Background and History – USMC Awards

The Continental Marines were established by resolution of the Second Continental Congress on 10 November 1775. The resolution called for the recruitment of two battalions. The uniform of the Continental Marines was a green cutaway coat with either white or scarlet facings and waistcoat, light-colored breeches, wool stockings with black gaiters, a round black hat with white trim and a leather neck stock. Since this first “uniform regulation,” there have been many changes in the Corps uniforms and the USMC Awards; such as decorations, the medals, the ribbons, and the badges. This brief background and history will touch on just a few.

Creation of the United States Marines and USMC Awards

After the War for Independence, the Marine Corps went out of existence until reorganized in 1798. On 11 July of that year, President John Adams signed into law “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” authorizing 33 officers and 848 men. During this period through the War of 1812, Marines were dressed in blue tailcoats edged with red, white breeches and cross belts and high shakos. By the 1820’s uniforms became very ornamental with coats trimmed in gold lace and headdress plumes. In 1852 the traditional red stripe reappeared on the uniform trousers of officers and noncommissioned officers.

The quatrefoil (cross-shaped braid) first appeared on the top of Marine officers’ caps in 1859 and has been a part of the officers’ uniforms ever since.

Uniforms during the Civil War period were similar to that of the Army infantry with dark blue coats and light blue trousers (with the red stripe). During this period the Marine cap insignia took the form of the light infantry horn with an old English style letter “M” in the loop.

In 1868, the eagle, globe, and anchor were adopted as the new emblem of the Marine Corps. In the 1870’s, the Marine uniform was standardized and 1900 marked the end of colorful uniforms, except for dress. The turn of the century also brought about the use of marksmanship badges emphasizing the importance of skill with weapons to the mission of the Corps.

During World War I Marines wore khaki-colored uniforms, traded in their field hats for overseas caps and wore steel helmets in combat for the first time. Shoulder insignia also appeared for the first time on the uniforms of the 4th and 5th Brigades. After the fighting at Belleau Wood, Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that uniform regulations be changed, authorizing Marine enlisted personnel to wear the Corps’ emblem on their collars. Also during World War I, a grateful French Government awarded the Fourragere, a braided cord symbolizing bravery in battle, to the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. German soldiers encountering Marines during this period referred to them as “Teufelshunden” (devil dogs).

During the period between the World Wars, the size of the Corps was reduced significantly and there were few changes made in the uniform. During this period specialty military insignia were worn by officers and enlisted personnel. These insignia were worn by the Adjutant and Inspector’s Department, the Paymaster’s Department, the Quartermaster’s Department and generals’ aides-de-camp. Officers wore them on coat lapels below the Marine Corps insignia, or to the rear of the insignia on standing collars. Pay clerks and quartermaster clerks wore their devices on their collars. These insignia were bronze on greens and khaki, and gilt/enameled on blues. The practice of wearing specialty insignia was abolished in 1943.

World War II brought the use of dungarees, or utilities, for field wear along with a new, more functional steel helmet, and shoulder insignia (shoulder patches) reappeared on the service uniform. During the war Marines were committed to the taking of islands in the Pacific. In the Central Pacific, in 1943, the camouflage helmet cover was instituted and became a trademark of Marines in combat. From the time of Guadalcanal to Okinawa there was little use for dress uniforms, but the use of awards and decorations to recognize units and Marines was in “full swing.” The use of shoulder insignia ended shortly following the war.

On 12 June 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, which authorized the acceptance of women into the Regular component of the Marine Corps. Uniforms and insignia for Women Marines have been similar to those of their male counterparts from their inception.

The 1950’s and the Korean War brought about few changes in the Marine uniform, but this period saw the advent of foreign campaign decorations as well as United Nations recognition. During the “Conflict,” Marines, on the ground, were assigned missions similar to Army units and aviation elements were placed under the control of the Air Force. It was during this period that the Marine Corps had to fight fiercely to maintain its identity.

The twentieth century saw many changes in the enlisted rank structure and 1959 was no exception. The change in 1959 saw the old Lance Corporal rank reinstated, as well as providing two new pay grades (E-8 and E-9) for senior staff NCO’s (first sergeant/master sergeant and sergeant major/master gunnery sergeant). Interestingly, neither the officers nor enlisted rank structure has significantly changed since the sixties. The notable exceptions can be found within the warrant officer ranks and the addition of the general officer rank (four stars) for the Commandant and Assistant Commandant.

In January 1974, the summer service khaki uniform was replaced by a lightweight green service uniform, so that now Marines are seen in “Marine green” the year round. Although there were few changes in Marine uniforms or insignia since Vietnam, the number of new campaign medals and foreign decorations continues to grow with the Corps’ involvement throughout the world.

Medals of America carries a full selection of Marine Corps Badges, USMC Awards and Medals and Marine Dog Tags. Also, be sure to visit our pages dedicated to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball and USMC Uniform Regulations.

More on the history of USMC Awards coming tomorrow!