To help celebrate the 242nd birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, my wife and I recently visited one of the best museums in the Washington, D.C., area — the National Museum of the Marine Corps, located just outside Quantico Marine Base about a half-hour drive south of Washington in Virginia.
Most visitors to Washington spend their time visiting the Smithsonian museums, not realizing that another terrific museum is just a short drive away. From the splendid architecture of the building itself — it’s designed to look like the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima — to the interior displays and exhibits, it provides an informed, educational, interesting, and frankly emotional tour through the storied and dramatic history of the Marines.
You can’t help but get a taste of the toughness, professionalism, and go-for-broke style of the Marines as soon as you walk in the door. There, carved on the wall of the high atrium that is the center of the museum, are the words of a legend in the Marine Corps — Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daily: “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
Daily yelled those famous words at his men as they were charging the Germans during the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I, a battle in which the Marines defeated much larger German forces while losing more men than had been killed and wounded in all of the prior battles of the Marines combined since their founding.
There are special exhibit halls dedicated to everything from the Continental Marine’s first sea battles as part of the fledgling U.S. Navy during the Revolution to the “shores of Tripoli,” the “Halls of Montezuma” during the Mexican-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Besides the major conflicts the Marines participated in, the museum also highlights the “savage wars of peace,” to quote Rudyard Kipling — the numerous battles fought by the Marines all over the world during official times of peace. Soon to come in 2018: exhibits showing the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The exhibits are very well done. To give you a taste of the fighting in Vietnam, you enter the exhibit through a troop helicopter. As you walk down the ramp, you are suddenly in the Khe Sanh Fire Base, where two regiments of Marines were involved in one of the most ferocious battles of the war in 1968. As has been the case so often in their history, the Marines were vastly outnumbered, up against an estimated three divisions of the North Vietnamese Army. With the help of massive bombardments from Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps air units, the Marines successfully held off the North Vietnamese while completely surrounded.
The exhibits are very well done. To give you a taste of the fighting in Vietnam, you enter the exhibit through a troop helicopter.
For the Korean War exhibit, they have a special cold room that shows the fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, when Marine Corps General Oliver Smith famously declared, “Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely attacking in another direction.” The 1st Marine Division, which again was vastly outnumbered by enemy troops, suffered more than 4,000 battle casualties fighting in subzero temperatures. But it was one of the Corps’ finest hours, because the Marines, with the help of elements of the 7th Infantry Division and the British Royal Marines, fought a successful rear-guard action that saved U.N. forces in Korea from total annihilation by Chinese troops.
We spent the entire afternoon in the museum and still did not get all the way through it. However, as I walked out in the late afternoon as the sun was starting to set, I have to admit that I was humming the Marine Corps hymn as I thought about the valor, sacrifice, and bravery displayed by Marines over the past 242 years. And I was smiling as I thought about the final words of that hymn and the Marines’ long-standing, dare I say “friendly” rivalry with the rest of our armed forces:
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
— Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.