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Marine Corps 242nd Birthday

U.S. Marine Corps, then and now.

U.S. Marine Corps, then and now. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Russell Stewart/Released)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

Every summer the U.S. Marine Corps begins preparing for its annual birthday ball.  Marines reserve their seats, sharpen their uniforms, and for those given the privilege of participating in the ceremony, rehearse their roles. 

The significance of Nov. 10 originates back to the turbulent year of 1775 when the Second Continental Congress resolved to raise two battalions of “American Marines.”  A Philadelphia native, Capt. Samuel Nicholas, was the first appointed commandant chosen to lead the burgeoning Continental Marines.  Under Nicholas’ supervision, Robert Mullen led the first recruiting drives in his bar, Tun Tavern, leading to the tradition that the Marine Corps was “born in a bar.” 

Their leadership was only the beginning of the rich history cherished in the United States Marine Corps. 

After the close of the World War I, Maj. Edwin N. McClellan, the head of the Marine Corps’ historical section, saw the need for a ceremony to celebrate the Corps’ founding and history. On Nov. 1, 1921, Marine Corps Order No. 47 was issued by Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune. This order, is directed to be read each year, at every command, on the birthday, summarizes the history, mission, and traditions that define the Marine Corps and has been carried on every year since, honoring our foundation.  In the words of Order No. 47, it is imperative that we honor our traditions as to “call to mind the glories of [the Marine Corps] long and illustrious history.”

At first, the proceedings were not standardized and included such forms as dances, sports matches and mock battles. In 1923, the birthday was celebrated by a formal dance at the Marine barracks in Ft. Mifflin, Pennsylvania. The garrison stationed at the Navy Yard once celebrated the birthday by staging a mock battle on the streets of Washington. Even the Marines of Guantanamo Bay celebrated it by playing a game of baseball against a Cuban team.  However, aside from an undocumented newspaper clipping discovered from 1918 referring to the 120th celebration, we recognize 1925 as the first official “Birthday Ball” held in Philadelphia.  Distinguished guests at this event included the Secretary of the Navy, Gen. Lejeune, other well-known national leaders, and representatives from all the military services.

On Oct. 28, 1952, the ball was formalized as a celebratory event throughout the entire Marine Corps by Commandant Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. as annotated in the Marine Corps Drill Manual by 1956.  This helped culminate all ceremonious traditions to include the cutting of the cake.  Traditionally, the first piece of birthday cake is presented to the oldest Marine present and the second piece to the youngest Marine present, regardless of rank.

Today, celebrations of the Marine Corps birthday vary between posts to include the day the ceremony will take place but a few things remain the same.  All ceremonies include the reading of the Marine Corps Order No. 47, and the current Commandant’s message to those in attendance.  Much like everything else in the Marine Corps, the Birthday Ball started as something small and was refined to what it is today.  Wherever you are on Nov. 10, in battle, garrison, or ship, please join Marines everywhere in celebrating our 242nd birthday.