US Marines history from the year you were born

Written by:
March 11, 2021
Spencer Platt // Getty Images

US Marines history from the year you were born

A lot has changed in the U.S. Marine Corps since its founding on 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 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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Alexxx1979 // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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United State Marine Corps

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.

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Naval Historical Foundation

1922: Leaving Cuba—almost

- Marine Corps strength: 21,233 (0.02% of U.S. population)

To protect American property owners, Marines had been stationed since 1917 in Cuba to protect sugar production and shipping. 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.

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Donald M. McPherson // Naval History and Heritage Command

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.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

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. To protect its business interests and American lives, the U.S. deployed troops to Honduras in February 1924.

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Express // Getty Images

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.

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Notman Studio // Wikimedia Commons

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 to establish a neutral zone during a brief armistice so the warring factions could attempt to reach a peace agreement.

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informationwar.org // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Svetlana Larina // Shutterstock

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.”

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1930: Hunting Sandino

- Marine Corps strength: 19,380 (0.02% of U.S. population)

In Nicaragua, Marines spent months hunting the revolutionary and leader of the rebellion against the U.S. military Augusto Cesar Sandino, whose followers were the Sandinistas. The Marines chased Sandino and his band into the mountains and took him temporarily out of action after an exploding bomb fragment struck him in the leg.

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National Park Service // Wikimedia Commons

1931: Austerity measures

- Marine Corps strength: 16,782 (0.01% of U.S. population)

In response to the Great Depression and an isolationist mood in the U.S., many of the Marine's overseas commitments were cut. For example, the squadron stationed on the island of Guam was withdrawn in February 1931 and permanently disbanded one month later.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1932: Hunkering down in Haiti

- Marine Corps strength: 16,561 (0.01% of U.S. population)

By the end of 1932, so dramatic were the drawbacks around the world that the only overseas Marine aviation commitment was in Haiti. Marines provided training and logistical support for ground forces.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1933: Establishing the Fleet Marine Force

- Marine Corps strength: 16,068 (0.01% of U.S. population)

In 1933, the Fleet Marine Force was established. This force was comprised of a brigade with an attached aviation unit specifically assigned to observe, support, and coordinate with ground forces.

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East Oregonian // Wikimedia Commons

1934: Leaving Haiti

- Marine Corps strength: 16,361 (0.01% of U.S. population)

After almost 20 years of occupation, the last Marines left Haiti in 1934. A major cause of the withdrawal was the new “Good Neighbor Policy” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which shifted America's primary mode of cooperation with Central and South America to trade instead of military force.

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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

1935: The Tentative Landings Operations Manual

- Marine Corps strength: 17,260 (0.01% of U.S. population)

A major new manual—the "Tentative Landings Operations Manual"—was published in 1935. The manual established best practices for Marines landing on opposition-occupied ground. Large-scale landing operations commenced in Puerto Rico and California to test the manual's theories.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1936: A changing of the guard

- Marine Corps strength: 17,248 (0.01% of U.S. population)

Representing a significant shift in Marine leadership, Major John H. Russell Jr. retired upon reaching the legal age limit for stepping down. Russell was succeeded by Brigadier General Thomas Holcomb, the 17th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1937: Flying together

- Marine Corps strength: 18,223 (0.01% of U.S. population)

In 1937, both Marine air groups flew together for the first time. To mark the occasion, the First Marine Air Group flew across the country to join the second Marine Air Group in California, where joint exercises were conducted.

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Naval History and Heritage Command

1938: The US Naval Reserve Act

- Marine Corps strength: 18,356 (0.01% of U.S. population)

The U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1938 mandated a “20% increase in strength of the United States Navy.” The Act was a response to the German annexation of Austria and the Japanese occupation of China.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1939: A new flag

- Marine Corps strength: 19,432 (0.01% of U.S. population)

A new flag for the Marine Corps was adopted in 1939. The new flag was red and gold, whereas the previous one was blue. The new design was the result of a two-year study.

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USMC Archives // Flickr

1940: General mobilization

- Marine Corps strength: 28,345 (0.02% of U.S. population)

In response to German aggression across Europe, general mobilization orders were issued for all Marine Corps Reserve Battalions, assigning them to active duty by Nov. 9, 1940.

