The Marine Corps has no shortage of incredible and famous quotes that have been passed through generations of Marines. These quotes not only embody the Marines’ fortitude and standards, but also their fighting spirit.
A High-stakes Fraternity
When people find out I was in the Marine Corps they often ask me “What is it really like? Is it like the movies? Is it like Full Metal Jacket?”
The answer to each of those questions is “kind of.” I do think that boot camp is eerily similar to Full Metal Jacket and because of it I absolutely love that movie. However, I think the best answer to the first question is that the Marine Corps is like a high-stakes college fraternity. Of course, the high-ranking officers and enlisted Marines would probably disagree with this comparison, but the reality is that the senior leaders make up only a tiny portion of the Marine Corps. Most in the Marine Corps hold the rank of private through sergeant and to be honest, they’re the heart of the Corps.
Now, why do I equate the Marine Corps to a college fraternity? It’s simple. The biggest reason is the “secret squirrel stuff” that both entities have in common, as in secret phrases or handshakes. There are also a lot of traditions and stories that you only learn once you are a part of the group. For the Marine Corps, there is a lot of identity around war stories, phrases, and slogans and Drill Instructors begin beating (usually not literally) that into our heads on day one of boot camp.
In this article, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite famous Marine Corps quotes, phrases, and slogans. They will hopefully paint the picture as to why the Marine Corps is the best light infantry on the planet.
The Most Famous of Marine Quotes: ‘Semper Fidelis’
I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin with the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis” (Always Faithful). Semper Fidelis is the core principle upon which the Marine Corps is built. Through this motto, Marines are called to be always faithful to their country, fellow Marines, family, and the Marine Corps (not necessarily in that order). Marines are required to live by this standard whether in peacetime or wartime and regardless of deployment.
Beyond this standard, though, “Semper Fi” is also a quote Marines say to one another as a greeting when they meet whether on active duty or 50 years after they’re out. Last week I was pulling into a hardware store and a guy in his 50s saw the USMC sticker on my vehicle and started waving at me. He then walked up to my vehicle, showed me his forearm tattoo that read “USMC” and greeted me with “Semper Fi.” That illustrates how important the phrase is among Marines.
Marines take the “Semper Fi” mantra to their graves. Marines in battle truly do believe that they need to always be faithful to their country and fellow Marines. Because of that, they are willing to do what it takes to ensure that the United States prospers and their fellow Marines return home. This faithfulness to their friends is why U.S. Marines such as Kyle Carpenter (Medal of Honor recipient) are willing to jump on grenades to save the lives of their friends.
In an interview with Business Insider, Carpenter said:
“As Marines, it’s drilled into us from the moment we step on the yellow footprints, to take care of [our] fellow Marines. In training, Marines are taught about others who have jumped on grenades in combat. At boot camp, it’s even a drill that’s practiced, with instructors throwing dummy grenades on the ground and shouting ‘Grenade!’ while watching young privates fight to ‘save’ the others.”
Such actions epitomize the belief of always being faithful.
Next in line is “Oohrah” or some variation thereof. If you’ve never been in the military, a strange-looking word like “Oohrah” not only has no meaning to you, but I’ll concede too that it looks plain bizarre. Oohrah, though, has a prominent place in Marine Corps vocabulary and can mean everything from “yes,” to “aye aye,” to “kill,” to “go ‘f’ yourself.”
Did your platoon sergeant tell you to go empty the trash can? You respond with an “Oohrah.”
Did the base general stop in to see what was going on that day? You reply “Oohrah, sir.”
Did your squad leader just tell you about a 0500 company formation run the next morning? You say “Oohrah.”
Each of those responses sounds similar, but is distinctly varied in meaning.
“Oohrah!” can also be a battle cry. Hearing hundreds of adults scream Oohrah while in formation would most likely be terrifying for someone who had drawn the group’s ire.
“Oohrah!” is definitely the most commonly used word one would hear if they were inserted for a day onto a Marine Corps base.
‘Retreat Hell! We Just Got Here!’
This quote was uttered by Marine Corps Capt. Lloyd Williams during the Battle of Belleau Wood in WWI. When a French officer told the newly arriving Marines that Belleau Wood was a lost cause and that they should immediately retreat, Captain Williams looked at the French Officer and said, “Retreat Hell! We just got here!” The Marines refused to retreat, and because of that they singlehandedly held the French city from being overrun. This quote shows the Marines’ willingness to fight, regardless of what the oddsmakers say. Marines make their own odds!
Another quote that shows the fighting spirit of the Marine Corps is “Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?” This was shouted out by Marine Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daly during the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The Marine Corps University writes about Daly’s many heroic actions during the battle,
“During this operation, on 5 June and at the risk of his life, he extinguished a fire in the ammunition dump at Lucy le Bocage. Two days later, while the same sector was under one of its heaviest bombardments, he visited all machine gun crews of his company, then posted over a wide section of the front, cheering his men. On 10 June, he singlehandedly attacked an enemy machine gun emplacement, capturing it by the use of hand grenades and an automatic pistol. On the same date, during an enemy attack on the village of Bouresches, he brought in wounded [sic] under heavy fire.”
Daly went on to become one of two Marines in history to be awarded the Medal of Honor, not once, but twice. Daly is quoted to have said at the time following his injuries, “I can’t see how a single man could spend his time to better advantage than in the Marines.”
Sgt. Maj. Daly epitomes the belief “Semper Fi, Do or Die!” and his quote illustrates the Marines’ ability to accept a situation’s potential outcome while maintaining focus on the mission at hand.
Perhaps one of the most famous Marine quotes, which shows the incredible spirit of the Corps, was spoken by U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
Admiral Nimitz said of the Marines who fought during the Battle of Iwo Jima, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
No higher praise could be given than that of a fellow servicemember speaking to the bravery and tenacity with which an organization fought. This quote shows the heart and courage that Marines exhibit during battle.
‘Winning Is What Matters’
This quote shows the Marines’ commitment to winning any battle they enter. It is attributed to Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, USMC who said, “Being ready is not what matters. What matters is winning after you get there.”
Lt. Gen. Krulak was keenly aware that optics and training were each irrelevant if the Marines didn’t show up to war and win. Looking good doesn’t matter, winning does. Marines come to win.
‘Marines Don’t Bow the Knee’
General Alexander A. Vandergrift, USMC. Gen. Vandergrift stated to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee in 1946, “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps.”
Gen. Vandergrift’s quote came following a successful take-back of Alcatraz by a small unit of Marines after it had been overrun by prisoners. This famous Marine quote succinctly encapsulates the tenacity of the Corps.
Marines respect God, the Marine Corps, their families, other Marines, and life in general. But, Marines bow the knee to no one.
This is a quote by Captain Henry P. Crowe, USMC. During the Battle at Guadalcanal in 1943, Cpt. Crowe was quoted as saying, “Goddamn it, you’ll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole! Follow me!” Cpt. Crowe’s quote shows the willingness of Marines to put themselves into grave danger to win a battle. Cpt. Crowe, no doubt knowing that many men would be injured or killed in their push forward, still asked them to follow him. He asked for the uncommon valor of which Admiral Nimitz referred.
Marine Corps history is stacked with stories of heroism and bravery and there is no shortage of famous Marine quotes, slogans, and war stories Marines learn when they enlist and make it into the club. Some of the stories are for Marines only. Some you just have to experience to appreciate. One thing is certain, though, when Marines arrive they aren’t going to retreat; they aren’t going to hide in foxholes; and they are going to make uncommon valor a common virtue.
Semper Fi Marines!
This article was originally published in July 2021. It is being republished to celebrate the Marine Corps’ birthday.