Marine Detachments (1775-1998)

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or insisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required: that they be insisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

Continental Congress, 10 November 1775

OLD EGA 001This was the instrument that created the Marine Corps.  The entire purpose of the Marines back then was to serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy —its original purpose and duty, but the concept of such employment goes back much further in history.  Roman ships had detachments of naval infantry whose purpose it was to take the battle to the decks of enemy ships, but seagoing marines have been a fact of naval warfare long before then —which is to say marines in some form or fashion, even if not referred to as such.

We cannot speak of American Marines 2,500 years ago, of course, but we do know that the first American Marines were British colonialists who first served as such under Colonel Alexander Spotswood and Colonel William Gooch (both of whom served as lieutenant governors of the colony of Virginia) during the War of Jenkin’s Ear in 1741.  Four battalions were raised for this purpose, but the enterprise did not end well for those men.  Most were defeated by rampant tropic diseases, which made them ineffective as a fighting force.

After the Congress’ authorization for a Corps of Marines, Tun Tavern [1] in Philadelphia became the main recruitment office for Marines.  Here, able bodied seamen were lured into Marine Corps service for six and two-thirds dollars per month, a daily ration of bread, one pound of pork or beef, potatoes or turnips, or a half-pound of peas, and a half-pint of rum.  Recruits were also promised butter once a week, pudding twice each week, and an allotment of cheese three times a week. Their uniforms included green overcoats and white trousers —so long as clothing was available.

Samuel_Nicholas
Captain Samuel Nicholas

In 1775, the owner of the Inn was a man named Samuel Nicholas [2].  Nicholas was commissioned a captain of Marines and charged with the initial recruitment effort.  He was responsible for leading the first 300 Marines in a raid at New Providence Island in the Bahamas to seize war materials greatly needed by General George Washington.  Ultimately, the Marines seized two forts in the face of almost no British resistance and helped themselves to available guns, powder, cannon balls, mortars, and various caliber of shells.  Marines did receive three rounds of British cannon fire, but no one was injured.

On their return voyage, the Continental Navy suddenly faced the twenty or so guns HMS Glasgow at Block Island.  When the smoke cleared, seven Marines lay dead and four others required treatment for serious wounds.  British casualties included four killed or wounded.

Seagoing Marines (also referred to as seadogs) were involved in many of the battles in the American Revolution.  Marine sharpshooters stationed on platforms above the masts delivered devastating fire to the decks of enemy ships. Occasionally, the Marines would conduct raids ashore along America’s long coastline.

When peace finally came in 1783, the Congress decided that it could no longer afford a naval establishment and the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded.  Up until then, the Continental Marines had consisted of 124 officers and 3,000 enlisted men.  There was no naval force in the United States between 1783 and 1794; in that year, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, all of which would have stationed aboard them detachments of US Marines.  They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was with the reemergence of the Navy and Marine Corps.  Moorish raiders operating in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard had begun seizing US flagged vessels and holding them, their cargoes, and crews, for ransom.  In 1793 alone, the US lost eleven merchantmen to Barbary pirates.  Added to this, European wars continued to involve American ships and the newly-created United States of America was forced to break free of its isolationist policies.

Three frigates were launched in 1797; they were christened USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.  A congressional act on 1 July of that year reactivated the Marine Corps.  The Act called for five lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, three drummers, three fifers, and 140 privates to man these ships in Marine Detachments.  From this point forward, the strength of the Marine Corps seagoing Marines continued to grow.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the American Navy, decided that the country could ill-afford to maintain the naval establishment.  Ships were decommissioned or dismantled, and the Marine Corps was cut to 26 officers and 453 enlisted men.

Yet, even as the President was looking to reduce America’s debt, the Navy-Marine Corps team had managed to create turmoil among French privateers operating in the West Indies during the so-called Quasi-War [3] (1798-1800).  The war was “quasi” because it was undeclared.  The French were surprised by the fighting skills of America’s fledgling Navy, among whose senior officers included Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot, and William Bainbridge.

