Today marks the 239th Birthday of the United States Marine Corps. In remembering the day when Captain Samuel Nicholas walked into a Philadelphia bar, looking for the “bravest men” of that city, Marines all over the world will hear the Birthday Message first circulated by Major General John Lejeune in 1921. Lejeune’s name is far more than just the name of another military base; he and his career are legend in the Marine Corps. He rose through the ranks, serving all over the world. When he reached Europe at the United States entry into The Great War, Black Jack Pershing recognized his leadership and gave the “Marines’ Marine” command of the whole of the 2nd Army Division. He became the 13th Commandant of the Corps after the war and to this day is known as the “the greatest of all Leathernecks.”

Yet it almost never happened. Today a discussion of military talent management has come to life, something that happens on a fairly regular cycle in American military history. Almost 125 years ago, the future of a young Midshipman Lejeune was at the whim of a bureaucracy that cared very little for his personal interests or where he and his peers thought his talents might lay.

The System

In 1890 Midshipman John Lejeune, known among his friends by his nickname “Gabe,” and his Naval Academy roommate Ed Beach returned to Annapolis after spending two years at sea. In those days Midshipmen completed the course of instruction at the Academy but then had to serve in the Fleet for two years before they were commissioned. At sea they learned the basics of life and leadership aboard ship and began earning their qualifications and standing the bridge watches that would serve as the foundations of their careers.

The two young men also returned to the banks of the Severn River unsure that they would even receive a commission. There were a finite number of officer billets in the Navy and Marine Corps. Because promotion was seniority based, not every Midshipman could receive a commission unless there were enough officers who retired. If enough officers left the service everyone would move up the seniority lists and spots would open up at the bottom for the new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants.

Lejeune had wanted to be a United States Marine since he entered prep school at LSU. He finished at Annapolis in the top of his class and assumed that his standing would give him the ability to select the service of his choice. Returning to Annapolis Lejeune discovered that he had made the cut to receive a commission. But he also learned that the Academic Board, which was responsible for making service assignment recommendations, had assigned him to become an engineer in the Navy. His grades in the engineering courses were the best in his class.

Begging the Bureau

Lejeune decided to go to Washington to make his case to the Bureau of Navigation. His roommate Ed Beach agreed to go along with him to provide moral support and later related the story in his memoir. They were able to get a meeting scheduled with Commodore F.M. Ramsey, who led the Bureau and knew of the two young men because his previous position was Superintendent at the Academy.

The two Midshipmen arrived in Washington and Lejeune overcame an attack of nerves and went to the meeting with Beach at his side. He explained to the head of the Bureau that he had always wanted to be a Marine, and that because of how hard he worked and his class standing his preferences should count for something. Ramsey was the final decision maker and would approve the recommendations of the Academic Board. He was the only man who could change Lejeune’s fate. He refused. The Navy needed good engineers and he agreed with the Academy’s recommendation. The only way he would even consider changing his mind was if the Commandant of the Marine Corps requested Lejeune by name.

There was a glimmer of hope, but Lejeune didn’t put much stock in it. He led Beach toward the Commandant’s office in order to try to see him. They actually found Commandant McCawley (improperly called Remy by Beach in his recounting of the story) at a quiet moment in the office and were able to see him. However, he refused Lejeune’s entreaty to make a “by name request” for him to commission as a Second Lieutenant. The Commandant told him that the Corps would take whomever they were assigned and make no special deals.

A Desperate Ploy

Gabe had one last idea. He dragged Beach back toward Ramsey’s office at the Bureau. They were able to maneuver themselves into another audience, but Ramsey again refused to change his mind. Likely frustrated, he repeated that if the Commandant personally asked for Lejeune, then he could become a Marine. In the last moment of the brief meeting Lejeune asked his former Superintendent why? Why wouldn’t he allow him to become a Marine?

“Because, Mr. Lejeune, I am well aware of your splendid and promising mentality. Frankly, you have altogether too much brains to be lost in the Marine Corps!”

With that, Lejeune rushed out the office and headed back for the Commandant’s spaces at a run. Beach struggled to keep up, wondering what the hell was going on. But Lejeune had a new confidence about him. The two Midshipmen burst back into the Commandant’s office and interrupted a meeting with a group of officers on the headquarters staff. Before they could be reprimanded and removed from the room Lejeune shouted out:

“Commodore Ramsey says that the reason he will not recommend me to be a second lieutenant is that I have altogether too much brains for the Marine Corps!”

Ed Beach wrote “Lejeune won, then and there. The Marine Corps went into action,” and the request for Gabe to become a Marine was cut and sent to the Bureau of Navigation. The history books show there was still more maneuvering to be done, including meetings with Senator Russell Gibson and the intervention of the Secretary of the Navy. John Lejeune was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant instead of an Ensign. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another Year, Facing the Future

For more than two centuries the Marine Corps, and the rest of our armed forces, have been facing the challenges of talent management and administrative efficiency right alongside the combat stories that we read about in most of our history books. The so-called “needs of the service,” bureaucratic infighting, and service rivalry have a long tradition in how our military service members are selected, promoted, and mentored. But the story of Gabe Lejeune’s quest to become a United States Marine reminds us that sometimes the service is wrong, and sometimes we have to figure out our own “innovative” ways to work the system.

So Happy Birthday Marines. And to all the men and women in uniform who want to follow in Gabe Lejeune’s footsteps, by working both inside and outside the lifelines, to take their career into their own hands: Hoorah. Keep up the good fight.




Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in History, Marine Corps
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  • grandpabluewater

    Happy Birthday to all good Marines and all who love them. May Semper Fidelis always be your guide and the lamp unto your combat boots.

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