Annapolis’ Marines go to war

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Jan 23, 2006 4:50 PM

Like so many former Marines, I was initially disturbed to learn that U.S. Marine sentries posted at the Naval Academy at Annapolis were being replaced by sailors (The Marine Company at Annapolis was officially “disestablished” on Jan. 13, 2006). Not that sailors aren’t every bit as capable: They’ve been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us – and we with them – for more than two centuries.

But sentry duty at Annapolis has been a 155-year tradition for Marines. Naval tradition is the lifeblood of the Corps, and I believed – until my former Marine Corps commandant disabused me of that belief – that to remove Marines from the guard posts at Annapolis would somehow lessen the potency of that lifeblood. Other Marines I’ve spoken to have felt similarly.

Here’s why: Despite the usually good-natured rivalry that has always existed between the most-junior Marines and sailors, the Marine Corps as a whole has always been fiercely proud and protective of its Naval traditions. Marines are, after all, an arm of Naval service under the Department of the Navy.

Modeled on Britain’s Royal Marine Corps, the earliest ranks of American Marines were formed in 1775 and organized for service as a Naval infantry force attached to the fleet. The first leathernecks (so-named for the leather stocks they wore around their necks to deflect sword blows), served as guards, gunners, sharpshooters, and usually the lead elements of any Naval landing party. In time, they proved to be one of the most colorful components of American Naval service, once prompting Admiral David Dixon Porter, the famous Civil War-era U.S. Naval officer, to say, “A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons.”

In 1851 – six years after the “Naval School” opened its doors (the Naval School officially became the U.S. Naval Academy in 1850) and a decade before the beginning of the Civil War – Marines assumed watch-posts at Annapolis. They have since manned key internal security posts, performed ceremonial duties, and posted sentinels at the Academy Museum and the crypt of Naval hero John Paul Jones.

Granted, there have been periods during that century-and-a-half that the Marine guard force has been reduced, shifted from certain posts, and removed from others. During the Spanish-American War, for instance, the Annapolis Marines were deployed to the fighting. They were again deployed in the first decade of the 20th century for “pacification” duties in Cuba.

In recent years, Marines have been most visible manning the gates to the Academy. The official history states, “The mission of Marine Barracks Annapolis changed to guarding the gates [in 1987] … a mission the Marines had not performed since they left the Naval Academy to fight in the Spanish-American War.”

Some say there has been a Marine “gate presence” at different periods throughout the 20th century. But most – except those passing through the gates since 1987 - don’t recall seeing them.

“I don't remember Marines at the gates, but I do remember the ‘Jimmy Legs’ [Navy masters-at-arms],” says retired Vice Admiral Thor Hanson, Class of 1950.

“When I was a midshipman [1952-1956], the gates were manned by retired Navy petty officers,” recalls Annapolis grad and retired Marine Corps Major General Jarvis D. Lynch. “This may or may not have been the result of Korean War requirements: I have no way of knowing.”

A few others have told me Marines served briefly at the gates in the late 1950s, but were removed in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.

Still, most make the point that standing down the Marine guard force campus-wide has happened before. And in the current environment, both Hanson and Lynch believe it is the right thing to do.

Nevertheless, traditions die hard in the Marine Corps, and Marines – whether former, retired, active, or reserve – are somewhat averse to change: I know I am, unless of course it’s a new battlefield delivery platform or a new weapons system (Though, we Marines still place great value on swords, bayonets, and K-Bar fighting knives). Additionally, standing-down at Annapolis is not the first time in “recent history” we Marines have had to accept the end of historically significant, dear-to-us traditions.

During the 1990s, Marine security detachments were removed from all aircraft carriers and battleships and replaced with Navy guard forces. This was a result of post-Cold War downsizing and a realignment of combat assets.

Having personally served two-years with a ship’s Marine detachment before deploying with a Marine infantry battalion in the mid-1980’s, I felt uneasy about the loss of that particular element of our seagoing tradition. But as Gen. Paul X. Kelley reminded me in a phone conversation last week, even that was not unprecedented.

Kelley served as commandant of the Marine Corps from 1983-1987 (the same period I was a serving as a young rifle-squad leader), and it was on his watch that Marines were removed from most Naval base gates and soon thereafter many of the warships. Most of those Marines were folded into the newly forming special-operations capable Marine Expeditionary Units (my battalion became one of the first) and special security battalions.

“After the 1983 Beirut bombing, [Secretary of the Navy] John Lehman and I decided that we had a much larger role for Marines,” said Kelley. “We had a better use for them at that time.”

The dynamics of today’s world are – in many ways – more complex, and “this terrorist war requires our undivided attention,” he added, “So, I think it’s kind of a fallacious point about tradition [that of manning posts at Annapolis] – one that certainly should change with modern times, and modern times demands that we take Marines and put them out on the front lines to fight terrorism.”

Admiral Hanson says, “With the great record Marines have had and continue to have in forward deployments, I believe that they are better used there than as sentries.”

General Lynch agrees.

“Given the Marine Corps' commitments overseas – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere – there is no doubt that the Corps is feeling the pressure to make certain all Marines who can be made available for overseas duty are made available,” he says. “To do less would be unprofessional and unforgivable.”

Lynch adds that the Corps’ leadership has made a difficult, but proper decision. “I agree with you that tradition is important, extremely so,” he says. “But a greater tradition than that of providing a Marine presence at the Naval Academy is one of fielding the best expeditionary forces possible.”

I must admit, the words of these three general/flag officers are personally reassuring. Tradition is important, but never at the expense of efficiency and wartime requirements. And not all Marines have left the Academy Yard: Many are remaining on staff and as faculty members preparing future leaders for both the Navy and Marine Corps. Surely that is a tradition no bluejacket or leatherneck will ever permit to die.