Overwhelmed at sea, French ships withdrew to littoral areas of the West Indies and adopted the tactics of ambushing American commercial ships.  Undaunted, the US Navy pursued the French into shallow waters.  USS Delaware was the first American warship to claim a French prize.  USS Constellation captured the French ship Insurgente, a 40-gun ship of the line, on 7 February 1799.  Constellation also captured the 52-gun Vengeance after a five-hour battle in 1800.  Both of these vessels sustained heavy damage, however.

Lieutenant Bartholomew Clinch commanded the Constellation’s Marine Detachment during both sea battles; his Marines were recognized for delivering devastatingly accurate fire upon the French ship.  Lieutenant James Middleton led a landing party of Marines from USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco to defend the port of Curacao from a French raid.  Marines were also employed to seize an English ship being held under heavy cannon fire at Puerto Plata in Santo Domingo.

Suffering these depredations at the hands of the American Navy and Marines, the French soon signaled their interest in ending the war —but not before Marines from USS Enterprise captured nine French privateers, defeated a Spanish brig, and re-captured eleven American vessels.  In December 1800, Enterprise also defeated L’Aigle and Flambeau with much credit given to Marine sharpshooters.

Firing Pennsylvania
Firing the Philadelphia

President Jefferson’s frugality campaign came to an end when he realized that Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Tripolitan raiders were costing the Americans several million dollars a year, or roughly one-fifth of the nation’s income, paid either as ransom for captured Americans, or in bribes paid to allow US merchantmen to sail in Mediterranean waters.  In 1805, Tripoli’s pasha foolishly declared war on the United States by capturing USS Philadelphia and imprisoning its crew, which included 44 Marines.  To prevent the Tripolitans from using Philadelphia against the American Navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid into the harbor aboard the captured French ketch, USS Intrepid, boarded Philadelphia, overpowered the pirates, and burned the ship to its waterline. An eight-man squad of Marines participating in this raid was led by Sergeant Solomon Wren.

One of the more audacious actions during the Barbary Wars was the overland expedition led by William Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who had recruited mercenaries and marched six-hundred miles through the Libyan desert to attack the fort at Derna.  After heavy fighting, during which Eaton was wounded, O’Bannon’s remaining force assaulted the fort and defeated it.  This was the first time the United States flag was raised over foreign territory and the origin of the words to the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

Seven years later, during the War of 1812, Marine Lieutenant John Marshal Gamble became the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Navy ship, the captured British whaling ship Greenwich.  Lieutenant Colonel Gamble retired from active service in 1834.

During the War of 1812, a young officer by the name of Captain Archibald Henderson served aboard USS Constitution, distinguishing himself in engagements with HMS Java, Cyane and Levant.  He was brevetted to Major in 1814.  Colonel Henderson was later appointed to serve as the fifth Commandant of the Marine Corps, a post he would retain for 38-years.  He was brevetted to Brigadier General in January 1837.

Numerous men of Marine Corps fame served as seagoing Marines, including Henry Clay Cochrane, John Twiggs-Myers, Smedley D. Butler, and John Quick.  An overview of combat service involving ship’s Marine Detachments includes:

  • Barbary Wars
  • Florida Indian Wars
  • Operations in Haiti
  • Firefighting at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
  • Falkland Islands engagement
  • Slave suppression operations in South America
  • Diplomatic security in Japan
  • Operations ashore in China to protect American lives and property
  • Fiji Island raids to avenge the murders of American seamen
  • Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War
  • Combat operations in Korea, 1870s
  • Peace-keeping missions in Haiti and Egypt
  • Spanish-American War (Philippines and Cuba)
  • Panamanian revolution and construction of the Canal

With the outbreak of the so-called Great War, Marine Corps senior officers began planning for a significant increase in troop strength.  The demand for amphibious/land forces began to outpace the requirement for shipboard detachments.  These continued, of course, but in smaller numbers.

