A legend may be defined as a shining truth that cannot always pass the test of strict factual accuracy. The legend is poetry; the fact is prose, and very dull prose it sometimes is.
Here are presented some legends that have been often told. Many of these do not meet even the minimum standards of fact; some have been definitely disproved. Yet the factual background, either true or false, does not detract from the story. These legends may be classed in Marine terminology as "sea stories" and they are presented as such.
Origin of the Nickname "Leathernecks" for the Marines
It is questionable whether the origin of the term "Leatherneck" can be accepted as a legitimate member of the family of legends. More like a tradition, it is. For there can be no doubt of the origin, considering that U. S. Marines of three generations wore leather collars. It is as obvious as the nickname "Red" for a recruit with carrot-colored hair and freckles.
Now accepted by Webster as a synonym for Marine, the term "Leatherneck" was derived from a leather stock once worn around the neck by both American and British Marines--and soldiers also. Beginning in 1798, "one stock of black leather and clasp" was issued to each U. S. Marine annually.
This stiff leather collar, fastened by two buckles at the back, measured nearly three and a half inches high, and was practical only for full-dress wear. It could hardly be worn in battle as it prevented the neck movement necessary for sighting along a barrel. It supposedly improved military bearing, by forcing the chin high, although General George F. Elliott, recalling its use after the Civil War, said it made the wearers appear "like geese looking for rain."
The stock was dropped as an article of Marine uniform in 1872, after surviving through the uniform changes of 1833, 1839, and 1859. But by then it was a part of American vocabulary, a word preserved, like so many words, beyond its original meaning.
"Retreat, Hell." We just got here"
Fighting spirit and determination against heavy odds is a sound tradition in the Marine Corps and nowhere is there a more graphic illustration than an incident which occurred in World War I. Legendary or true, it personifies the aggressive attitude of Marines.
The occasion was the third great German breakthrough of 1918, when the 4th Marine Brigade and its parent 2d Infantry Division were thrown in to help stem the tide in the Belleau wood sector. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, had just arrived at its position when an automobile skidded to a stop and a French officer dashed out and approached the commanding officer. He explained that a general retreat was in progress and that orders were for the Marines to withdraw. The Marine officer exclaimed in amazement, "Retreat Hell! We just got here.
And the Marines proceeded to prove their point. The battalion deployed and took up firing positions. As the Germans approached, they came under rifle fire which was accurate at ranges beyond their comprehension. Not in vain had the Marine Corps long stressed in its training the sound principles of marksmanship. The deadly fire took the heart out of the German troops and the attack was stopped.
"Send us more Japs"
Many, many more instances of the fighting spirit of Marines could be cited but one story in particular attracts the attention. When the Japanese initiated the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, they did not neglect the tiny island of Wake which served as an outpost for Hawaii. Their plans had been for a speedy seizure of this objective; however, the Marine garrison thwarted their initial attempts. Late in December, the enemy returned with an even more powerful armada. Attack after attack was mounted against the heroic defenders. All Marine planes were shot down, casualties mounted, the situation was becoming desperate. However, communications were still maintained with Pearl Harbor. A relief expedition was mounted but the remnants of the Navy were so pitifully weak that the mission was cancelled at the last minute. Finally, Pearl Harbor queried Wake "Is there anything that we can provide?" In one of the last messages from the doomed island came back "Send us more Japs!"
"Come on, you s__ o_ b_____s, do you want to live forever?"
Marine Corps legend has it that this saying originated during World War I in France. During the violent fighting in Belleau Wood, Sergeant Dan Daly's platoon, part of the 6th Marines, was pinned down by intense enemy fire. The gallant Daly, already possessor of two Congressional Medals of Honor (one for heroism during the China Relief Expedition in 1900 and the other received during the Haitian Campaign of 1915), raged up and down the line trying to get his troops moving. Finally, the story goes, he yelled "Come on, you s__ o_ b_____s, do you want to live forever?," as he leaped out of the trench, and led his men in the attack.
Above Information from the Marine Corps Historical Reference Series, 1963, Courtesy of the United States Marine Corps