"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
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
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
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 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 were that of
a postal clerk at the post office at the
regimental headquarters building.
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Ref The Book, Semper Fi, Mac-Living Memories of
the U.S. Marines In WWII, by Henry Berry, Quill,
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
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
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!
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R.W. "Dick" Gaines, GySgt USMC (Ret.) 1952-72
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