Everything You Know About The Marine Corps Uniform Is Wrong

History
U.S. Marines and Sailors of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, celebrated the 241st Marine Corps birthday with a uniform pageant on the parade deck Nov. 1, 2016.
U.S. Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Carlos Cruz Jr.

Most Marines, even in their sleep, can recite the historical significance behind each part of the Dress Blue Alpha uniform — the attire they’ll be wearing at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.


Each decorative piece tells a story profoundly stitched into the heritage of the Corps just as it is stitched into the fabric of the “blues.” But the legends that live on, draped over the shoulders of these “soldiers of the sea,” often have very little or no basis in fact.

“Marines really love their history, and they should want to know it as accurately as possible,” Owen Conner, the uniforms curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, told Task & Purpose in an interview.

“Some of the romantic stories we hear about the history of Marine uniforms are true, some are half true, and some of them are very easy to debunk altogether,” said Conner, of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

One of the half-true legends, he said, is the origin of the “blood stripe.” As the story goes, the red stripe worn on the trousers of officers and noncommissioned officers commemorates the blood Marines shed storming the castle of Chapultepec in 1847.

“The legend would have you believe there was no stripe on the trousers until after the Mexican War, but that clearly isn’t true,” Conner said. “The stripes definitely vary over the years and take on different significance, but they do predate the Mexican War.”                                                 

In fact, Marine Corps trousers from as far back as the 1790s had red welts and piping down the outer seams.

The trouser stripe has gone through many changes over the years. It likely traces its most direct origins to the Civil War-era regulations of 1859. But, over time, it grew from a decorative red welt to a broad scarlet stripe. The stripe Marines wear today originated in the 1890s — some 40 plus years after the Battle of Chapultepec.

Marines can at least say it’s kind of true that the blood stripe honors the noncommissioned officers of Chapultepec because decades of repeating the legend have firmly embedded that battle into the legacy of the Corps.

But the history of the leather stock collars worn by Marines is straight nonsense.

Related: 6 Marine Corps ‘Rules’ That Are Not Actually Regulations »

Issued in 1776, the famed “stocks” were the high-leather collars for which Marines earned them the nickname “leathernecks.” Though the Corps did away with them about 100 years later, Marines retained the name Leathernecks and believe the high, stiff cloth collar on the modern dress uniform is meant to serve as a reminder of their heritage.

It isn’t.  

Retired Sgt. Maj. James Snyder, an 82-year-old veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam, who served for 28 years, and a native of Dayton, Ohio, shakes hands with Marines dressed in uniforms from periods throughout Marine Corps history during the 2013 Marine Corps Base Hawaii birthday pageant at Dewey Square, Nov. 8, 2013.Lauren Katzenberg

The current collar is not even close in height, design or discomfort level to the original collar, according to retired Marine Col. Robert H. Rankin, who wrote the book “Uniforms of the Marines.”

“[The stock] completely encircled the neck and was high enough to make the wearer keep his chin up at all times,” he writes.

After wearing this device for a period of time, the Marine could not lower his head even after he removed it, according to Rankin, one of the most established writers on Marine uniform history.

And it wasn’t just a Marine thing. Uniforms from other branches of service also included the collar, which was more affordable because the fabric didn’t have to be replaced as often as cloth.

The legend of the collar is so treasured and guarded by the Corps that one Marine historian would only speak critically of it on the condition of anonymity.

“Swords you came into contact with at that time were meant to break bones, not to cut skin,” the source explained. “The leather stock was less than an eighth of an inch thick - that’s not going to help much if someone is swinging a cutlass at your neck.”

The leather collar just kept your head up and it was the fashion of the day.

Fashion does, in fact, play a large role in the design of military uniforms. Throughout history, nations who succeeded in wars tended to set the fashionable uniform styles for others, which is why the Marine Corps borrowed the quatrefoil from the French sometime shortly before the Civil War (and a long long time after the Revolutionary War).

Sgt. Daawud Horne, dressed in a 1859 Marine Corps uniform, participates in the 241st Marine Corps birthday uniform pageant on the parade deck at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Nov. 1, 2016.U.S. Marine Corps photos by Sgt. Carlos Cruz Jr.

Many nations at the time were adopting French military styles as a result of the French army’s success in the Italian War of 1859–1861, Conner said.

This fact completely dispels the legend of the quatrefoil, which claims the design originated in the Revolutionary War so friendly sharpshooters atop ship riggings could distinguish Marines from the enemy.

“The lore of the Corps is that officers fastened the ropes to their hats,” Conner added. “The big catch of the legend is that, back then, officers wore Napoleonic style chapeaus. Because of the way those hats were shaped, nothing could have been fixed to them.”

Rankin supports the same idea as Conner, adding that the British Marines wore bright red coats during the Revolution, and could be easily distinguished from American Marines regardless of their headwear.

But hey, isn’t it okay to buy into a little legend?

“The lore is part of the Marine Corps history, whether every story is real or not,” Conner said. “It is a way of embracing the Marine legacy, and inspiring people to want to become Marines.”

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

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The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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