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The Old Corps - Between The Wars

"Nothing sounds worse than an old salt blowing his bugle....before that war we had men among us who never knew that life existed outside the Corps. Leather lunged and ramrod straight, hard drinkers and fighters and spit-and-polish career men."

The above words were spoken by "Mac," an old salt Marine, the Master Technical Sergeant in the book (later, the movie), Battle Cry, by Leon Uris, 1953. And he was reflecting on the great changes that had taken place affecting his chosen way of life in the Corps with the advent of WW II.

Although many of us likely have differing opinions as to just what constitutes the "Old Corps," I think that most of us here reading this would accept that period between the two world wars as such. Also, I believe it is true that we all initially see all of those Marines who came before us as old corps; but later, after a few, or many, years our perception of that tends to narrow somewhat and we all decide to some degree just what the old corps means to us individually. Our opinions are founded and shaped according to when we entered the Corps, our experiences, etc. And so our own perception of the Old Corps may become both similar and /or dissimilar to one another's.

But it is that period of time between the world wars that I would choose for myself as that which best falls into the category of Old Corps--for me, anyway--and it is that period that I would prefer to write about. That era was a time when the Marine Corps was very small (less than 20,000), and career Marines are said to have known most other career Marines, either by sight or reputation.

Regretably, I think there is too little specific information available regarding the routine everyday life of Marines during that period, although, we can find numerous bits and pieces regarding this in some books on this general era. But these are few and far between, as most books are written with a specific focus toward its main theme, not allowing for too many other details.

There is one obvious exception to the above. I am referring to Brigadier General Robert H. Williams' book, The Old Corps-A Portrait of the U.S. Marine Corps Between the Wars, 1982, Naval Institute Press.This book is presently out-of-print, but well worth looking for for those interested in this subject.

In 1953-54, I was a member of the 3rd Marine Regiment (RCT-3) commanded by Colonel Robert H. Williams, from CJHP, Kaneohe Bay, to Middle Camp Fuji, Japan. Colonel Williams was just such an "Old Breed" Marine. Colonel Williams cut an impressive figure as a Marine, and I observed him pretty much on a daily basis, as my duties positioned me in the same building as Colonel Williams and his regimental headquarters.

The regimental commander was often seen attired in campaign hat, battle jacket, riding breeches and boots, and he carried a riding crop. During WW II, he had been commander of the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion on Guadalcanal, and later served as XO of 28th Marines on Iwo Jima. But his book was focused on his own personal experiences prior to WW II. He states that, "Since I was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1929, the first ten years of my service coincided with with what may be considered the last decade of the Old Corps."

Myself, I didn't join the Marine Corps until 1952, so by my own definition above, I do not qualify as old corps. But I served with some Marines who definitely belonged in that category--mostly staff non-commissioned officers. Of course, there were by far many more old-timers around than just those I knew about because I worked with them. It was not uncommon, at that time, to see corporals and buck sergeants wearing up to three or more hashmarks. And multiple-hashmarked Privates and PFCs were occasionally seen. And, by the same token, there were also a few "slick-sleeve" Staff NCOs around too.

There was one M/Sgt who had been a China Marine before I was born; another, A T/Sgt (they were usually called "Gunny") who had been a POW in the Pacific during WW II; another M/Sgt who ocassionally wore an old khaki shirt w/out-of-date, obsolete, chevrons (three up/two down, w/a diamond in the center)--he said he had been a first sergeant at one time. Later, much later, I learned that those chevrons were the insigne of a pre-1937 first sergeant. And there were others, many others, some who were even veterans of the "Banana Wars!"

Makes me now wonder why, with such a wealth of living Marine Corps history so near to me, I had not questioned them more closely concerning their experiences. But, back then, I tended not to get too "personal"--I was content to listen to their sea stories and let it go at that. PFCs were like that.

An unknown author has stated that "sea stories are the preferred means by which wisdom is passed from the older generation of Marines to the next." A lot of truth in that, I think--and a great deal of good information has been lost because more of us have not taken down and preserved these things. I now regret that I had not sought out these seeming trivial and mundane things of old corps daily life, while I had the opportunity to do so, and now I have only the dimming memories of those (mostly one-sided) coversations with the old salts.

