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Lasting Legacy: History of the Marine Corps Birthday

21 Nov 2011 | Diane Durden

I took one last look in the mirror before heading down the hallway and turning the corner into the ballroom. Everything had to be just right. Medals on straight, fingerprints wiped from the anodized brass, buttons turned correctly, emblems facing inboard with the eagles’ wings parallel to the floor. Alright, I’m ready.

“Happy Birthday,” I said to the first Marine I approached. I received a resounding well-wishing in return. Hundreds of Marines and their guests joined together for their unit’s annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

The ball, one of several ways Marines celebrate the birth of our Corps is held on, or around, Nov. 10 each year. For generations, Marines around the globe have come together for this time-honored event to commemorate our Corps’ traditions and history.

Celebrations range from the very elaborate ball, where Marines, dressed in their best uniforms, conduct a ceremony many throughout the Corps have witnessed; to a simple shared cake delivered into a combat zone, or just quietly raising their glasses in a toast.

The Marine Corps has not always celebrated its birthday in Nov. In the early years of our history, many commemorated the day on July 11, the date President John Adams approved a bill recreating the Corps after it was nearly disbanded at the close of the American Revolutionary War. Celebrations were usually meager and without fuss, until 1921.

A memorandum was sent to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune, suggesting that the original birthday on Nov. 10, 1775, the date the Continental Congress resolved “that two Battalions of Marines be raised,” be declared a Marine Corps holiday.

Accordingly, on Nov. 1, 1921, Lejeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921, summarizing the history, mission and tradition of the organization, and directed that it be read to every command on Nov. 10 each subsequent year in honor of the original birthday.

Whether in garrison or forward deployed, visit any Marine Corps unit on this date, and you will find Marines gathered to share in the traditions we have passed from one generation to the next for hundreds of years.

Present day celebrations begin with reading Gen. Lejeune’s message, followed by reading or watching a video of the current commandant’s message. Both messages remind us of the history that brought us to where we are today.

The cake, although now an element of the ceremony, was not formally part of the celebrations until 1956, when Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. formalized the festivities throughout the Corps. This provided an outline for the cake ceremony, and other formal observances still followed today.

Tradition dictates the first piece of cake is shared between the oldest and youngest Marines present, signifying the transfer of knowledge and wisdom into the capable hands of our Corps’ future.

Celebrations are not exclusive to Marines still actively serving. Ask Marines who long ago, hung up their uniform, they will tell you they will be celebrating and wishing fellow Marines happy birthday during their own parties.

Old and new, active duty, reserve or retired, Marines will get together, shake hands, toast a drink and throw their arms around one another as brothers.

We will celebrate Marines of the past, our history, each other and our traditions. And in celebrating our past, we celebrate the future.

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