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History of the USMCR

The Marine Corps Reserves – 100 Years

Staff of the Marine Reserve Centennial Project 

              On August 29 of this year, the Marine Corps Reserve celebrates its 100th year of existence. From World War I through the Global War on Terrorism, the Marine Corps Reserve has played an essential role in the Marine Corps Total Force by augmenting and reinforcing the Active Component across the full range of military operations. For 100 years, the Marine Corps has served as our nation’s premier force in readiness, due in large part to the steadfast performance of the men and women of the Reserve Component.

              As early as the Civil War, both civilian and military leaders recognized the need for a Naval Reserve, which included detachments of Marines, to quickly augment the fleet in the event of war. Prior to World War I, individual states attempted to meet this need through naval militias under state control. The lack of a centralized, national force, however, limited the combat effectiveness and readiness of these units.             

World War I: The Reserve Force Is Born

              As U.S. involvement in World War I appeared more likely, the increased demand for warfighters warranted the formal creation of an operational Reserve Force, and on Aug. 29, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916, which established the Marine Corps Reserve. The organization would grow rapidly from 35 Marines on April 1, 1916, to a peak of 6,467 including 300 women, by the time Germany surrendered in November 1918.

              During World War I, Reserve Marines seamlessly integrated into ground and aviation units, fighting at sea and during decisive land battles such as Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Meusse-Argonne. In addition, Reserve Marines of the Marine Corps Reserve Flying Corps flew with the British Northern Bombing Group, targeting enemy transportation networks. U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Karl S. Day, a junior officer at the time, spoke highly of the integration of Reserve Marines: “Nobody gave a damn and few, if any, knew who were regulars, temporaries, duration reserves, what have you.” The collective contributions of Reserve Marines helped turn the tide of the war, validating the Marine Corps Reserve’s ability to quickly augment expeditionary units.

              The Marine Corps rapidly demobilized following World War I. By 1922, the entire Marine Reserve had been demobilized to inactive status, with 90 percent of Reserve Marines discharged leaving less than 600 Marines in the Reserve Force. With isolationist attitudes widespread in the 1920s and 30s, the U.S. military endured a period of relative neglect in terms of budgets and public interest. To maintain readiness during these lean years, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune determined that a healthy Reserve Component was a strategic necessity to compensate for a diminished active force, and rebuilding the Reserve Component emerged as one of his top priorities. In Lejeune’s opinion, in the event of war, “it is absolutely necessary that there be in the Marine Corps prior to the emergency an adequate and well trained Reserve.”

              Congress agreed with General Lejeune, and on Feb. 28, 1925, passed an Act that superseded the Act of 1916 for the creation, organization, administration, and maintenance of the Marine Corps Reserve. It was organized into 18 battalions and established aviation squadrons, which conducted drills in weekly two-hour drill sessions. Reserve administration was concentrated in a single staff agency. Discharged veterans of World War I were encouraged to return to the ranks. The Reserve grew throughout the 1920s until it exceeded 10,000 Marines by 1930. The growth was noteworthy for the fact that Reserves received no drill pay outside of annual two-week “Summer Camp” training and had to purchase many of their own uniform items. Thus it was the fierce loyalty on the part of the Marines and their sacrifices which kept the Reserve alive during the lean years of the Great Depression.

              The Director of the Marine Corps Reserve, Colonel Julius Turrill recognized this fierce loyalty in August 1929:

              “Let us give the credit that is due the members of the Reserve … they are Marines, who from motives of     patriotism and love of Corps alone are devoting their vacation days to the service without reward and at considerable     personal sacrifice to themselves. The active personnel [appreciate] as never before the fine spirit of service that     actuates the Marine Corps Reserve.”


World War II: A Legacy Established

            In 1938, with tensions in Europe and the Pacific on the rise, Congress corrected organizational and fiscal shortcomings with the Naval Reserve Act of 1938.  The Act abolished the Act of 1925 and established the Organized Marine Corps Reserve, forerunner of today’s Select Marine Corps Reserve, and a Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve, forerunner of today’s Inactive Ready Reserve. It also ensured that Reserve Marines would be adequately compensated for their service and that they would receive realistic training. The improved training was an important factor in the success of the Marine Corps in World War II.

