Over the course of the 243-year history of the Corps, US Marines have waged war in countries around the world, building a reputation as an unstoppable force.
On many occassions, the Marines have found themselves tasked with the seemingly impossible while surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. Often the “first to fight,” the Marines regularly suffered heavy casualties in the bloody battles they fought, but the Devil Dogs made sure those sacrifices cost their enemies dearly.
These are ten of the toughest and most iconic battles the Marine Corps ever fought.
Battle of Derna — “To the shores of Tripoli”
Libya: April 27 – May 13, 1805
A small Marine expeditionary force under the command of Lt. Presley O’Bannon marched more than 500 miles across the Libyan Desert to storm the Tripolitan port city of Derna, where the Marines won a historic victory over the Barbary pirates of North Africa and rescued the captured crew of the USS Philadelphia.
The victory, supported by the Navy and local mercenaries, helped secure US ships and trade at a critical time in America’s development. The battle also notably shaped a handful of Marine Corps traditions.
The nickname “leathernecks” originated at Derna, where US Marines wore high, leather collars to guard against the cutlasses carried by the pirates.
The Mameluke sword presented to O’Bannon by the rightful ruler of Tripoli, who was able to retake his throne after the battle, eventually became a part of the Marine Corps officer’s uniform. This unique sword remains the oldest ceremonial weapon in use by the US armed forces today.
And, the Battle of Derna is famously celebrated in the Marines’ Hymn, a key verse of which reads: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”
Battle of Chapultepec — “From the Halls of Montezuma”
Mexico: September 12-13, 1847
Chapultepec Castle sat atop a steep hill, serving as a critical fort for the defence of Mexico City, and US Army Gen. Winfield Scott determined that it was necessary to take it before American troops could seize the capital.
US Marines and Army soldiers fought their way up the hill through heavy musket and artillery fire to engage Mexican forces in intense hand-to-hand combat. US troops then scaled the high walls of the castle while battling it out against an enemy ready to fight until the bloody end.
At the conclusion of the two-day battle, the Marines hoisted the flag inside the fort, commonly referred to as the Halls of Montezuma. With this victory, US troops captured the last stronghold of the Mexican-American War and cleared the way for US forces to take the Mexican capital.
Not only is this battle, like the earlier Battle of Derna, commemorated in the Marines’ Hymn, but the scarlet stripes on the Marines’ blue dress trousers are called “blood stripes” and are said to honour those who fell at Chapultepec. The stripes, however, reportedly pre-date this famous battle.
Battle of Belleau Wood — “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
France: June 1 – 26, 1918
The Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the most brutal battles fought by American forces in World War, saw US Marines charge across a waist-high wheat field into German machine gun fire, suffering unbelievable casualties. Determined to take the forest, the Marines did not stop their advance.
“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” First Sergeant Dan Daly, a legendary two-time Medal of Honour recipient, famously shouted to his troops to motivate them to continue to push forward.
Marines charged machine gun nests with fixed bayonets and engaged the Germans in fierce hand-to-hand combat while moving from tree to tree. During the brutal three-week battle, the US and German forces traded control of the forest six times.
The Marines succeeded in their mission, clearing the forest and turning the tides of the war, but victory came at a steep price. It was during this famous battle that the Marines showed the world that they are a formidable force willing to accept nothing less than victory.
And, it was there in Belleau Wood, France that the Marines earned a new nickname. German officers are said to have called the tenacious and unstoppable Marines “Teufel Hunden,” which translates to “Devil Dogs,” or at least that’s how the story is told.
Battle of Guadalcanal — “Guadalcanal is no longer merely the name of an island … It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army.”
Solomon Islands: August 7, 1942 – February 9, 1943
In the first major allied offensive against Japan during the Second World War, the US Marines of the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal determined to blunt Japan’s march toward Australia.
As the battle began, the Marines rushed ashore, quickly taking control of a strategic airfield.
While the Devil Dogs, supported by the Army, captured ground on land, the US Navy suffered a serious defeat that allowed the Japanese to regain control of the sea, forcing the logistics and support ships to withdraw and leaving the Marines cut off, except for the occasional supply drop from the air.
