbrich and Catangus received the same kind of solicitous care from the Marine history program that I enjoyed decades earlier. Ulbrich published his dissertation with Naval Institute Press in 2011 as Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936–1943, and it won the 2012 General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Book Prize. Catangus is currently revising his 2016 dissertation, “ ‘Getting Rid of the Line’: Toward an American Infantry Way of Battle, 1918–1945,” for publication, and it should result in an equally fine book.

Serious military history has undergone a revolution during the past four decades. While its practitioners still write about commanders and military operations, they have enriched their work by tapping the approaches of social, cultural, ethnic, gender, political, diplomatic, business, and environmental history.20 Applying the methodologies developed by those subfields to Marine Corps history will produce numerous insights into what makes Marines so unique and their interactions with American society and the societies they have impacted during their many years of global service. Those revelations will complement the traditional narrative of what Marines do on the battlefield.

Based on my personal experience as a student, historian, and teacher, I consider the Marine Corps History Division as an indispensable ally for any civilian academics who aspire to write about America’s soldiers of the sea. Such a relationship will inevitably contribute to the ongoing maturation of the history of an organization that tells us so much about this country’s character.



  1. Dr. Gregory J. W. Urwin is a professor of history at Temple University and a former president of the Society for Military History. A fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Company of Military Historians, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he has served 20 years as the founding general editor of the Campaigns and Commanders Series at the University of Oklahoma Press. His current book project is tentatively titled, When Freedom Wore a Red Coat: The British Invasions of Virginia, 1781 (forthcoming).
  2. While many historians have written on this piece of Marine Corps lore, nothing has been found to indicate that the Germans, in fact, used the term devil dogs in their official reports. Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1991) remains the best single-volume overview of Marine Corps history. Robert B. Asprey, At Belleau Wood, 2d ed. (New York: Putnam, 1965; Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1996) is a classic account of that battle and its impact on the Corps’ image. Also useful are Dennis E. Showalter, “Evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps as a Military Elite,” Marine Corps Gazette 63, no. 11 (November 1979): 44–58; Merrill L. Bartlett, Lejeune: A Marine’s Life, 1867–1942 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991); and Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987).
  3. The fight for Wake Island and what it meant to the American public are recounted in Gregory J. W. Urwin, Facing Fearful Odds: The Siege of  Wake Island (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), and Gregory J. W. Urwin, “ ‘An Epic that Should Give Every American Hope’: The Media and the Birth of the Wake Island Legend,” Marine Corps Gazette 80, no. 12 (December 1996): 64–69.
  4. Though handicapped by insufficient research and a somewhat narrow perspective, Aaron B. O’Connell succeeds in describing how the Marine Corps of World War II endeared itself to the American public in Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). A much more satisfying treatment of what Iwo Jima and its myths meant to the Marine Corps comes from Robert S. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006). Six years after the end of World War II, Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory, and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951) credited the Marine Corps with raising amphibious warfare to a fine art during that conflict.
  5. Millett, Semper Fidelis, xvii.
  6. Millett produced the definitive history of the first year of American military operations in the Korean War with The War for Korea, 1950–1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010). See also Kenneth W. Estes, Into the Breach at Pusan: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); and Robert Debs Heinl Jr., Victory at High Tide: The Inchon-Seoul Campaign (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1968), a triumphalist account of the Marines’ revival of their amphibious skills that turned the tables on the North Korean People’s Army.
  7. Philip Caputo, then a Marine lieutenant, recalled the early days at Da Nang in his widely read Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977). The Marine experience throughout the Vietnam War is admirably captured in Otto J. Lehrack, No Shining Armor: The Marines at War in Vietnam—An Oral History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 1992.
  8. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 649–51. The author first offered this critique (in much less measured language) in “United States: Armed Forces, Marine Corps,” in Charles Messenger, ed., Reader’s Guide to Military History (Lon- don: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001), 606–8.
  9. Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps (New York: Scribner, 1997), 19.
  10. R. D. Heinl Jr. to Louis H. Wilson Jr., 14 August 1977, Robert Debs Heinl Jr., Papers, Personal Papers Collection, Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
  11. Craig M. Cameron, American Samurai: Myth and Imagination in the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division, 1941–1951 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); “Craig McNeil Cameron,” Chicago Tribune, Obituaries, 16 January 2005; “American Samurai: Myth and Imagination in the Conduct of Battle in the First Marine Division,” Amazon, accessed 21 November 2018; and Gregory J. W. Urwin, “World War II: Armed Forces, United States, Marine Corps,” in Messenger, Reader’s Guide to Military History, 758.
  12. Millett, Semper Fidelis, xviii.
  13. The author’s obsession with last stands led to his first book: Gregory J. W. Urwin, Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).
  14. Gregory J. W. Urwin, “The Wildcats of Wake Island,” Air Classics, September 1977, 78–82, 94–95.
  15. John F. Kinney to Gregory J. W. Urwin, 24 January 1978, author’s collection.
  16. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).
  17. See Edwin H. Simmons, The United States Marines: The First Two Hundred Years, 1775–1975 (New York: Viking, 1976).
  18. Much of what Jack Shulimson taught the author appeared in Shu- limson’s groundbreaking book, The Marine Corps’ Search for a Mission, 1880–1898 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).
  19. The two volumes from the Red Series most useful to the author’s re- search were Frank O. Hough et al., History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, vol. 1, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1958); and Benis M. Frank and Henry I. Shaw Jr., History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, vol. 5, Victory and Occupation (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1968).
  20. See Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino, Society for Military History white paper, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy,” 30 November 2014.


about the AUTHOR 

Dr. Gregory J. W. Urwin is a professor of history at Temple University and a former president of the Society for Military History. A fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Company of Military Historians, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he has served 20 years as the founding general editor of the Campaigns and Commanders Series at the University of Oklahoma Press. His current book project is tentatively titled, When Freedom Wore a Red Coat: The British Invasions of Virginia, 1781 (forthcoming).

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