Marine Corps Combat Branches

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Marine Corps Combat Branches Ground ForcesAviation ForcesFor related articles, see the chronologically organized essays in the entry, Marine Corps, U.S.
Marine Corps Combat Branches: Ground Forces The U. S. Marine Corps, the smaller of the naval services, traces its origins to the American Revolutionary War. Like the navy, it was recreated in 1798 during the Undeclared War with France. For much of the nineteenth century, the Marine Corps served as a lightly‐armed constabulary at sea, mostly to enforce order and discipline aboard ship and to man small landing parties for infrequent forays ashore. In addition to their normal duties in support of the navy, Marines also served with the army in suppressing a rebellion by the Seminoles in Florida and in the Mexican War.

Between the Civil War and the Spanish‐American War, various commandants of the Corps instituted reform measures. In 1870, the muster rolls listed barely 2,000 “Leathernecks” (as they were sometimes called), but one‐fourth were deserters. Reformist efforts focused on the quality of the Marines. Beginning in 1883, all Marine junior officers came from the U. S. Naval Academy. A reformist element within the navy wanted to deploy Marines in battalions, readily available to the various fleet commanders. Such usage had already been demonstrated during an incursion into Panama in 1885, and again with the expeditionary force that landed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1898. Some senior officers in the Navy argued that the manning for these “ready battalions” could be accomplished by eliminating Marines from their traditional duties aboard ship, a proposal viewed with disdain by the Marines.

Then, with the era of neocolonialism that followed the Spanish‐American War, the Marine Corps was used to provide the constabulary for colonial infantry duties as part of the U. S. military involvement in the Caribbean well into the interwar era. Marines served also in a variety of overseas capacities in Latin America and East Asia. The Marine Corps also served during World War I with the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

A new justification for the Marine Corps became codified in 1927 when the Joint‐Army Navy Board gave it the mission of amphibious assault in support of naval operations. It assumed that, in the event of war with Japan, the Marines would be responsible for seizing Japanese‐held islands in the Pacific. The Corps developed a doctrine of amphibious warfare, which appeared as The Tentative Manual for Landing Operations in 1934. During World War II, Marines, sometimes in conjunction with the army, won a number of bloody battles on islands whose names would go down in history. Between 1941 and 1945, the Marine Corps expanded from 1,556 to 37,664 officers and 26,369 to 447,389 enlisted men. Nearly 90,000 Marines were killed or wounded during World War II; eighty Marines earned Medals of Honor.

Although a small number of women had been accepted briefly during the World War I era (known pejoratively as “Marinettes”), more than 18,000 women Marines served in World War II, and many chose to remain in uniform after the war. Some African Americans gained entry into the traditionally all‐white ranks, but they were relegated to support duties. It was not until 1948 that a black American received a Marine Corps officer's commission.

A postwar effort to reduce the size and limit the mission of the Marine Corps was thwarted. Nonetheless, on the eve of the Korean War, the Marine Corps numbered barely more than 70,000. Although used initially to buttress the collapsing forces of the Republic of Korea, an understrength division of Marines staged a successful amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon in September 1950 that paved the way for the liberation of Seoul and helped break the back of the North Korean incursion into the south.

Between the end of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps embraced the concept of vertical envelopment using helicopters to move troops beyond the beachhead. Early in 1965, Marine units were among the first U. S. combat units deployed to South Vietnam. Ultimately, two Marine divisions and an air wing, as well as support elements and the headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force, served in Vietnam. The lengthy deployment taxed the capabilities of the small armed service to provide replacements and maintain its professionalism. The Marine Corps lost 12,926 men killed and 88,542 suffered wounds.

For a decade after the end of the war in 1973, the ills plaguing American society as a whole impacted upon Marine ranks: social unrest, exacerbated by racial tensions; substance abuse; and recruiting difficulties resulting from public disenchantment with the Vietnam conflict. By the early 1990s, however, the Marine Corps had coped successfully with its problems all the while enhancing its amphibious capabilities. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, amphibious units maneuvered and demonstrated to convince the Iraqi leadership that an amphibious invasion of Kuwait was imminent, and an entire Marine Amphibious Force (two divisions, supported by an air wing and two force service support groups) stormed north from Saudi Arabia to help breach Iraqi defenses in Kuwait.
[See also Marine Corps, U.S.]


Robert D. Heinl, Jr. , Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775–1962, 1962.
Edwin H. Simmons , The United States Marines, 1775–1975, 1976; 3rd ed., 1998.
J. Robert Moskin , The U.S. Marine Corps Story, 1977.
Allan R. Millett , Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, 1980.
Merrill L. Bartlett , Lejeune: A Marine's Life, 1867–1942, 1991.
Jack Shulimson , The Marine Corps' Search for a Mission, 1880–1898, 1993.
Joseph H. Alexander and and Merrill L. Bartlett , Sea Soldiers in the Cold War, 1995.
Dirk Anthony Ballendorf and and Merrill L. Bartlett , Pete Ellis: An Amphibious Warfare Prophet, 1880–1923, 1997.
Joseph H. Alexander , A Fellowship of Valor: The Battle History of the United States Marine Corps, 1997.

Merrill L. Bartlett

Marine Corps Combat Branches: Aviation Forces Since its beginning in 1912, Marine Corps Aviation has defined an enduring relationship to Marine ground units and to aerial components of the U.S. Navy, Army, and, after 1947, to the U.S. Air Force.

During World War I (1917–18), the Marine aviators flew their missions far from the Marine brigade fighting alongside the army in France, either bombing targets in Belgium or patrolling from the Azores for German submarines. After the war, in the course of expeditionary duty in Haiti (1920–34) and in Nicaragua (1927–32), Marine airmen began specializing in the support of ground forces—conducting reconnaissance, strafing, dive‐bombing, delivering supplies, and evacuating casualties. By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, aviation formed an integral part of the Fleet Marine Force, organized in 1933 for expeditionary service and operated from the navy's aircraft carriers.

During World War II, Marine aviation supported amphibious, ground, and sea operations against the Japanese. In 1945 on Luzon during the liberation of the Philippines, Marine dive‐bombers protected the flank of an army division. Ground support, however, was overshadowed by aerial combat; Marine fighter pilots downed 2,300 Japanese aircraft.

By the Korean War (1950–53), the Marine Corps embraced the concept of the air‐ground team, normally pairing an aircraft wing with a ground division. Although Marine pilots scored a few aerial victories in Korea, they concentrated on supporting Marine ground forces.

In the Vietnam War (1965–73), since the objective of an air‐ground team under Marine control clashed with U.S. Air Force doctrine, which centralized all land‐based combat aviation under air force control—overcoming intense objections—the Air Force in March 1968 obtained operational control over all Marine Corps aircraft in Southeast Asia, except for transports, reconnaissance craft, and helicopters. In practice, such centralization proved too cumbersome, and within six months the air force headquarters in the theater began releasing blocks of sorties for the Marines to use in support of their own ground forces.

After Vietnam, Marine Corps Aviation evolved into a force—roughly 60 percent fixed‐wing aircraft and 40 percent helicopters—designed to operate from small aircraft carriers in support of amphibious operations but also capable of sustained activity from airfields ashore. During the Persian Gulf War (1991), the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing operated against Iraqi troops opposing two Marine divisions. Because the coalition dominated the air, centralization proved unnecessary and the Marines used their sorties as they chose.


Robert Sherrod , History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II, 1952; repr. 1987.
Peter B. Mersky , Marine Corps Aviation, 1912 to the Present, 1983.

Bernard C. Nalty