The colonists who founded the United States Marine Corps in Tun Tavern 239 years ago Monday certainly understood their demographic. The launch of the USMC in a Philadelphia bar makes sense in a way that the founding of NAMBLA in an old church does not.
Uncommon valor is indeed a common virtue in taprooms, particularly in those moments before last call. Captain Samuel Nicholas didn’t possess a computer algorithm of the like Amazon employs to tell customers who bought The Audacity of Hope that they might also enjoy Mein Kampf. But he intuitively grasped that people who liked fighting also liked drinking.
Appropriately, Marines gather around the world in barrooms, or at least banquet halls with bars in them, to celebrate owing their existence, like so many of us do, to a meeting in a barroom. I have the good fortune to attend one such event this weekend.
My Marine Corps tenure kept me gratefully ignorant of the fog of war if sometimes immersed in a fog. The closest I came to a battlefield involved two instances of hand-to-hand combat with fellow Marines whose lack of diplomacy led to brief but violent internecine hostilities. Instead of starring in real-time war stories, we told stories. My rifle never drew blood from the enemy; my jokes did induce several comrades to project their beverages through their nostrils. Sadly, my service to morale has gone unrecognized on my chest. As with many government jobs, the downtime ran for much of the time.
Some Marines tell tales. Others become characters in them.
John Basilone, whose birth, like the USMC’s, we celebrate this week, fits the latter category. At Guadalcanal, he won the Medal of Honor by coolly fighting off 3,000 Japanese, using a pistol when his machine gun ran dry. Strangely, the pressure of a public speaking tour designed to use his celebrity to sell war bonds encouraged his taste for strong drink. One compatriot recalled, “He knocked off a fifth the way you knock off a beer.”
Basilone’s extraordinariness, told in James Brady’s Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone, stuns all the more so because of his ordinariness. One of ten kids, the blue-collar son of Raritan, New Jersey, scored lowest in conduct from his teachers and didn’t bother with high school. He played football and fought and chased women and drank and gambled. He drove a laundry truck and caddied as an adult before turning to the military for employment during the Great Depression. Labeling him mediocre might have seemed, at least from a distance, generous prior to his service.
The aggression, energy, and risk-taking of Basilone that proved maladaptive in civilian life made him a success as a military man. Some guys just can’t sit still. That held true for Basilone upon his hero’s return to the United States. Rather than continue dating starlets and not paying for drinks wherever he went, the machine gunner begged back into the fight. He got his wish, and at Iwo Jima the Japanese visited upon him what he had visited upon so many of them at Guadalcanal.
John Basilone’s greatness shows us the greatness of the Marine Corps. Classrooms, athletic fields, and the workplace find so many young men lacking that excel when put to the test of combat. Any metric that would find a man such as Basilone limited exposes its own limitations. The Marines showed the world that it erred in assessing the value of a man who helped win the war in the Pacific. Had Manila John—earning that nickname after an undefeated run as a boxer in the Depression Era-Army—been born in the eighteenth instead of the twentieth century, one gleans the impression that he would have found his way to Tun Tavern.
Good men are hard to find. But today, as in 1945 or 1775, you can find a few of them if you know where to look.