For three months, the Marines, who were unable to be reinforced, endured daily Japanese naval bombardments referred to as the Tokyo Express. The US troops also faced terrifying Banzai charges as Japanese forces poured onto the island. The Japanese made regular attempts to retake key strategic positions, but US troops stopped them in their tracks.
The US Navy ultimately took back control of the surrounding waterway, and the Japanese secretly retreated.
The Marines, together with the Army, achieved a great victory, successfully ending Japan’s southward expansion. The US Marines lost more than 1,500 men. The Japanese lost tens of thousands.
After the battle, a victory that turned the tide of the war for the allies, Japanese Major Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi is said to have commented that Guadalcanal “is no longer merely the name of an island.”
“It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army,” the general said.
Battle of Iwo Jima — “Of the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue”
Japan: February 19 – March 26, 1945
Decidedly one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, the Battle of Iwo Jima claimed the lives of nearly 6,800 US service members. Another 19,000 were wounded in the fight.
While the Marines had a numerical superiority over the defenders, the Japanese had turned the island into a battlefield designed for mass casualties, one devoid of any vegetation for concealment, covered with land mines, and featuring a vast network of underground tunnels.
Following a three-day naval bombardment of the island, Marines hit the beaches. Of the roughly 70,000 Marines that fought on Iwo Jima, around one-third were either killed or wounded.
Early in the battle, as US troops fought their way through artillery and machine gun fire, the Marines raised the US flag on Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island, to motivate the men coming ashore. Five Marines and one Navy corpsman risked their lives to raise the stars and stripes.
At great cost, the Marines captured the strategic airfields and cleared the island of Japanese forces.
“By their victory, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and other units of the Fifth Amphibious Corps have made an accounting to their country which only history will be able to value fully,” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stated after the battle was won. “Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” His words are inscribed on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, DC.
More medals of honour were distributed for courage and bravery on Iwo Jima than any other battle.
Battle of Inchon — “One of the most audacious and spectacularly successful amphibious landings in all naval history.”
Korea: September 10-19, 1950
By the summer of 1950, the Allies had been driven to the Pusan Perimeter, a defensive line on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula where troops were forced to fend off waves of bloody North Korean assaults.
Supreme Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur pushed the idea of landing troops behind enemy lines, a plan initially deemed too risky. “The only alternative to a stroke such as I propose will be the continuation of the savage sacrifice we are making at Pusan, with no hope of relief in sight,” he argued in late August.
The landing, codenamed Operation Chromite, was ultimately approved given the desperate situation in the south.
The surprise amphibious landing at Inchon by the Marines was a decisive victory for the United Nations forces. The North Koreans were caught completely off guard.
The forces that went ashore at the Yellow Sea port were able to break the communist supply lines, facilitate a breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, and clear the way for the liberation of Seoul.
By October, the North Koreans were in full retreat as Allied troops crossed the 38th Parallel. The tides of battle would later change as the Chinese entered the war, but the landing at Inchon was nonetheless a remarkable achievement for the Marines.
MacArthur called it “one of the most audacious and spectacularly successful amphibious landings in all naval history.”
Battle of Chosin Reservoir — “We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now. We’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of finding these people and killing them.”
Korea: November 26 – December 13, 1950
The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, a defining moment for the Corps, was a miserable 17-day fight for the Marines, who were surrounded when the Chinese entered the Korean War on in late November 1950.
Around 30,000 United Nations troops – the so-called “Chosin Few” – were encircled and attacked by roughly 120,000 Chinese soldiers.
“We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now. We’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of finding these people and killing them,” Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history, told embedded reporters eager to know his plan.
When asked about plans for a withdrawal, he told frightened officers that there will be no retreat.
By the end of the fight, the battle had devolved into a hard brawl, as Marines engaged the Chinese forces in hand-to-hand combat, driving back wave after wave of Chinese troops. Unable to dig foxholes in the frozen ground, the Marines used the bodies of the fallen Chinese soldiers to build defensive fortifications.
The Marines lost nearly one thousand men, with another ten thousand wounded, in a battle that was technically a defeat, as the UN forces that fought in the “Frozen Chosin” had to fall back to southern Korea.