During World War II, Marine Detachments performed strategic raids as part of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.  In 1942, the Marines serving aboard USS Philadelphia (CL-41) landed at Safi, French Morocco to secure the airfield until relieved by Army units.  On 6 June 1944, shipboard Marines participated in the Normandy invasion by detonating floating mines blocking the path of US Navy ships operating in the English Channel.  They also manned secondary batteries aboard Navy cruisers and battleships.  On 29 August 1944, during the invasion of southern France, Marines from USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and USS Augusta (CA-31) went ashore to take charge of 700 Germans who had been manning fortified garrisons around the French harbor in Marseilles.  In the Pacific, the seadogs manned naval guns as Japanese kamikaze bombers attempted to destroy Navy vessels operating off the coast of Okinawa.  On 2 September 1945, Marines aboard the USS Missouri participated in ceremonies accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender to allied forces in Tokyo Bay.

The end of World War II propelled the world into the atomic age and cold war with the Soviet Union and China.  With war at an end, the United States reexamined its military footprint.  Under President Truman, the size of the military was sharply reduced.  Both the Navy and Marine Corps were reduced by one-third of their operating forces. The National Security Act of 1947 (Title 10, United States Code 5013) reaffirmed the seagoing mission of the Marine Corps: “… the Marine Corps shall provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the U. S. Navy and shall provide security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases.”

Due to significant cutbacks in the operating forces under the Truman administration, the Navy and Marine Corps were barely able to respond to North Korean aggression in 1950.  Ships that had been mothballed were reactivated.  The same carriers, battleships, and cruisers that had served in World War II were brought back for the Korean War.  There would be no sea battles, however.  Off shore navy platforms provided air support and battleships and cruisers provided naval gunfire support to the land forces.

The cold war produced significant advances in technology.  The US Navy continued to protect sea lanes throughout the world and participated in operations in Lebanon, Santo Domingo, Formosa, Cuba, and a then relatively unknown placed called Viet Nam.  Marine Detachments continued to serve aboard cruisers, battleships, and carriers, but their roles were changing.  Some of these ships had been transformed into nuclear powered vessels; additional security was needed to safeguard “special weapons.”

On 29 July 1967, while serving at Yankee Station, an aircraft aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-49) exploded setting off a series of fires and secondary explosions.  This was another important function of seagoing Marines: firefighting. Among the casualties from this incident were 134 sailors killed, 64 seriously wounded.  On 14 January 1969, another fire erupted aboard USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) while operating off the coast of Hawaii, resulting in 28 deaths, 128 injuries, the destruction of 15-aircraft, and a monetary loss of more than $128-million.  Few events are more deadly at sea than a shipboard fire.

In the post-World War II period, the duties of seagoing Marines were set forth in U. S. Navy Regulations (1047): “A Marine Detachment detailed to duty aboard a ship of the Navy shall form a separate division thereof.  Its functions shall be (1) Provide for operations ashore, as part of the ship’s landing force; or as part of the landing force of Marines from ships of the fleet or subdivisions thereof; or as an independent force for limited operations.  (2) To provide gun crews.  (3) To provide internal security of a ship.  (4) To provide for the proper rendering of military honors.  In addition to these duties, Marines also provided the ship’s captain with a Marine orderly, brig sentries, and guards for special weapons.

Eventually, the Navy replaced their deck guns with guided missiles and computer-controlled weapons systems.  There was no longer a need for Marines to man antiquated naval guns.  USS Oklahoma (CL-91) was the Navy’s last gun cruiser.  She was retired in the late 1970s, replaced in 1979 by the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).  Her sister ship was USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), placed in service in 1981. Initially, both of these ships had Marine Detachments, but because of their mission of directing amphibious operations, and because these ships incorporated Marines especially trained for planning and conducting amphibious operations, the detachments were deemed excess to requirements and were removed.