            As the situations escalated in Europe and the Pacific, the Marine Corps Reserve rapidly expanded in 1940 over a year prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Massive manpower was required to execute the newly developed amphibious warfare doctrine. The Pacific island-hopping campaign involved a surge of Reserve Marines into the Regular forces. The Marine Corps expanded from approximately 15,000 Regular Duty personnel to more than 485,000 Marines by 1945, with Reserve Marines constituting the bulk of personnel strength. Of the 589,852 Marines to serve during World War II, approximately 70 percent were Reserves. One general officer described the Reserve as “… a shot in the arm when war came.”

              During the Pacific campaigns, Reserve Marines endured extreme tropical conditions, scarce supplies, and the fanatical tactics of their Japanese adversaries. As the Pacific Campaign progressed, the Marines seized crucial strategic targets, such as the Solomon, Marshall, Marianna, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa Islands. Reserve Marines performed valiantly throughout the war, as 44 of the 82 Marine Medal of Honor recipients were Reservists. Twenty Reserve Marines received the Medal of Honor for actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima alone.

              Many Reserve aviators also distinguished themselves, such as Robert Galer, Joe Foss, and Robert Hanson. Perhaps the most famous Reserve Marine aviator of the war was Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine Corps’ Ace of Aces. The Medal of Honor recipient and leader of the Black Sheep squadron, VMF-214, shot down 26 enemy planes over the course of the war.

              Nearly all combat correspondents covering the war were Reserve Marines. These former newspapermen and photographers told the Marine Corps’ story to the American public and were a vital link between the populace and their Marines serving overseas. Once they returned to their civilian careers, these journalists would continue to provide helpful and positive media coverage of the Marine Corps during the post-war years.

              Wartime manpower needs also opened opportunities for women to serve, all of whom did so as part of the Marine Corps Reserve. More than 19,000 women joined the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve to “Free a Marine to Fight.” These pioneering women filled more than 200 occupations, such as truck drivers, electricians, mechanics, cryptographers, painters, parachute riggers, paymasters, and aerial photographers. Col. Ruth Cheney Streeter served as the first Director of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. She orchestrated the wartime expansion of the Women’s Reserve program and pushed for the continuance of the Women’s Reserve after the war.

              Further crucial manpower support came from the 19,168 African American men who joined the Marines during the war. Trained at Montford Point, near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, they served as enlisted men since 1942 and as officers since 1945. Of these Marines, 75 percent served overseas. Although assigned to service support units, approximately 8,000 African-American Marines performed their duties under fire at places like Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Some of the Montford Point Marines would continue to serve honorably in the Reserve Force through the Korean War and beyond.

              Just as in the First World War, Reserve Marines seamlessly integrated into the Active Component. As one official history noted, during World War II “…the reservist was so indistinguishable from the Regular that to attempt a distinction is irrelevant.” Another general officer elaborated on the successful integration of the Total Force during that period:

         “By the time we got into battle in World War II, the Regular was a rare creature and the Reserve became the Marine     that you saw everywhere you went. Never has a fighting organization been more successful than the Marine Corps in     World War II; therefore, the only conclusion you can reach is that the Reservist in World War II was of the highest     quality attainable.”

            Still another officer referred to the relationship between the Reserve and Active Components as “our greatest blessing, our greatest strength…when fighting side by side, the labels Reserve and Regular melt away.” Through their commitment to the Corps and courage under fire, Reserve Marines of the World War II era made an invaluable contribution to what was arguably the nation’s greatest military victory.


On to Korea: First Mass Mobilization of Reserve Marines

              During the rapid demobilization following the second World War, the Marine Corps once again relied on the Reserve as a manpower pool to augment a shrinking Active Component. By June 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, the Reserve was at an all-time high peacetime strength of 128,962.

              The eruption of the Korean War validated the need for such a Reserve Force as the first mass mobilization of Reserve Marines commenced. The improved organizational structure and wartime experience enabled the Reserve Force to mobilize 33,528 Reservists to reinforce the 1st Marine Division, aviation and supporting units. The deployment of the Marine Reserve, which constituted 50 percent of the force, was pivotal to the defense of the Pusan perimeter, the Inchon landing, the battles at the Chosin Reservoir, and the subsequent battles along the 38th Parallel.

