Marine Corps History and Traditions

Learn about the famous quotes, customs, and traditions of the USMC.

Veterans Day Parade Held On New York's 5th Avenue
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The Marine Corps has a rich history and long list of traditions important to every member of the service, past and present. They have grown out of the manner in which Marines of the past conducted themselves as well as present Marines honoring Marine heroes of yesterday.

The USMC has incorporated some of these traditions into regulations in order to standardize conduct throughout the Corps, but many can't be found in written directives. Marines consider knowing and observing both written and unwritten customs to be key to honoring the heritage and tradition of the Corps.

Must-know terms and phrases

When you think Marine Corps, you may think of the night in Tun Tavern in 1775 where the first recruitment drive for Marines began in Philadelphia prior to the Revolutionary War. You may think of the terms "Jarhead," "Leatherneck,", or "Devil Dogs", or maybe even "The Few, The Proud" from the advertising campaigns. But the Marines are best known for their motto, "Semper Fi" (always faithful) and being the "First to Fight" in more than 300 beach landings throughout the 250-year history. They're also known for their signature shout: ooh-rah!

Marine Corps birthday

One of the most famous Marine customs is the observance of the Marine Corps Birthday. Since 1921, the birthday of the Marine Corps has been officially celebrated each year on Nov. 10, since it was on this date in 1775 that Continental Congress resolved, "That two Battalions of Marines be raised."

Over the years, the Marines have celebrated their birthday in a wide variety of ways, depending on the location and circumstances of the Marine units. The celebration involves the reading of an excerpt from the Marine Corps Manual and a birthday message from the Commandant, the cutting of a birthday cake by the commanding officer, and the presentation of the first and second pieces of cake to the oldest and youngest Marines present.


Some of the most important customs of all are those of military courtesy, usually by way of salutes. In the Marine Corps, courtesy is an expression of respect for the authority possessed by an individual, as well as a demonstration of respect for the Corps as a whole. Through the use of the various forms of military courtesy, a Marine says, "As brothers in arms and fellow Marines, I consider you worthy of my respect."

Military courtesy is an expression of the respect a Marine has for other Marines and for himself. Of all the forms of military courtesy, the various salutes are probably the most important—they are certainly the most obvious and frequently used. Saluting is the traditional form of greeting between servicemen and women and it is an honored tradition of military organizations throughout the world.

Marines in uniform salute officers, even if that officer is in civilian clothes (assuming the Marine recognizes the individual as an officer). Conversely, it's not considered appropriate for a Marine in civilian clothes to initiate a salute to an officer, even if that officer is in uniform.

During the playing of the National Anthem, at morning and evening colors, and at funerals, Marines who are in civilian dress uncover and hold the hat over the left breast at the same time as those in uniform salute. Many stand at attention when in civilian clothes as well when hearing the National Anthem or the Marines' Hymn.

Wetdown USMC

The wetting-down ceremony is when a newly promoted officer invites his or her friends—typically officers of the same rank—to a party at a bar and pub they frequent. As the name "wetdown" implies, there is copious amounts of drinking and at least one ceremonial toast, followed by speeches. The host of the party always foots the bill. If multiple officers are promoted at the same time, they may host one wetdown party for all of them.

Miscellaneous USMC traditions and customs

There are many other customs which have significance in the life of a Marine. Here are a few of the notable ones:

  • Boarding a small boat or entering a car. When boarding a small boat or entering a car, juniors enter first and take up the seats or the space beginning forward, leaving the most desirable seat for the senior. Seniors enter last and leave first.
  • Serenading the Commandant. Commencing with the last New Year's Day of the Civil War, the Marine Band serenades the Commandant of the Marine Corps each Jan. 1 at his quarters and receives hot buttered rum and breakfast in return.
  • Wishes of Commanding Officer. When the commanding officer of a Marine says, "I wish" or "I desire," these expressions have the force of a direct order and should be acted upon as if he or she had given a direct order.
  • Looking Out for Your Men. A Marine leader makes sure Marines are comfortably clothed, housed, and justly treated. For example, a Marine officer in the field takes position in the mess line after all the enlisted Marines in order to ensure all of them get their food. A Marine leader never allows a wounded or dead Marine on the battlefield to fall into the hands of the enemy.
  • Being a Marine. The most important custom in the Marine Corps is simply "being a Marine" and all that it implies. Call it morale, call it esprit de corps, call it what you will—it is that pride which sets a United States Marine apart from the men of other armed services. It is not taught in manuals, yet it is the most cherished lesson a recruit learns in boot camp.

Some Classic Quotes About Marines

U.S. Sen. Paul H. Douglas (1892-1976): "Those of us who have had the privilege of serving in the Marine Corps value our experience as among the most precious of our lives. The fellowship of shared hardships and dangers in a worthy cause creates a close bond of comradeship. It is the basic reason for the cohesiveness of Marines and for the pride we have in our corps and our loyalty to each other."

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (1974-2013): "In my experience, Marines are gung ho no matter what. They will all fight to the death. Every one of them just wants to get out there and kill. They are bad-ass, hard-charging mothers."

Navy Rear Adm. James R. Stark: "Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweiler’s or Doberman’s, because Marines come in two varieties, big and mean, or skinny and mean. They're aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They've got really short hair and they always go for the throat."

Army Gen. William Thornson: "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion."

Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos: “'Once a Marine, always a Marine.' The title is permanent. Do not use 'former' Marine, as it implies 'no longer a Marine.' You're a Marine, just in a different uniform and you're in a different phase of your life. But you'll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego, or the hills of Quantico. There's no such thing as a former Marine."

In closing, as the day ends for the Marine recruit attending USMC boot camp, the final words out of the recruits mouth are, "Good Night Chesty Puller—wherever you are."