The Chinese losses, on the other hand, were catastrophic, estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Battle of Khe Sanh — “What had been a combat base looked like rubble.”
Vietnam: January 29 – July 9, 1968
The battle began with a massive North Vietnamese artillery bombardment of the US Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, home to around 6,000 Marines. One of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, the Marines and South Vietnamese troops fought off a brutal siege that lasted several months.
This battle, part of the horrific Tet Offensive, was another tough fight where US Marines were encircled and outnumbered. Victory was anything but certain.
The Khe Sanh Combat Base was devastated amid the never-ending shelling. Marines were constantly digging in deeper and rebuilding their defences.
“There was wreckage thrown everywhere,” 1st Lt. Paul Elkan later recalled. “Vehicles were smashed, windshields shattered, blown tires, tents were shredded, pieces of gear, and torn sandbags were everywhere. What had been a combat base looked like rubble.”
Worried that Khe Sanh might become America’s Dien Bien Phu, President Lyndon Johnson demanded that the base be held at all cost, presenting it as a symbol in the fight against communism in Southeast Asia.
As the North Vietnamese Army hammered Khe Sanh, US forces fired back, hitting the North Vietnamese with incredible firepower. Expert Marine Corps marksmen kept the communist forces from entering the base, but it was American airpower, especially the powerful B-52 bombers, that ultimately broke the siege.
The Khe Sanh Combat Base was destroyed in the fight, and several thousand US troops perished in the battle. The fallen Americans took many more North Vietnamese troops with them, though.
Battle of Hue City — “If there’s anything close to Hell, it had to be Hue”
Vietnam: January 30 – March 3, 1968
The Battle of Hue City, part of the Tet Offensive, was one of the toughest urban fights in Marine Corps history.
The battle began with a coordinated North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong attack on the poorly defended city. Ten battalions of communist soldiers assaulted Hue, which quickly fell under enemy control. The Marines at Phu Bai Combat Base nearby were sent in to liberate the captured city.
The Marines, who had prepped for a jungle fight were given roughly one hour of training on urban warfare, faced a daunting challenge. Almost every street had been transformed into a prepared kill zone. There were snipers scattered about, and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces regularly used civilians as human shields. The Marines methodically cleared the city of resistance, but it was costly.
“Fighting house-to-house is the dirtiest of all fighting … Just as a rat must be drawn from his burrow to be eradicated, an enemy soldier, burrowed in a building, must also be pulled from his hiding place to be eliminated. Normally, he will not come out without a fight. The attacker must go in and dig him out,” then-Major Ron Christmas, a company commander in Hue, would later say of the battle.
After 26 days of intense fighting, the Marines won a decisive victory, routing the communist forces, but the images of dead US troops and a city all but destroyed caused American support for the war to waver at home. The memory of Hue still haunts some of the Marines who fought there.
Sgt. Bob Thoms, who was wounded six times during the fight, later told reporters that “if there’s anything close to Hell, it had to be Hue.”
Second Battle of Fallujah — “Some of the heaviest urban combat … since Hue City”
Iraq: November 7 – December 23, 2004
The Second Battle of Fallujah, codenamed Operation Phantom Fury, followed a tough fight in the Iraqi city in April 2004. The military called the fighting “some of the heaviest urban combat Marines have been involved in since Hue City in Vietnam in 1968.”
The US Marines led a joint American, British, and Iraqi offensive against insurgent forces holed up in the city. The battle is considered to be one of the bloodiest of the entire Iraq War. Coalition forces numbering around 14,000 fought an estimated 3,000 militants. By 2004, Fallujah had become a haven for insurgents, among other troublemakers.
The coalition troops fought fiercely, moving from house to house and rooftop to rooftop. US Marines, as they had in past battles, were called upon to battle a determined foe in close-combat, which at times devolved into a fistfight.
The so-called “City of Mosques” was severely damaged, if not destroyed, during the battle. While US forces suffered hundreds of casualties, the coalition is said to have killed over a thousand insurgents.
“I was proud of the Marines … how they conducted themselves in a month of hard urban combat,” Colonel Craig Tucker, commanding officer of the 7th Marines, said in December, “We did something good.”
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