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Royal Navy official photographer // Wikimedia Commons

1941: Landing ship tanks

- Marine Corps strength: 54,359 (0.04% of U.S. population)

At the request of the British, a redesign of Landing Ship Tanks was initiated by the U.S. in 1941. The new Landing Ship Tanks could carry infantry and equipment across oceans and land directly on beaches.

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Roger Smith // Wikimedia Commons

1942: Desegregation of the Corps

- Marine Corps strength: 142,613 (0.11% of U.S. population)

Per an Executive Order from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first African American recruits to the Marine Corps began training in 1942. The first African American Marine recruit was Howard P. Perry of Charlotte, North Carolina.

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USMC Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1943: Welcoming women into the Marines

- Marine Corps strength: 308,523 (0.23% of U.S. population)

The Marine Corps became the last branch of America's military to welcome women into its ranks when it authorized a Women's Reserve in 1943. Women were assigned to non-combatant roles, including radio operators, welders, and clerical positions.

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National Museum of the U.S. Navy

1944: Invasion of the Marshall Islands

- Marine Corps strength: 475,604 (0.34% of U.S. population)

In 1944, the Marines invaded the Marshall Islands, which were a part of the Japanese empire. In the Battle of Kwajalein Atoll, one American life was lost for every 100 Japanese lives, and the subsequent Battle of Eniwetok Atoll lasted only four days, resulting in a resounding victory for the Marines 10 weeks ahead of schedule.

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DoD

1945: Iwo Jima

- Marine Corps strength: 469,925 (0.34% of U.S. population)

An island 750 miles off the coast of Japan, Iwo Jima was one of Japan's last lines of defense. After the bloody five-week battle, it is estimated that only 200 of the original 21,000 Japanese soldiers survived.

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USMC Archives // Flickr

1946: Accompanying the Magna Carta

- Marine Corps strength: 155,679 (0.11% of U.S. population)

When the Magna Carta was returned to Britain after its wartime safe spot at the American Library of Congress, Marines accompanied the seminal document as an honor guard when it was presented to the British Ambassador. An original copy of the Magna Carta had been offered to the U.S. by Great Britain to try and persuade the American government to join World War II on the side of the British before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons

1947: The National Security Act

- Marine Corps strength: 93,053 (0.06% of U.S. population)

The National Security Act of 1947 significantly reorganized the American military and intelligence services in the aftermath of World War II. The Marine Corps was protected as an independent service under the Department of the Navy.

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Aviva Rabinovich // Wikimedia Commons

1948: Marines in the Middle East

- Marine Corps strength: 84,988 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In 1948, Marines were sent to Jerusalem to protect the U.S. consular general. The provisional Marine Consular Guard was comprised of Marines originally stationed on the USS Kearsarge at Tripoli.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1949: The end of Operation Beleaguer

- Marine Corps strength: 85,965 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In 1949, the last Marines left China after four years of Operation Beleaguer. The operation aimed to repatriate 600,000 Japanese and Koreans and to protect American interests, in which it was largely successful. The scope of the operation's objectives expanded to include the mediation of a peace treaty between the Nationalist and Communist forces, which was unsuccessful.

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USMC Archives // Flickr

1950: Harsh words from Harry Truman

- Marine Corps strength: 74,279 (0.05% of U.S. population)

President Harry Truman was not a strong supporter of the Marines. In August of 1950, he said: “The Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I’m President, that’s what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.” A public controversy ensued, and Truman issued an apology.

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United States Marine Corps

1951: The Mountain Warfare Training Center

Marine Corps strength: 192,620 (0.12% of U.S. population)

The Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center was established in 1951 to prepare troops heading to fight in cold, mountainous regions of Korea during the Korean War. Training began in Toiyabe National Forest after the Korean War 15th Draft.

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U.S. Naval Institute

1952: The Douglas Mansfield Act

- Marine Corps strength: 231,967 (0.15% of U.S. population)

The Douglas Mansfield Act of 1952 provided significant protections for the Marine Corps. The Act procured a spot on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Corps commandant whenever issues about the Marines were under discussion, and raised the cap on active-duty personnel to 400,000.

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ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE

1953: The Congressional Marines Group

- Marine Corps strength: 249,219 (0.16% of U.S. population)

The Congressional Marines Group was established in 1953 by a group of Marine Corps veterans who had been elected to Congress. The group held regular breakfasts and other meetings with high-ranking officers and were notable for their bipartisan nature.