              These Marines left their civilian lives and went into combat thousands of miles away in less than three months. Gen. Lemuel C.  Shepherd, Jr. commanding general of Marine Force Pacific in 1950, recalled that had it not been for the mobilization of the Reserve to bring the 1st Marine Division to full strength, he never would have been able to offer the Division for the assault at Inchon, an operation that in Shepherd’s opinion, “…turned the tide of defeat to one of victory, to the lasting glory and prestige of the U.S. Marine Corps…” During the Korean War, more than 130,000 Reserve Marines activated. Thirteen of those reservists were Medal of Honor recipients, and every third aviation combat mission was flown by either a Navy or Marine Reservist.

Political Battles and Institutional Change

            As Marines were fighting in Korea, the Reserve was fighting a different type of battle on at home. The Reserves, acting through the Marine Reserve Officers Association, as well as 12 Reservists serving in the House and Senate, were instrumental in assuring the institutional survival of the Corps during the defense unification debates from 1946 to 1952. The efforts of Reserve Marines and their supporters helped ensure the continued existence of an amphibiously-oriented Fleet Marine Force.

            The 1950s and 60s saw a series of organizational changes to enhance the overall responsiveness of the Reserves. The Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1955 established a six-month training program and made schooling available in 200 key occupational fields. The one weekend a month drill schedule became standard after 1958. In July of 1962, the Organized Marine Corps Reserve was restructured into the 4th Marine Division, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, and additional Force troops to form a Division-Wing Team. This allowed for the mobilization of whole Reserve units, such as battalions, squadrons, regiments, or even the division/wing, rather than platoon, squad, or individual augments. An additional organizational change was the relocation of 4th Marine Division to New Orleans, Louisiana. The headquarters was more centrally located to solidify the partnership between the Division and the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, which was already located there. The Division/Wing Team model of mobilization paved the way for the Total Force concept we utilize today.

              Gen. David Shoup, the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps commented in 1963, on the need for Reservists to remain ready, "In the future, as so often in the past, it will be the Reserves we can count on for the additional ready strength required when the chips are down. Stay ready.  If you are mobilized it will be fast! You will be needed-and needed badly."

              Due to the national draft and political pressure to limit U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps Reserve was not mobilized during that conflict.  But several hundred  Reserve Marines, mostly officers, did volunteer for duty in-country, to include the first combat artist to go to Vietnam. On the home front, the Marine Corps Reserve established and successfully collected over $784,000 in nationwide donations for the Civic Action Fund, which was sent to units in Vietnam, via CARE Inc., for use in buying tools, food, clothing, school, and medical supplies to help ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the populace during the counterinsurgency campaign.

              By the late 1970s, the Reserve had built itself into a force of 40,000 drilling Marines in the Selected Marine Corps Reserve and 68,000 non-drilling Marines in the Individual Ready Reserve. Of note was the creation of the 4th Division Support Group in 1976 and the relocation of 4th Marine Division’s Headquarters to New Orleans in 1977. The move solidified the partnership with the Headquarters of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing already located there.

              Throughout the Cold War, a robust Reserve Force acted as a strategic reserve in case of national emergency. Exercises were conducted in various climes and places for any national crisis. The Marine Corps Reserve continued to modernize doctrine, training, vehicles, and weapon systems, with emphasis placed on expeditionary and combined arms capabilities. This led to a Reserve Force organized, trained and equipped to support the Marine Air Ground Task Force operating construct. Time and again, Headquarters, Marine Corps referred to the Service as a Total Force to highlight the degree to which the Reserve was integrated in all areas of the Marine Corps. The return on the investment in the Reserve Component became invaluable when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the call to duty came once again.

Desert Storm

            In 1990, the largest mobilization of the Marine Corps Reserve since the Korean War occurred for the Persian Gulf War. Reserves served in the I and II Marine Expeditionary Forces, including as commanders and staff comprising 15 percent of all Marines in theater. Other Reserve units would deploy to Okinawa to support Marine Corps missions. In total, the Marine Corps mobilized more than 63 percent of its Reserve Component over 99.5 percent of unit personnel were able to deploy when mobilized, more than any other service branch.

