Formal commemoration of the birthday of the Marine Corps began on Nov. 10,1921. That particular date was chosen because on that day the Second Continental Congress resolved in 1775 to raise two battalions of Continental Marines.
Until 1921 the birthday of the Corps had been celebrated on another date. An unidentified newspaper clipping from 1918 refers to the celebration of the 120th birthday of the Marine Corps on July 11 ‘‘as usual with no fuss.” It is doubtful that there was any real celebration at all. Further inspection of documents and publications prior to 1921 shows no evidence of ceremonies, pageants, or parties. The July date was commemorated between 1798 and 1921 as the birthday of the Corps. During the Revolution, Marines had fought on land and sea, but at the close of the Revolution the Marine Corps and the Navy were all but disbanded. On July 11, 1798, President John Adams approved a bill that recreated the Corps, thereby providing the rationale for this day being commemorated as the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.
On Oct. 21, 1921, Maj Edwin McClellan, officer-in-charge, Historical Section, Headquarters Marine Corps, sent a memorandum to Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune suggesting that the original birthday on Nov. 10, 1775 be declared a Marine Corps holiday to be celebrated throughout the Corps. Maj McClellan further suggested that a dinner be held in Washington D.C., to commemorate the event. Guests would include prominent men from the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and descendants of the Revolution.
Accordingly, on Nov. 1, 1921, Lejeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921. The order summarized the history, mission, and tradition of the Corps, and directed that it be read to every command on Nov. 10 each subsequent year in honor of the birthday of the Marine Corps. This order has been duly carried out.
Some commands expanded the celebration during the next few years. In 1923 at Fort Mifflin, Pa., the celebration of the Marine Corps’ 148th birthday took the form of a dance in the barracks that evening. Marines at the Navy Yard, Norfolk, staged a sham battle on the parade ground in commemoration of the birthday. The battle lasted about 20 minutes, and was witnessed by Portsmouth and Norfolk citizens. At Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the birthday was celebrated on the 12th, since a special liberty to Santiago had been arranged on the 10th. The morning activities included field and water sports and a shooting match. In the afternoon the Marines won a baseball game,9-8, over a Cuban team. In the evening, members of the command put on a variety show followed by four boxing bouts.
The first so-called ‘‘Birthday Ball,” such as suggested by Maj McClellan, was probably held in 1925 in Philadelphia. No records have been located of one prior to 1925. Guests included the secretaries of War and Navy, Lejeune, famous statesmen, soldiers and sailors. The principle event was the unveiling of a tablet on the site of Tun Tavern. The tablet was a gift from the Thomas Roberts Reath Post, American Legion, whose membership was composed exclusively of Marines. The celebration was held in conjunction with the annual convention of the Marine Corps League. A parade included Marines, Regular Army, and Navy detachments, National Guard, and other military organizations. The evening banquet was held at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel and a ball followed at the Bellevue-Stratford.
It is not possible to determine precisely when the first cake ceremony was held, but there is evidence of a ceremony being held at Quantico in 1935.
Also on record was one held at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., in 1937 where Commandant Maj. Gen. Thomas Holcomb presided at an open house for Marine Corps officers. Ceremonies included the cutting of a huge cake designed after the famous Tun Tavern in Philadelphia.
From 1937, observances of the Marine Corps Birthday appeared to develop spontaneously throughout the Corps as if they had a life of their own. The celebrations were publicized through every media. Newsreels, motion pictures, and displays were prepared to summarize the history of the Corps. In 1943, standard blank Marine Corps scrap books were forwarded to all districts to be filled with 168th anniversary clippings, scripts, pictures, programs, and other memorabilia, and returned to Headquarters. Unfortunately none of these scrapbooks remain in official files.
In 1951, a formal Birthday Ball Pageant was held at Headquarters Marine Corps. Similar to the pageant today, the script described the Marines’ period uniforms and the cake ceremony. Although this is the first substantive record of a pageant, Leatherneck magazine of Nov. 10, 1925 pictures Marines at a pageant in Salt Lake City, Utah, which had taken place ‘‘several years ago.”
On Oct. 28, 1952, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., directed that the celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday be formalized throughout the Corps, and provided an outline for the cake ceremony, as well as other formal observances. This outline was included in the Marine Corps Drill Manual, approved Jan. 26, 1956.
Like the Corps itself, the Birthday Ball developed from simple origins to become the polished, professional function that all Marines commemorate on Nov. 10 around the world.