U.S. Marines history from the year you were born
A lot has changed in the U.S. Marine Corps since its founding Nov. 10, 1775. Of course, back then it wasn't the U.S. Marine Corps at all—it was the Continental Marines, and it predated the U.S. Marine Corps by 15 years. In many cases, developments in the Corps have tracked broader changes in American society than just a name—including racial and gender integration, technological advances, and an ever-shrinking world.
In other instances, the Corps has remained exactly as it was at its inception, full of service members displaying extraordinary acts of courage—and a few behaving badly. From occupied Europe to Korea to Vietnam to the Middle East, the theaters of combat may have changed and the success levels may have varied, but the Corps’ mission has remained intact: “To win our Nation’s battles swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis.”
To explore the ways the Marine Corps has expanded and evolved, and in order to observe some of its most historic moments, Stacker scoured primary documents, news reports, and studies. We've also included Marine Corps strength numbers for each year with data sourced from the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC). What follows is a 100-year history of the U.S. Marine Corps that highlights some of the most momentous moments in this branch of the U.S. military.
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1920: Marines guard a Russian radio station
Marine Corps strength: 17,165 (0.02% of U.S. population)
In February 1920, a Marine guard landed on a Russian island called Rusky Island, in the Bay of Vladivostok, to protect an American-backed radio station broadcasting from the island. The Marines would remain on the island for almost three years, establishing the Siberian city as part of a safe escape route for Russians who fled the Bolsheviks after the revolution.
1921: An eastward turn
Marine Corps strength: 22,990 (0.02% of U.S. population)
Twenty years before World War II, Major E. H. “Pete” Ellis wrote a 30,000-word secret manifesto outlining a strategy for the Marines to win the war he foresaw brewing in the Pacific. In his “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” Ellis predicted that the thousands of islands dotting the Pacific between the U.S. Mainland and Japan would be essential battlegrounds in a war with Japan and that U.S. forces could use these islands, including the Marshall and Caroline Islands, as forward bases.
1922: Leaving Cuba—almost
Marine Corps strength: 21,233 (0.02% of U.S. population)
In order to protect American property owners, Marines had been stationed in Cuba to protect sugar production and shipping since 1917. By 1922 the government was deemed stable enough to safeguard American property interests and sugar exports, and the last Marines left Cuba—almost. A small contingent stayed behind to guard Guantanamo Bay.
1923: Protecting American interests in China
Marine Corps strength: 19,694 (0.02% of U.S. population)
During a period of intense unrest in China during the early 1920s, U.S. Marines were deployed to protect American citizens and interests there from piracy and banditry. In July 1923, the American passenger steamer Alice Dollar was fired upon by several hundred Chinese bandits; it sped up and got away, and the next day a Marine escort was able to protect the ship in transit despite another attack.
1924: Intervention in Honduras
Marine Corps strength: 20,332 (0.02% of U.S. population)
A contested election in Honduras in 1924 plunged the country into chaos, violence, and civil war. In order to protect its business interests and American lives, the U.S. deployed troops to Honduras in February 1924.
1925: Birth of the 'Red Devils'
Marine Corps strength: 19,478 (0.02% of U.S. population)
The oldest and most celebrated Marine Corps squadron is nicknamed the “Red Devils,” and their story began in 1925, though they weren't officially deployed for another two years. Officially called VF-3M now and VMFA-232 then, the squadron is based in California. It was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations during World War II. The Red Devils were the last Marines to leave Southeast Asia in 1973.
1926: Deployment to Nicaragua
Marine Corps strength: 19,154 (0.02% of U.S. population)
In response to a civil war in Nicaragua and at the request of the officially-recognized government, President Calvin Coolidge sent in the Marines in May of 1926. The troops landed at Corinto in an effort to establish a neutral zone during a brief armistice so the warring factions could attempt to reach a peace agreement.
1927: Steeling against civil war in China
Marine Corps strength: 19,198 (0.02% of U.S. population)
Substantial violence erupted in Shanghai in 1927, including the Shanghai Massacre, in which hundreds of Chinese communists were killed by Chinese warlords and militias. In response to the hostilities, US Marines were deployed near Shanghai and the American consulate at Nanking.
1928: The Battle of Las Cruces
Marine Corps strength: 19,020 (0.02% of U.S. population)
On New Year's Day in 1928, Nicaraguan revolutionaries called the Sandinistas attacked United States Marines and Nicaraguan National Guardsmen. After a long and bloody battle, the Sandinistas were defeated, but not before 23 Marines had been wounded and five killed.
1929: A new hymn
Marine Corps strength: 18,796 (0.02% of U.S. population)
In 1929, the Marine Corps authorized a change to its official hymn. Whereas previously the Marine Corps hymn declared: “Admiration of the nation, we're the finest ever seen; And we glory in the title, Of United States Marines,” the 1929 change got a bit more specific about just what the Marines did. “First to fight for right and freedom And to keep our honor clean; We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.”