In small but steady increments, ship’s detachments were reduced in the Navy fleet. In 1979, the Commandant of the Marine Corps changed the mission of seagoing Marines.  From that time, Marine duties involved little more than providing security for special weapons storage spaces, the transfer of such weapons aboard ship, provide security for the ship, provide gun-crews as required, and such other duties as may be assigned by competent authority.  Marines no longer performed landing operations or brig security.  In 1986, the Commandant specifically precluded Marines from performing any duty that would detract from their primary role of safeguarding special weapons.

Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the battleships USS New Jersey and USS Iowa were reintroduced into naval fleets.  When one of the gun turrets of the Iowa exploded, killing 47 crewmen, Marines helped in firefighting and damage control operations.  Still, the accordion effect of manpower management caused the Navy and Marines to again reevaluate the Marine Detachments.  By the early 1990s, the United States entered another dangerous period: international terrorism.  In meeting this demand, Headquarters Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Security Forces (MCSF) with the stated mission of providing trained personnel and cadres to security departments at designated naval installations. The MCSF also provided mobile training teams to support anti-terrorism training at navy bases.

Detachments of Marines served exceptionally well aboard US Navy vessels since Corps’ very beginning; this ended in 1998. The last Marine Detachment bid farewell to the USS George Washington (CVN-73) on 1 May 1998.  A 223-year tradition of service at sea came to an end. Time marches on.

MARDET CINCLANT
Marine Detachment CINCLANT

Personal note: it was my privilege to serve at Marine Detachment, CINCLANT/ CINCLANTFLT/SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia from June 1964 to October 1966.  Today, the detachment is known as Marine Security Guard (MSG) Detachment, U. S. Fleet Forces Command.  At that time, it was the only non-seagoing detachment in the Marine Corps.  The two detachment commanders during this period were Major Figard and Major Kraynak. The executive officers were 1stLt Gaumont and 1stLt Ahern.  The First Sergeant was Donald A. Whiteside (retired in grade of Captain).  I was promoted to corporal and sergeant while stationed in Norfolk.

Endnotes:

[1] Tun Tavern was established in 1686 by Joshua Carpenter, the brother of Samuel who was a wealthy Quaker merchant.  The brewery and pub was located on King Street (later, Water Street) and Tun Alley, a caraway that led to Carpenter’s wharf.  The word “Tun” comes from old English meaning barrel or keg of beer.  The tavern became an early meeting place for a number of notable groups, including Freemasons in early America.

[2] While not officially appointed as such, Nicholas is traditionally regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[3] This conflict erupted during the administration of John Adams.  After the French monarchy was abolished in September 1792, the United States determined that its debt to France was cancelled. The French Republic thought otherwise and began to seize American ships and sell them as repayment of America’s debt.  The war was fought almost entirely at sea.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

14 thoughts on “Marine Detachments (1775-1998)”

  1. With the glorious history we have, the National Women’s Hall of Fame wants to induct Hanoi Jane Fonda!! Sorry for venting, but I’m furious!

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  2. In Dec 1958, having completed Sea School at MCRD San Diego, as a very young lad I reported to the Marine Detachment, USS HORNET CVS -12 for duty. It was a grand learning experience and I was involved in all the various tasks listed above. In those days there were no freeways, no bridge to Coronado (we had to ride a ferry). And the Rifle Range for recruits was where UC San Diego now sits. Stone the crows.

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    1. Not every Skipper wanted Marines aboard his ship. I recall some of the scuttlebutt I heard about this. Sea duty could be great fun, or it could be a painful experience. It is amazing how much impact one man has on the climate and culture of his command.

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    1. Memories are great things, Jim. To this day I recall my buddies at MarDet; I often wonder what they’re doing these days. I wonder if this duty has as much of an impact on their lives as it did mine. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. My Dad was in China in 1934. He said that as a private, shooting expert in “everything that shot”, he got $17 a month.

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  4. This is a heck of a history even if at the 10,000 ft view. Hue City, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal. so many other historical items that cause the Marines to rise well above probably any other fighting force anywhere.

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