The Story Behind the Song

The Marines' Hymn


U.S. Marine Terms

Leathernecks: Named for leather collars on Marine dress uniforms in the 1800s.

Jarheads: Refers to the Marine haircut—buzzed on the sides, a little longer on top. The hair on top supposedly looks like the lid on a jar.

Devil Dogs: According to tradition, German troops in World War I referred to the fierce-fighting Marines as Teufel Hunden—“devil dogs.” In truth, American newspapers probably made up the story, but the nickname stuck.

Semper Fidelis: “Always Faithful” in Latin. It is the motto of the Marines, and “Semper Fidelis March,” written by John Philip Sousa, is the Corps’ official march. Marines will often shorten the phrase to “Semper Fi.”

They go by fearsome nicknames like “Leathernecks,” “Jarheads,” and “Devil Dogs.” They take pride in being the roughest, toughest warriors in the world. They are often the first American troops to fly, charge, or sail into battle when the United States goes to war.

They are the United States Marines, and they can also lay claim to the snappiest song of any branch of the U.S. Armed Services. This is the story behind “The Marines’ Hymn” and how its spirited, sometimes amusing lyrics trace the rich history and pride of this elite fighting force.

The U.S. Marines have been around as long as the U.S. itself. The Continental Congress created their branch in 1775 to put fighting men on the decks of naval ships during the American Revolution. The Marines have seen action in every major U.S. military engagement since.

Along the way, the Marines have earned their reputation for bravery and never-say-die wit in the face of desperate odds. In the famous 1918 battle of Belleau Wood, for example, a battalion of Marines arrived at the front lines just as German units were attacking. A French officer drove up and told the Marine commander to retreat.

“Retreat, hell!” the commander is said to have replied. “We just got here.” The Marines held the position and drove the Germans back.

History of a Hymn

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

The origins of “The Marines’ Hymn” are hard to track. No one knows who wrote the lyrics. Legend has it that the author was a Marine who fought in the Mexican-American War in 1845–1847. But the song itself does not show up in the historical record until the late 1860s.

The music is a little easier to trace—all the way to France, or maybe Spain. “The Marines’ Hymn” melody was clearly taken from Geneviève de Brabant, an opera written by the German-born, Jewish-French composer Jacques Offenbach and first performed in 1859. There is evidence, however, that the song was a popular Spanish folk tune even before that. This classic American fighting song is truly a cross-cultural creation.

The lyrics, however, are all U.S. Marine Corps.

History in Words

In 1845, the U.S. launched the Mexican-American War to seize Mexican lands. In September 1847, U.S. Marines and Army troops fought Mexican forces defending Mexico City. In the Battle of Chapultepec, the Americans captured Chapultepec Castle, a historic site also known as the Halls of Montezuma. The victory effectively ended the war.

In the early 1800s, the U.S. stood up to the Barbary States in North Africa that demanded protection payments for U.S. shipping. In 1805, Marine Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and eight Marines led a force of mercenaries on a 500-mile trek across the desert. Their surprise attack on the city of Derna, on “the shores of Tripoli,” helped bring an end to the conflict.

In 1942, the Commander of the Marine Corps changed “On the land as on the sea” to the current wording, to reflect the addition of air power.

When the U.S. goes to war, the Marines are usually the first troops thrown into battle.

Today, U.S. Marines serve as guards at 149 U.S. embassies around the world.

The U.S. did not declare war during World War II until the Japanese attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The summer before, though, about 1,000 U.S. Marines were stationed in Iceland to help ward off an invasion by Nazi Germany. The mission inspired an unofficial verse to “The Marines’ Hymn.”

Again in nineteen forty-one
We sailed a north’ard course
And found beneath the midnight sun,
The Viking and the Norse.
The Iceland girls were slim and fair,
And fair the Iceland scenes,
And the Army found in landing there,
The United States Marines.

Here are the words to the song, with notes relating to the history of the Marines.

The Marines played a key role in recapturing Pacific Islands from the Japanese during World War II.

Marines believe they are the toughest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. They sometimes tease their brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy, and Air Force about how Marines always get to the action first—perhaps even in heaven.

The Marines’ Hymn

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom,
And to keep our honor clean,
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marines.

Our flag’s unfurl’d to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun.
In the snow of far-off northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

A Tradition of Music

The U.S. Marines have a proud tradition of music as well as soldiering. The U.S. Marine Band has been in existence since 1798, making it the oldest musical group in the history of the U.S. John Philip Sousa, the great march composer, served as conductor of The Marine Band from 1880–1892.

Today, the Marine Corps features more than a dozen musical performing groups. They include “The President’s Own,” a Marine band that frequently performs at White House events.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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