-Dick Gaines

Ref: Guadalcanal, The Definitive Account by Richard B. Frank:
"The Old Breed", as described by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel B. Griffith, one of their own, described them as they were formed at the beginning or World War II in the lst Marine Division just prior to Guadalcanal: "...first sergeants yanked off "planks" in navy yards, sergeants from recruiting duty, gunnery sergeants who had fought in France, perennial privates with disciplinary records a yard long. These were the professionals, the "Old Breed" of the United States Marines. Many had fought "Cacos" in Haiti, "bandidos" in Nicaragua, and French, English, Italian, and American soldiers and sailors in every bar in Shanghai, Manila, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Peking."

"They were inveterate gamblers, and accomplished scroungers, who drank hair tonic in preference to post exchange beer ("horse piss"), cursed with wonderful fluency, and never went to chapel ("the Godbox") unless forced to. Many dipped snuff, smoked rank cigars, or chewed tobacco (cigarettes were for women and children). They had little use for libraries or organized athletics...they could live on jerked goat, the strong black coffee they called "boiler compound," and hash cooked in a tin hat."

"Many wore expert badges with bars for proficiency in rifle, pistol, machine gun, hand grenade, auto-rifle, mortar and bayonet. They knew their weapons and they knew their tactics. They knew they were tough and they knew they were good. There were enough of them to leaven the Division and to impart to the thousands of younger men a share of both the unique spirit which animated them and the skills they possessed. They were like a drop of dye in a gallon of water, they gave the whole division an unmistakable hue and they stamped a nickname on the division: "the Old Breed."
First To Fight!!!

Ref The book, The Old Corps, by BGen Robert H. Williams USMC (Ret,), 1982, Naval Institute Press
"Staff non-commissioned officers (those of the top three pay grades) possessed, as they doubtless do now, a status in relation to the more numerous sergeants and corporals comparable to that of field officers to company officers. Exempt from guard duty, they were not required to fall in at mess formations and sat behind a screen at a special table at the far end of the mess hall away from the galley. There they could eat "early chow" if they wished. A marine could be well into his third four-year enlistment before attaining the third pay grade of staff or platoon sergeant.

Enlisted rank designations were generally the same as those of the Army except for the unique rank of gunnery sergeant. Unlike the first world war, it was the rank of the third pay grade, below that of sergeant major and first sergeant. Functionally, gunnery sergeants were then platoon sergeants. Platoon leaders were normally second lieutenants, but sometimes one platoon of a company would not have an officer assigned and would be led by its gunnery sergeant. This had a curious effect. Perhaps feeling deprived at having no officer and realizing that their "gunny" was competing with officers, the members of such a platoon seemed to try harder to perform well.

A marine first sergeant was just what that rank designation implies. As in the Army, he was the senior non-commissioned officer at company level, but was primarily responsible for administration. As the burden of paperwork increased, the first sergeant was more and more confined to his desk. The need arose for another NCO to be moved up to the same pay grade as the first sergeant in order to project senior NCO authority to the drill field, the classroom, and the rifle range. In 1920 gunnery sergeants were moved up one pay grade to rank with first sergeants. Later another rank, staff or platoon sergeant, was created to replace the gunnery sergeant in the third pay grade.

A gunnery sergeant might be in his early thirties, fit, bronzed from the sun, taciturn rather than loquacious, possibly foreign born. He might roll his own cigarettes or smoke "tailor mades" (packaged cigarettes), or he might use snuff....Within the closed, stratified society of a company or detachment, both first sergeant and gunnery sergeant were obeyed with alacrity and afforded unfailing respect, but there seemed to be a more discernable warmth in the attitudeof the men toward the latter than toward the first sergeant. Except on formal ocassions he was addressed with friendly respect as "Gunny" by all ranks from commissioned officers to the youngest marines recently joined from boot camp. Whether wearing his field hat with khaki shirt and trousers or turned out in the martial splendor of undress blues, perhaps wearing the fourragere of the Croix de Guerre, he was the archetypal marine who confidently demanded the respect from superior and subordinate alike, and received it ungrudgingly."