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Adrian R. Rowan // Wikimedia Commons

1954: The Marine Corps War Memorial

- Marine Corps strength: 223,868 (0.14% of U.S. population)

The Marine Corps War Memorial was dedicated Nov. 10, 1954, on the 179th anniversary of the Marine Corps. The Memorial centers on a sculpture based on the iconic photo of Marines and was cast in bronze in Brooklyn, New York, before being trucked to Washington D.C.

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Ron Cogswell // Flickr

1955: A new emblem

- Marine Corps strength: 205,170 (0.12% of U.S. population)

In 1955 the Marines adopted a new emblem. The Eagle, Globe, and Anchor is an adaptation of the emblem that had been in use before 1955, differing only in its addition of an eagle. The new emblem was designed at the request of Marine Corps Commandant General Lemuel C. Shephard Jr.

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NASA // Wikimedia Commons

1956: The Suez Crisis

- Marine Corps strength: 200,780 (0.12% of U.S. population)

During the Suez Crisis in Egypt in 1956, Marines evacuated U.S. nationals and others from Alexandria. Disagreements between Britain and France and the U.S. over how to handle the crisis—caused by the Egyptian government's seizure of the Suez Canal strained relations between the allies.

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U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Dolores L. Parlato // Wikimedia Commons

1957: Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps

- Marine Corps strength: 200,861 (0.12% of U.S. population)

The post of Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps was established in 1957. The top non-commissioned officer filling the position reports directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The post was the first of its kind in any of the five branches of the Armed Forces.

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pingnews.com // Flickr

1958: Lebanon

- Marine Corps strength: 189,495 (0.11% of U.S. population)

Marines landed in Lebanon in 1958, marking the first time U.S. troops were sent to the Middle East. President Eisenhower ordered the invasion to support the Lebanese government, which was considered a U.S. ally at a time when Western influence in the Middle East was perceived to be at risk.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1959: Surviving a fall

- Marine Corps strength: 175,571 (0.10% of U.S. population)

In 1959, Marine Lt. Col. William Rankin became the only person known to have survived a fall from above a cumulonimbus cloud. He was ejected from his plane at 47,000 feet and fell for 40 minutes through a storm. Miraculously, he survived.

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Hank Walker // Getty Images

1960: The Cuban Revolution

- Marine Corps strength: 170,621 (0.09% of U.S. population)

During the Cuban Revolution, the Second Marine Ground Task Force was dispatched to Cuba to protect U.S. nationals. And there was cause for alarm: Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro had orchestrated the kidnapping of numerous American citizens, including sailors and employees of a mining company.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1961: Marines help sever relations with Cuba

- Marine Corps strength: 176,909 (0.10% of U.S. population)

In 1961, three Marines were assigned the task of lowering the American flag over the U.S. Embassy in Havana permanently. The reason? Washington was severing diplomatic relations with Cuba following communist Fidel Castro's ouster of American ally Fernando Batista as Cuba's president—an inflection point in the Cold War.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1962: A tour in Thailand

- Marine Corps strength: 190,962 (0.10% of U.S. population)

Marines were sent to Thailand in 1962 to counter a threat from the neighboring communist country of Laos. President John F. Kennedy ordered 5,000 troops to Thailand as communist forces in Laos moved towards the border. The Marines were pulled out just two months later.

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Abbie Rowe // Wikimedia Commons

1963: Guarding the president's coffin

- Marine Corps strength: 189,683 (0.10% of U.S. population)

The solemn task of guarding the coffin of President John F. Kennedy fell to Marines in November 1963 after the president's assassination. Marines served as body bearers, stood death watch, and escorted the ambulance with the President's body up the White House driveway.

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manhhai // Flickr

1964: An early foray into Vietnam

- Marine Corps strength: 189,777 (0.10% of U.S. population)

A Marine radio detachment in 1964 supported by a reinforced Marines infantry platoon became the first Marines ground unit to conduct operations independently in South Vietnam. The unit redeployed to a 3,500-foot mountain near Da Nang for the summer before disbanding in the fall.

