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Marine Corps Pipers
Marine Corps Gazette | Charles W. Jordan | December 09, 2005
Although not commonly known, the U.S. Marine Corps has a long and rich tradition of piping. Marine pipers have played their bagpipes on the battlefield, and for monarchs and Presidents, yet the Corps has never officially recognized any piper or pipe band. Despite the shortage of trumpets, the lack of rifles for a volley at funerals, and the inability to fully support the rendering of due honors, stories are heard of pipers playing “Taps” and performing before the formal mess. It is time to recognize Marine pipers for their contributions to the Corps. Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) should officially recognize Marine pipers by giving them a skill designator, by adopting the United States Marine Corps Leatherneck tartan as their official tartan, and by establishing a ceremonial uniform for the performance of their duties.

Although the history of piping in the Marines is long and glorious, the pipers are still not recognized for their contributions to Marine culture. Piping’s effect on the Marine Corps can be traced back through a former Commandant of the Marine Corps’ memories of the mess night that the Marines adopted from the Second Battalion Scots Guard in China in 1924, where LtCol Merrill Bartlett, USMC(Ret) writes, “Gen [Lemuel C.] Shepherd remembered an impressive evening. . . . During the dinner, the battalion’s pipe major played several traditional highland ballads to the tune of his own wailing on the bagpipes. . . .” (MCG, Nov99). Some mess nights are still done with bagpipes in the way of that 1924 dinner that so inspired Gen Shepherd.

The following facts relating to the history of piping  were provided by Justin Stodghill: The documented tradition of Marine pipe bands began in 1943 at Marine Barracks, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where Marines formed a pipe and drum band that was so successful the Department of the Navy publicized it. The Marines at Londonderry were the first to play the bagpipes for dignitaries; they played for President Truman and the Queen of England. The tradition carried on in the Pacific where “From the beaches of Peleliu in September 1944, to the black sands of Iwo Jima in 1945, to the landing at Inchon in 1950, Marine pipers have instilled fear in the enemy while filling their comrades with pride.”

Bagpipes, the only musical instrument declared a weapon of war, have been played by Marines in combat not only during World War II and the Korean War, but also in the Vietnam War, during Operation DESERT STORM, and most recently in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. In spite of all of the history, HQMC still does not officially recognize the tradition of piping in the Marine Corps. Pipers do exist in the Marine Corps and are in demand. Commanders tell stories and boast of having had a piper at their mess nights, balls, changes of command, or other official functions. Pipers must be officially recognized.

The first step to official recognition is giving the pipers a skill designator. A skill designator carries none of the headaches of a secondary military occupational specialty, mostly because it is free and imposes no additional manpower requirements. Units can then have a nonrequisite collateral duty for the pipers. Marines are already playing the bagpipes in the Marine forces; they are deployed all over the world. Currently they are playing as they always have and always should, as a second job. They play for their units and for morale; they play to strike fear in their enemies and awe in their allies. They are not, and should not be, part of the band. They are not, and should not become, part of a separate ceremonial unit. Pipers do not seek to leave their primary jobs. Pipers do not wish recognition for their own glorification. Instead, they wish to serve their Corps from where they are. They are, and will always be, warfighters and deserve to be officially recognized.

Adopting an official tartan is the second step. A tartan is the plaid cloth of the Scots that identifies the wearer as belonging to a certain clan or house, or identifies warriors with their military organization. Tartans are official and registered, like a family crest or official seal. Even though the United States Marine Corps does not recognize it, there is, already, a tartan associated with them that is recognized worldwide. The Scottish Tartan Society, the principal authority in the world on tartans, has the U.S. Marine Corps Leatherneck tartan in its registry specifically for the United States Marine Corps. The Scottish Tartan Society may be found here. Since this tartan already exists and is known the world over as that of the United States Marine Corps, it would cost HQMC nothing to officially adopt it.

Once an official tartan has been adopted, a ceremonial uniform can then be established—a uniform that would be optional and not funded. Currently, pipers wear a wide variety of uniforms when performing. An official ceremonial uniform will standardize what the pipers wear when they perform their duties. Adopting an optional official uniform would also be of no cost to the Marine Corps. The uniform would not be carried at any military clothing shop or in the Marine Corps’ supply inventory. The pipers would have the uniforms made at their own expense. There is a precedent for optional uniforms and uniform items; for example, the Marine Corps officers’ boat cloak, the staff noncommissioned officers’ evening dress uniform, cuff links with the Marine Corps emblem, etc.

The Marine Corps has a history of piping that cannot be denied or forgotten. Marines continue to serve their Corps by playing the pipes for morale in the field and in garrison, to instill fear in their enemies in battle, and to honor their fellow Marines at ceremonies. Marine pipers should be recognized for their efforts and accomplishments. Recognition costs the Marine Corps nothing in terms of money or manpower. HQMC should recognize their own. Pipers should be given a skill designator, a tartan, and a uniform.

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Copyright 2013 Marine Corps Gazette. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

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