The Old Marine Corps " In the 1930s, both officers and men often made reference to that Corps of the past....and always stressing the adjective. Of course, to a young officer like myself or to a nineteen-year-old private, the Old Marine Corps was simply part of an unremembered past which had no bearing on our lives. It was the Corps in which senior officers and NCOs had served before we were born, or the Corps that had sent a brigade of marines to fight in France when we were children. We knew only the Corps of the 1930s in which we were serving.

I used to speculate about the image in the mind's eye of those admirable NCOs, on whose sleeves so many enlistment stripes were sewn, when they infrequently uttered those words seriously. Eventually I understood. Each generation of marines, as it approaches middle age after twenty years of service, acquires its own Old Corps, that of its youth. Its idealization is probably strongest if the earliest years of service preceeded a wartime expansion.

Those senior NCOs of the 1930s were not recalling the Corps that provided half the infantry of the famous Second Division of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.What they referred to was an apotheosis of the peacetime Corps in which they had served before the wartime expansion of 1917. The discipline and standards of the close-knit peacetime few cannot be transmitted in all their essence to the wartime many. With the return of peace comes the contraction to another Corps of regulars. Regulars in name only at first, who in time will approach but never quite attain the remembered excellence of theOld Corps."

Ref The Book, Semper Fi, Mac-Living Memories of the U.S. Marines In WWII, by Henry Berry, Quill, 1982
Warrant Officer Joseph Crousen (enlisted 1925) Sergeant Major Francis McGrath (enlisted 1927)
Joe: ....we had a PFC by the name of Deacon Jones and so help me gawd, the ole Deacon had twenty-eight years in the Corps and he was still a PFC. Can you beat that? Mac: Oh, Christ, the Deacon! You could put Jones in the Sahara Desert and he'd find some booze before the night was over.

Joe: That was his problem. When he'd make corporal, he'd go out and get a snootful. Then he'd tell all the officers to go to the devil--he'd lose that second stripe every time. Crousen: ...and that's how I made buck sergeant. I think it was in '38. I guess I was just about the youngest sergeant in the Corps.

Mac: That's probably right, in '31, when I came back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we had a buck sergeant named Charley Dowd. He'd made sergeant in 1909--can you believe that--a buck sergeant in 1909 and still one in 1931? Joe: Yeah, well money was real scarce in them days.... Mac: Tell me, Joe. You made platoon sergeant at Quantico in '40--right?

Joe: Yes, I had thirteen years in at the time. I remember walkin' into the the NCO club there and seein' all these buck-ass sergeants with hashmarks up and down their sleeves. Plenty of 'em had lots of time on me. I had to git the hell outa there--thought they were going to whip the hell outa me.

Mac: Oh, you were a boot to some of those men. Well, I made buck sergeant at the same time. You had to have that third stripe to get a car on the base. So I dashed over to Stratford, Virginia, and bought a new Plymouth for $842. Joe, do you remember Lou Diamond? Joe: That sly old devil, of course I do. Mac: Well, every time Lou saw me driving by; he'd grunt out, "Quantico's playboy, Quantico's playboy--big deal!"...

Mac: ...."Chesty," you see, was an old Marine expression meaning cocky. That's how Lewis Puller got his nickname "Chesty," even though most of the old timers always called him Lewie. Joe: Well, Francis, we're what you'd call the Old Breed. Our time has long come and gone.

But damn it, there's plenty of career men on active duty right now, probably a generation or so younger than we are. And if this country gets into real hot water again, I bet they'd do as good a job as we did in turning a bunch of kids into Marines. There ain't nothin' ever going to change the Corps. No sir.

Mac: Joe, you're probably right . But where in the hell did the time go to? How would you like to turn the clock back fifty years and once again be sitting around the table at Hempel's joint on Hatemen Street--maybe just one more stein of beer there. What would you say to that? Joe: Amen, Sergeant Major, Amen!

And, for some even older "Old Corps" information, please go to "Sully's" Website, under Stories, Sully, and Leathernecks, for some classic writing on this subject.
This Site is an extension of Gunny G's Old Salts Tavern Sites & Forums! by R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgtUSMC (Ret.)
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