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USMC Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1965: Operation Power Pack

- Marine Corps strength: 190,213 (0.10% of U.S. population)

Following the Cuban Revolution, Americans were particularly sensitive to the idea of a second communist revolution in their hemisphere. So when leftists in the Dominican Republic ousted their leader and took to the streets in 1965, Marines were deployed to Santo Domingo to restore order. American lives were lost, and recently declassified tapes show that President Lyndon B. Johnson regretted the toll the deployment took on his political standing.

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manhhai // Flickr

1966: Anti-Vietcong operations

- Marine Corps strength: 261,716 (0.13% of U.S. population)

In 1966 the Marines participated in numerous sweeps and combat operations against the Vietcong in and around Da Nang. The goals were to prevent the Vietcong from taking over areas they did not control and to establish resistance in those which they did.

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manhhai // Flickr

1967: Con Thein

- Marine Corps strength: 285,269 (0.14% of U.S. population)

Just two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, Con Thein was a Marine outpost that saw extremely fierce fighting in 1967. Marines were stationed at Con Thein to prevent the North Vietnamese from pushing south but were constantly bombarded with Vietcong artillery and sniper fire. In just two years, 1,419 Marines were killed at Con Thein.

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Schulimson // Wikimedia Commons

1968: The Tet Offensive

- Marine Corps strength: 307,252 (0.15% of U.S. population)

In 1968, Marines grappled—along with the rest of the U.S. military with the Tet Offensive—in which the Vietcong launched assaults on major cities and provinces throughout South Vietnam. The Marines were particularly integral in the defense of the city of Da Nang. “I view with great pride the defense of the Da Nang area by all Division units,” General Donn J. Robertson later wrote. “The enemy has been unable to occupy a single objective in the Da Nang area while he has suffered in excess of 1,100 casualties.”

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USMC Archives // Flickr

1969: An educated corps

- Marine Corps strength: 309,771 (0.15% of U.S. population)

With the war in Vietnam in full swing in 1969, the demographics of the Marines were changing. The percentage of Marines volunteers who were high school graduates reached an all-time high of 55.4% that year; among inductees, the percentage was even higher: 71.5%.

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USMC Military History Division: Defense Department Photo

1970: Marines on trial for Son Thang

- Marine Corps strength: 259,737 (0.13% of U.S. population)

In February 1970, five Marines entered the hamlet of Son Thang near Da Nang and killed 16 women and children. The Marines would go on to be tried for murder. Two were acquitted, one was given immunity, and two were convicted.

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manhhai // Flickr

1971: Marines leave Vietnam

Marine Corps strength: 212,369 (0.10% of U.S. population)

As a part of the Nixon Administration’s “Vietnamization” strategy, in which the conduct of the war was transferred from the Americans to the South Vietnamese, the last Marine combat units left Vietnam in 1971. However, Marine advisors remained to assist with training the South Vietnamese.

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USMC Archives // Wikimedia Commons

1972: A Navy birthday

- Marine Corps strength: 198,238 (0.09% of U.S. population)

The Marine Corps had historically cited and celebrated their birthday as Nov. 10, 1775. The Navy had equivocated on its birthdate for decades, placing its founding behind the Marine Corps. But in 1972, it officially declared its birthday to be Oct. 13, 1775, almost a month before the Marines.

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U.S. Air Force photo

1973: Secret Marines activity reported

- Marine Corps strength: 196,098 (0.09% of U.S. population)

Star New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh broke the news in 1973 that President Richard Nixon had ordered Marines into Laos just two days after his Inauguration in 1969. The 1,500 Marines were said to have sustained very heavy casualties during the operation aimed at North Vietnamese supply lines, with survivors saying half the men were killed or wounded.

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United States Marine Corps

1974: Honoring a trailblazer

- Marine Corps strength: 188,802 (0.09% of U.S. population)

In 1974, the first Marine Corps installation named after an African American was renamed from Montford Point Camp to Camp Johnson. Sergeant Major Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson was one of the first African Americans to join the Corps and served in World War II and Korea.

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manhhai // Flickr

1975: Evacuating Saigon

- Marine Corps strength: 195,951 (0.09% of U.S. population)

Marines were there to help the last Americans leave Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Marines were ordered to burn confidential information on the roof of the American Embassy and evacuated the very last Americans in the country from the same rooftop in dramatic helicopter airlifts.