              The fundamental lesson of the Persian Gulf War was that the Marine Corps could count on the Reserve to deploy as units ready for combat. A premier example was Company B of 4th Tank Battalion. Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia just 32 days after its mobilization, it picked up thirteen M1A1s and took them into battle with the 2nd Marine Division. In its first engagement shortly before dawn on Feb. 25, 1991, they detected a formation of T-72 tanks passing through another formation of Iraqi TSS tanks that were dug into revetments. In an action that lasted only a few minutes, the reserve company destroyed or stopped 34 of 35 enemy tanks.

              Shortly after the war, on June 6, 1992, Marine Reserve Force was created and in 1994, redesignated as Marine Forces Reserve, becoming the largest command in the Marine Corps. This consolidated 4th Marine Division, 4th Marine Air Wing, and 4th Marine Logistics Group in a command architecture to mirror the Active Duty Force structure.

              The Persian Gulf War (and later Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom) proved the Reserve Component’s ability to deploy as complete units. They mirrored active duty units in organizational structure, capabilities, and operational readiness. They distinguished themselves in offensive operations with close-air support and ground combat, while also conducting rear-area security, detainee operations, and engineering support. In 1998, then-Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak said of the Reserve Component:

         “As part of the Total Marine Force, our Reserves have also recently assisted and augmented our forward presence     around the globe. Marine Reservists routinely practice carefully crafted Reserve integration plans to augment or     reinforce crisis response missions and add vital combat power.”

A New Kind of Warfare: The Post 9/11 World

              Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Marine Corps Reserve entered more than a decade of continuous unit mobilizations and deployments in support of the Global War on Terrorism. This illustrious chapter in Reserve history saw Reserves engaged in major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, theater security cooperation, counter-narcotics, and crisis response operations in support of combatant commanders around the globe. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 62,688 Marines from the Individual Ready Reserve executed a total of 83,800 sets of mobilization orders. Every Reserve unit, at the battalion and squadron level, has activated at least once. This operational tempo enabled Marine Forces Reserve to remain an operationally-relevant Force. Their dedication and sacrifice provided relief to the operational tempo of the Active Component, validated the Total Force Concept, and proved that Reserve units can operate across the full spectrum of military operations from the conventional assault on Baghdad to the subsequent counter-insurgency, provisional security, and advisory/training missions that continue today. 

            After 15 years of combat operations, the Reserve Component remains an integral part of the Total Force, engaged in the full spectrum of military operations. Gen. Hagee, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, said of the Marine Reserves in the Global War on Terror: “Our Marine reservists are Marines first and there was absolutely no difference in performance – on the ground, in the air, [and] in logistics.” The operational tempo of Marine Forces Reserve during this period has been the highest in the organization’s history. The end result is a depth of experience throughout the ranks that is unprecedented in generations of Marine reservists.

              Today, Reserve Marines also bring unique skills and advanced degrees from their civilian occupations into their service with the Marine Corps. The breadth of their experience is extensive and includes occupations such as police officers, fire fighters, federal agents, mechanics, city planners, politicians, truck drivers, information technology and cyber professionals, carpenters, electricians, and business owners. The depth and diversity of experience is a force enabler that adds enormous value to the modern battlefield. The Marine Corps has capitalized on this talent advantage whenever possible, for example creating Civil Affairs Groups and Law Enforcement Battalions within the Reserve Component.

              Marine Reserves have served alongside their active duty counterparts in every clime and place for 100 years, leaving an indelible mark on the battle history of the Marine Corps. The most essential ingredient to the success of the Marine Corps Reserve has been the caliber of the individual Marine. Reservists attend the same schools and are held to the same uncompromising standards as Active Duty Marines. Around the globe, the Reserve and Active Components are inextricably linked conducting joint training in addition to real-world special-purpose, humanitarian and security operations. Today, the Marine Corps Reserve is a “Ready, Relevant & Responsive” force. Its 38,000 SMCR Marines and 70,000 IRR Marines are better trained and better equipped than ever before. In times of war and national emergency, as generations of ‘citizen-soldiers’ did before them, Reserve Marines will continue to answer the call to duty and contribute to the success of the Marine Corps.