The (relatively) few, the (very) proudWith their octagonal caps, sharply creased dress uniforms and “buzz” haircuts, the “ghost-catching” marines look different. Their motto is, “I would never have chosen to be a marine if anyone could be one.”
The South Korean Marine Corps graduated its 1,000th class last week ― 56 years after its first class in 1949 ― at the Marine Corps Training Academy in Pohang, North Gyeongsang province. Training sessions for recruits are held every 15 days. Since its founding almost six decades ago, 630,000 men have served as enlistees and 200,000 as non-commissioned and commissioned officers. There currently are 27,000 marines on active duty.
The path to becoming an invincible marine, however, is not an easy one.
After five days of physical examinations, new recruits have their hair cut and start basic training ― the beginning of the making of ghost catchers. Rigorous is not the right word to describe the training, which tests human limits.
Before and after every meal, trainees do pull-ups and push-ups. Physical and mental toughness is a must for marines, whose missions require securing bridgeheads in enemy territory. Along with air assault and raid drills, trainees go through landing exercises.
During the six weeks of training, the fifth week is the “week of self-denial.” Rations are reduced by half and only two to three hours of sleep are allowed. The “Chunja Peak road march” on the last day of the fifth week has trainees almost running up and down the hill for 20 kilometers (12 miles) in full battle gear.
Chunja Peak is a training site at Jinhae, but now it refers to the Marine Corps’ battle movement on mountainous terrain. There is one thing that changes after the completion of this training: the trainees’ nametags change from yellow to the Marine Corps red, signifying that they have now officially become marines.
Despite the rigorous training process, there always are men who are willing to join the Marine Corps. Unlike the other branches of the military, where service is mandatory, the Marine Corps is a strictly volunteer force.
The younger generation’s desire for self-expression and distinctive individual character find a perfect fit in the Marine Corps’ image. Competition to be in one of the 24 classes selected by the Marine Corps each year runs from 3.5 candidates for each slot up to 10 to 1. Applying for a second and third time is common. There are even applicants who have tried 10 times. News of men forfeiting their Korean nationality to evade duty in the armed forces is prominent in the headlines, but for marines, it is a story seemingly from another country.
Such selectivity gives the Marine Corps a special feeling. There is a saying, “Once a marine, always a marine.” Officers and enlisted men continue their brotherhood long after they have completed their term of service in the Marine Corps, regardless of their rank.
Currently, the Marine Corps consists of two divisions and one brigade under the command of the Republic of Korea Marine Corps headquarters.
The Marine Corps’ strategic value is acknowledged, but its beginning was far from noteworthy. On April 15, 1949, 380 men, transferred from the Navy, held a founding ceremony in an airplane hangar in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang province.
The new marines carried 99 rifles used by the Japanese Army and wore used dress uniforms from U.S. Navy seamen. Nevertheless, the grueling training made the marines into elite members of the armed forces. Thus began the spirit of “nothing is impossible.”
The first event that made the Marine Corps famous was the Korean War. The Marine Corps was on Jeju Island at the onset of the war and subsequently went on to win victories in the Gunsan, Yeosu and Masan areas.
On Aug. 17, 1950, a Marine Corps company launched a surprise attack on Jangpyeongri Tongyoung in South Gyeongsang province and annihilated a battalion of the North Korean People’s Army. Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune dubbed them “ghost-catching marines.”
The Marine Corps continued its successful missions with Operation Blue Heart during the Incheon landing led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.
During the recapture of Seoul on Sept. 27, 1950, the Marine Corps raised the national flag at Capitol Hill, where the battle was most intense. After Seoul was retaken, U.S. President Harry Truman awarded a medal to the Marine Corps for its meritorious service.
In June 1951, the Marine Corps captured what had been considered an impregnable fortress on Mount Dosol in the Yang district of Gangwon province.
Their reputation carried on into the Vietnam War. The Blue Dragon company was the first Korean unit to be deployed overseas, arriving in Vietnam in October 1965. During their six years of deployment in Vietnam, the Marine Corps successfully accomplished their missions in their areas of operation.
On Feb. 14, 1967, when the Blue Dragon company defeated two brigades of Viet Minh forces in close combat in the battle of Chabindong, they were heralded worldwide as “legendary marines.”
Despite its success, in October 1973 the Marine Corps was dismantled as a separate entity as part of a military restructuring scheme. It became part of the general staff office of the Navy until November 1987, when the marines’ strategic value was reevaluated and the Marine Corps was reconsolidated.
Now, the Marine Corps is promoting “Vision 2025” to turn itself into a mobile aerial and ground force. The core of the plan lies in a new aerial unit and military information battalion.
A mobile aerial and ground force means committing troops behind enemy lines through air assaults. The strategy aims to secure the quick deployment of troops with helicopters while conducting amphibious landing operations. Building a multi-functional quick reaction force is the blueprint of the Marine Corps’ future.
by Lee Chul-hee, Chae Byung-gun