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United States Marine Corps

1976: A scandal at Parris Island

- Marine Corps strength: 192,399 (0.09% of U.S. population)

On Jan. 3, 1976, a Marine drill instructor at boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, claimed he was attempting to scare a struggling recruit by aiming an M-16 rifle he thought was filled with blanks at the recruit. But when Sgt. Robert F. Henson pulled the trigger, he shot clean through the recruit's hand from 50 yards away. The incident led to criminal convictions for Henson and several other drill instructors who tried to cover up what happened.

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United States Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1977: Ku Klux Klan activities at Camp Pendleton

- Marine Corps strength: 191,707 (0.09% of U.S. population)

A military trial in 1977 heard witnesses testify that Marine commanders at Camp Pendleton were aware of racial incitement from Marines who wore Ku Klux Klan insignia and incited fights with African American Marines at this large base. Witnesses testified that camp officers had been aware of the Klan affiliations and brewing racial tensions and had done nothing to stop them. The KKK members were quietly transferred to other bases.

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Marine Corps History Division // Wikimedia Commons

1978: A banner year for Corps women

- Marine Corps strength: 190,815 (0.09% of U.S. population)

1978 was an important year for women in the Marine Corps: Col. Margaret A. Brewer became the first female general in Corps history, and PFC Myra Jepson became the first female honor guard at the White House.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

1979: Taken hostage in Iran

- Marine Corps strength: 185,250 (0.08% of U.S. population)

When Islamist students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took 52 American hostages, Marine Security Guards were among them. For the next 444 days, the Americans were tortured and starved inside the Embassy while politicians negotiated for their release.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1980: Operation Eagle Claw

- Marine Corps strength: 188,469 (0.08% of U.S. population)

In an attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, Marines took part in Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. But a sandstorm grounded and scattered their helicopters, and several Marines died when one struck a refueling plane. The mission was aborted, and the hostages were not released.

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US Department of Defense

1981: A step toward gender equality

- Marine Corps strength: 190,620 (0.08% of U.S. population)

In 1981 the Marines took an important step towards gender equality. On Sept. 15, female Marines became eligible for the first time to compete directly with their male counterparts for promotions.

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James Case // Flickr

1982: Into Beirut

- Marine Corps strength: 192,380 (0.08% of U.S. population)

On September 29, 1982, President Ronald Reagan deployed 1,200 Marines to Lebanon during that country's Civil War. The next day, the first Marine to die during the mission in Lebanon was killed while diffusing a bomb.

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U.S. Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

1983: A devastating year

- Marine Corps strength: 194,089 (0.08% of U.S. population)

1983 was a tragic year for the Marines. Lebanese terrorists drove a truck rigged with explosives into Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen and women.

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U.S. Navy Photo by PH3 R. P. Fitzgerald // Wikimedia Commons

1984: Withdrawing from Lebanon

- Marine Corps strength: 196,214 (0.08% of U.S. population)

Still mired in the violence of Lebanon and reeling from the Marine barracks attack, President Reagan faced tough questions over the wisdom of his military strategy. In an address to the nation soon after the barracks attacks, Reagan vowed the Marines would remain but just four months later, the last Marines left Lebanon. More than 250 of the original 800 Marines deployed had lost their lives.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1985: Violence in El Salvador

- Marine Corps strength: 198,025 (0.08% of U.S. population)

Four Marines tragically lost their lives in El Salvador in 1985. The Marines were guards at the American Embassy in San Salvador and were off duty in a cafe when guerrilla gunmen opened fire.

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NVO // Wikimedia Commons

1986: Trouble in Moscow

- Marine Corps strength: 198,814 (0.08% of U.S. population)

The American Embassy in Moscow was having a very specific problem with the Marines assigned to guard it: “fraternization” with Soviet women. In April 1986, a Marine was arrested on the charge. “The pattern of fraternization by Marine guards with Soviet women has raised questions about the discipline in the unit assigned to protect embassies around the world,” the New York Times reported, “and about the State Department's supervision of the young single men who serve as guards.”

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U.S. Marine Corps

1987: Marine Corps intelligence activity

- Marine Corps strength: 199,525 (0.08% of U.S. population)

The Marine Corps Intelligence Activity was created in 1987 to provide intelligence to both the Marines and the greater American intelligence community. It is part of both the Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. intelligence community.

