The Few, The Proud, The
Marines in Key West
By James E. Brooks
Formal recognition of the Marine Corps
Birthday began November 1, 1921, when the Commandant of the Marine
Corps John A. LeJeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47. He summarized
Marine Corps history, its missions and traditions and directed
the order be read to all Marines on November 10th and again every
year on that date.
Eight decades later, Marines assemble
wherever they're stationed, from foxholes to fancy ballrooms,
to honor the founding of the Corps. The handful of Marines stationed
in Key West today not only celebrate the birthday of the Corps
but toast another year of duty in the Southernmost City that
dates back to 1823.
The first Marines landed in Key West
in May of that year, shortly after the Navy established a base
near what is now Mallory Square. Marines led by Alfred Grayson
were assigned to protect supplies stored for Navy ships waging
a fight against piracy. Six years later when the piracy threat
was eased, the Marines were withdrawn from Key West and remained
absent from the island for the next seventy-two years.
The Spanish American War brought the
Leathernecks back to the island. Marines from the 1st Marine
Battalion sailed from Brooklyn, N.Y. aboard the USS Panther and
established a staging area named Camp Sampson in May 1898 near
today's Smathers Beach. Led by Lt. Col. Robert Huntington, more
than 625 Marines readied for the invasion of Spanish-controlled
Cuba. Conditions at Camp Sampson were less than ideal. Mosquitoes
and the shortage of fresh drinking water made camp life difficult.
To keep the Marines occupied and prepared for battle, Huntington
established shore patrols from the ranks to stop crime and general
unlawfulness throughout the island. Key West became more hectic
as troops, people and supplies flooded the island in preparation
for war. The Marines finally sailed to Cuba in June and became
the first American troops to land and engage the enemy. Camp
Sampson was disestablished after the war in January 1899, ending
another chapter of Corps history in the Keys.
The island's strategic location and
emergence as a key Navy base finally led to the establishment
of a Marine Corps Barracks in October 1905. The Marines provided
security for the Naval station as well as performing ceremonial
duties. A permanent barracks building was erected in 1919 to
house the 109-member Marine Detachment. Marine Barracks Key West
remained in operation until June 21, 1932 when Depression-era
budget restraints forced military cutbacks. The barracks was
disbanded and the majority of the Naval Station closed except
for the wireless radio station and a few caretakers.
Seven years later, the likelihood of
another World War resuscitated Key West's Naval Station and its
requirement for a Marine Barracks. Lt. Col Gilbert Hatfield arrived
on November 7, 1939, and a detachment of Marines, organized at
Parris Island, S.C., arrived nearly two months later on December
30. The Marine detachment expanded to meet the wartime needs
of the Corps and Navy. Duties weren't much different from those
in previous years. Security for Navy facilities and weapons magazines
were part of the daily Marine routine. By the end of the war,
the Marine presence had expanded further. In addition to guard
duties, Marines administered Key West's Navy Correctional Center,
or brig, and served as escorts for visiting dignitaries. Whenever
President Truman came to town, Marines served as both his escorts
and his orderlies.
Through the 1960s, Key West's Marine
Barracks protected an ever-expanding naval complex. A 40-man
detachment was given an empty building and permanently assigned
as a dedicated unit to NAS Key West's Boca Chica Field to eliminate
a daily, 10-mile commute.
Corps milestones in the Keys didn't
stop with the barracks. On Jan. 1, 1968, a true Key West "conch,"
Lt. Gen. Leonard Chapman was selected by President Lyndon Johnson
to become the 24th Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Chapman
emphasized racial equality and human rights within the Marine
Corps during an era rife with racial tension.
The military population in the Keys
declined during the 1970s as the Navy made large scale cuts in
the size of the service. The Marines weren't spared. In 1976,
the Marines announced a plan to drastically reduce the size of
the Corps by closing Marine barracks worldwide. Key West Barracks
was on that list and slated for closure in 1977. Two months before
the formal closure of the barracks here and the transfer of the
barracks building to the city of Key West, an electrical fire
all but destroyed the 58-year-old building. Despite the fire,
Marine Corps Barracks Key West held a small ceremony and disestablished
one last time on Sept. 30, 1977.
Today, a few Marines are still assigned
to military commands here. NAS Key West guard duties are performed
by Navy master-at-arms and civilian Dept. of Defense police forces.
James E. "Jim" Brooks is
NAS Key West Public Affairs Officer and a student of Key West's
military history - something he's chosen to share with KWHx readers.