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National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons

1988: Into the Persian Gulf

- Marine Corps strength: 197,350 (0.08% of U.S. population)

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the mining of sea lanes in the Persian Gulf ran high during the Iran-Iraq War. Marines in April 1988 were sent to board an Iranian oil rig, attach explosives, and detonate it in retaliation for mining that had damaged a Navy vessel a week prior.

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US Department of Defense // Wikimedia Commons

1989: Avenging a death in Panama

- Marine Corps strength: 196,956 (0.08% of U.S. population)

The shooting of an off-duty Marine in Panama on Dec. 16, 1989, led President Reagan to authorize an operation to overthrow the country's autocratic leader, Manuel Noriega. “Operation Just Cause” was completed less than three weeks later with Noriega's arrest by U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers.

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Leonard J. DeFrancisci // Wikimedia Commons

1990: Protecting Saudi Arabia

- Marine Corps strength: 196,652 (0.08% of U.S. population)

With Saudi Arabia increasingly nervous over Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush sent the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit within striking distance of Iraq in the northern Arabian Sea. A senior administration official described the American strategy as intended to “show our commitment” to protecting Saudi Arabia.

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Leonard J. DeFrancisci // Wikimedia Commons

1991: The liberation of Kuwait

- Marine Corps strength: 194,040 (0.08% of U.S. population)

Marines launched a lightning-quick attack on Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait in February 1991. Operation Desert Storm took just 100 hours, during which time Marines captured 22,000 prisoners, destroyed 1,600 tanks and armored vehicles, defeated 7 Iraqi divisions, and crossed more than 100 miles—all with only five Marines killed.

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Monica's Dad // Wikimedia Commons

1992: Marines storm Somalia

- Marine Corps strength: 184,529 (0.07% of U.S. population)

In December 1992, 1,800 Marines were deployed to Somalia amid a violent civil war there. The Marines were part of a mission called Operation Restore Hope, which was meant to restore order in the country.

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U.S. Army Rangers // Wikimedia Commons

1993: A firefight in Mogadishu

- Marine Corps strength: 178,379 (0.07% of U.S. population)

400 Marines stormed Somali warlord General Mohammad Farah Aidid's compound in January 993, leaving much of the infrastructure in shambles, capturing weapons, and killing many of the general's gunmen. The raid was conducted to send a message to Aidid and his soldiers to stop firing on Marines, aid workers, and journalists.

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US Department of Defense

1994: Back to Haiti

- Marine Corps strength: 174,158 (0.07% of U.S. population)

Marines took part in a broad 1994 US military campaign to restore democracy to Haiti after a military junta overthrew the country's democratically elected leader. Marines were responsible for an amphibious attack on Cap Haitien and at one point even took over security in Port-au-Prince after Haitian soldiers fled.

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US Department of Defense // Wikimedia Commons

1995: A daring rescue in Bosnia

- Marine Corps strength: 174,639 (0.07% of U.S. population)

At the height of the Bosnian War, an Air Force captain's F-16 was shot down over Bosnia during a bombing campaign. Marines based on the USS Kearsarge were sent in to rescue him and did so, bringing him back from western Bosnia to their ship.

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US Department of Defense

1996: Evacuating US citizens from Liberia

- Marine Corps strength: 174,883 (0.06% of U.S. population)

Liberia in 1996 was in the throes of a violent and chaotic war, and there was no safe way for American citizens to leave the country. Marines were sent in to aid in evacuating them, plus citizens of other countries. They succeeded in helping 2,444 U.S. citizens and foreign nationals safely leave.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram // Getty Images

1997: A tragic death on the border

- Marine Corps strength: 173,906 (0.06% of U.S. population)

Esequiel Hernandez Jr. became the first American to be killed by U.S. soldiers on American soil since the violence at Kent State University in 1970. Hernandez was herding his family goats near the southwest border with Mexico when a Marine corporal shot him. Hernandez was carrying his grandfather's rifle (to protect the goats from wild dogs). The Marines say Hernandez shot at them; his family disputed that account.

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United States Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1998: Guarding the Albanian Embassy

- Marine Corps strength: 173,055 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In August 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered 200 Marines (accompanied by 10 Navy SEALS) to defend the U.S. Embassy in Albania. Non-essential personnel and dependents were evacuated, and Marines stayed to guard the remaining staff.

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US Navy // Wikimedia Commons

1999: In East Timor

- Marine Corps strength: 172,635 (0.06% of U.S. population)

Marines on the USS Belleau Wood were dispatched to East Timor in the fall of 1999 to safeguard an Australian-led peacekeeping force that had been dispatched to the country after Indonesian security forces unleashed violence in the region following an independence referendum. “We're not used to that,” a Marine told The Washington Post of the low-key, monitoring, and supervisory role the Marines played. “But you have to be a good follower if you want to be a good leader.”

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David McNew // Getty Images

2000: A devastating crash

- Marine Corps strength: 172,955 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In April 2000, all 19 Marines on board died in the crash of an aircraft in the final stages of its introduction, the MV-22 Osprey. It was the third Osprey crash in 10 years, escalating concerns over the safety of the helicopter/turboprop hybrid.

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ROB CURTIS // Getty Images

2001: The War on Terror

- Marine Corps strength: 176,720 (0.06% of U.S. population)

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Marines were dispatched to Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led global war on terror. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Marines were sent to Afghanistan to “establish and hold a forward operating base,” which would be critical to conducting the war.

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Sean Gallup // Getty Images

2002: Into Djibouti

- Marine Corps strength: 177,868 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In 2002, Marines were sent to the Horn of Africa for the first time since leaving Somalia in the mid-90s to strike Al Qaeda cells in Yemen. Marines were stationed in friendly Djibouti, where they also trained in desert warfare in preparation for combat across the Middle East.

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United States Marine Corps

2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom

- Marine Corps strength: 181,166 (0.06% of U.S. population)

Marines took the lead on Operation Iraqi Freedom, serving in the first push toward Baghdad after the U.S. declared war on Mar 20. Marines saved all but 9 of 500 oil wells from sabotage on their way to the capital.

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United States Marine Corps

2004: The Second Battle of Fallujah

- Marine Corps strength: 177,021 (0.06% of U.S. population)

The Second Battle of Fallujah is one of the most famous in modern Marine Corps history. Combat was initiated in November 2004 to seize the city from insurgent Iraqi control, and the battle was full of heroic Marine exploits, including lifting an armored Humvee off a soldier pinned underneath it. More than 250 Marines and sailors were awarded medals of citation for their bravery in battle.

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US Marines and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service // Wikimedia Commons

2005: The Haditha Massacre

- Marine Corps strength: 179,840 (0.06% of U.S. population)

The Haditha Massacre was a dark chapter in Marine history. In November 2005, at least 24 Iraqis (including women and children) were killed by Marines during a raid. In part because of errors made by prosecutors at trial, the officer who told his troops to “shoot first, ask questions later” reached a deal to avoid jail time; six of the Marines on trial had charges dropped, and the seventh was acquitted.

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TIM SLOAN // Getty Images

2006: The National Museum of the Marine Corps

- Marine Corps strength: 180,252 (0.06% of U.S. population)

The National Museum of the Marine Corps opened in Virginia in 2006 and has become one of the top tourist destinations in Virginia. President George W. Bush spoke at the dedication, saying: “The museum will not make you into a Marine. Only a drill instructor can do that. But by putting you in the boots of a Marine, this museum will leave you with an appreciation of the rich history of the Corps, and the pride that comes with earning the title United States Marine."

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United States Marine Corps

2007: A push to leave Iraq

- Marine Corps strength: 186,425 (0.06% of U.S. population)

After years of bloody fighting, Marine Corps leadership advocated pulling largely out of Iraq to redeploy to Afghanistan. The idea was to give the Army the lead in the Iraq War while giving the Marines a more prominent role in Afghanistan.

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Sgt. Pete Thibodeau // Wikimedia Commons

2008: Helmand Province

- Marine Corps strength: 198,415 (0.07% of U.S. population)

A year after advocating to lead in Afghanistan, Marines went into the Taliban stronghold of the Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2008. In April, they launched a campaign of several months that successfully took the Helmand district of Garmsir, which had been held by the Taliban.

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Alex Wong // Getty Images

2009: A daring rescue and Medal of Honor

- Marine Corps strength: 203,075 (0.07% of U.S. population)

In September 2009, Marine Dakota Meyer was on patrol in Afghanistan when he heard his unit come under Taliban fire over the radio. Defying orders to hold back, Meyer and a friend jumped into a Humvee and went into the ambush zone to rescue wounded Marines. The pair returned five times, saving 36 American lives. Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2011.

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Joe Raedle // Getty Images

2010: Relief efforts in Haiti

- Marine Corps strength: 202,612 (0.07% of U.S. population)

After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, thousands of Marines went to Haiti to assist with relief efforts. Part of the mission included the distribution of food, water, and other critical supplies, along with establishing a hub for the distribution of supplies elsewhere.

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SAUL LOEB // Getty Images

2011: A mission down under

- Marine Corps strength: 201,026 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In November of 2011, President Obama announced that 2,500 Marines would be sent to Australia to support allies in the region. The announcement was harshly criticized by China, which accused the U.S. of escalating military tensions in the area through unnecessary troop buildup.

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Marine Corps Times // Wikimedia Commins

2012: Marines in controversy

- Marine Corps strength: 198,820 (0.06% of U.S. population)

A series of controversies from Marines deployed overseas ensnared the Corps in 2012. In the first incident, a group of Marines was recorded urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. In the second, a photograph was published of a different group of Marines posing with a photograph holding the flag of the Nazi SS.

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Scott Olson // Getty Images

2013: Integrating women in combat roles

- Marine Corps strength: 195,848 (0.06% of U.S. population)

The process of fully integrating women into combat roles formally began in 2013, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that the Pentagon was lifting a rule that had excluded women from specific combat roles. Not all Marines thought the policy change was a good idea; indeed, the Marines were the only branch of service to request an exemption to the rule, which was not granted.

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U.S. Marine Corps // Wikimedia Commons

2014: Fighting ISIS in Iraq

- Marine Corps strength: 187,891 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In 2014, Marines returned to Iraq to help fight a grave new threat in the region. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran a significant swath of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, and Marines were dispatched to help train Iraqi counterparts to fight the insurgents.

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Jessica McGowan // Getty Images

2015: Tragedy in Tennessee

- Marine Corps strength: 183,417 (0.06% of U.S. population)

A shooting by a lone gunman at a military recruitment station in Chattanooga, Tenn., resulted in the deaths of four Marines. The shooter was a Kuwaiti-born naturalized U.S. citizen who had become radicalized in the months before the shooting.

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U.S. Department of Defense

2016: Deepening engagement in Iraq

- Marine Corps strength: 183,501 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In response to the advances and tenacity of the Islamic State, the U.S. dispatched thousands of more Marines to Iraq in 2016. The mission included ground combat, air support, training of Iraqi forces, and embassy and military outpost security.

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U.S. Navy // Getty Images

2017: A new squadron deploys

- Marine Corps strength: 184,401 (0.06% of U.S. population)

In early 2017, the Marines sent their first squadron of F-35B planes to Japan. The squadron's goals were to introduce the new aircraft to allies and begin including the jet into military plans in advance of deploying them on ships the following year.

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DELIL SOULEIMAN // Getty Images

2018: Fighting ISIS in Syria

- Marine Corps strength: 154,890 (0.05% of U.S. population)

In 2018, Marines were busy battling ISIS forces in Syria. Despite President Trump's assertion that ISIS had been defeated, as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters were still active, and Marines helped defeat the Islamic State.

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Scott Olson // Getty Images

2019: Integrating training battalions

- Marine Corps strength: 154,909 (0.05% of U.S. population)

Marines reached another major integration milestone in 2019: For the first time, the Corps integrated a small platoon of female recruits into larger training exercises with their male counterparts.

 

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Yeongsik Im // Shutterstock

2020: Force Design 2030 foresees a nimbler Marine Corps

- Marine Corps strength: 181,031 (0.05% of U.S. population)

Commandment Gen. David Berger in March 2020 released a Force Design 2030 document, which identified plans and targets for ongoing, future operations and equipment needs for the U.S. Marine Corps. The full document outlined prioritizing maneuverability—such as nimble, smaller ships rather than tanks—as well as updated operations around exercises, new units, and the like.

 

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Glynnis Jones // Shutterstock

2021: Marine Corps shrinks

- Marine Corps strength: Not yet available

Part of Gen. Berger’s Force Design 2030 also called for manpower cuts to the Marine Corps itself to re-invest funds in technology. The approved 2021 National Defense Authorization Act cut 5,000 Marines from 2020 levels, bringing the number of active-duty Marines to 181,200.

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