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Semper Fi: Do or Die

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Semper FiMy wife and I were in a restaurant making small talk over coffee the other day. I had removed and placed my green Marine Corps utility cover to one side of the table. I do not wear any hat while in a building, especially when eating in a restaurant as it is one of my pet peeves to see some guy eating in a restaurant while wearing a hat. As we were chatting, a man about my own age approached, stuck out his hand and said, “Semper Fi, Jarhead!” I returned the greeting. When he left, my Colombian wife asked, “What is this ‘Semper Fi’ thing you say to people?”

It dawned on me that I had no glib, tip-of-the-tongue response to explain Semper Fi. Truth be told, I don’t think there is an explanation. Since my wife’s Spanish is far better than her English, I explained that the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis” is Latin and in Spanish is Siempre Fiel. However, I went on, Semper Fi isn’t quite the same as Semper Fidelis. Not really. She was now more confused than ever. I felt like I was trying to describe a ladder to someone who had been born blind.

Just what is Semper Fi?

The Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis was adopted officially in 1883, but Semper Fi appears to have come into widespread use during World War II. My father, a veteran of Bouganville and Guam, summed up Semper Fi briefly when he said; “When I first went in the Marines, I thought Semper Fidelis meant ‘Always Faithful’. A little later I thought it meant ‘Seventy-five dollars’, (when Marines were paid $21 a month) but after we went into combat on Bouganville, I found it actually meant ‘Hooray for me and screw you!’”

It’s basically still the same thing today.

Semper Fi is more sincere than ‘hello’ and far more final than ‘goodbye’. A softly spoken “Semper Fi, Bro” may be a final goodbye to a fallen friend. It verbalizes esprit de corps and Gung Ho. It is a mindset, it is, a perspective, a mentality, an attitude. It is a noun, an adjective, a verb, a modifier, a hyperbole. It expresses pride, anger, admiration, frustration, fear, resentment, sarcasm or snide.

Semper Fi to the Corps might be akin to what Excalibur was to King Arthur: a phrase embedded deeply in Corps traditions used by and for Marines only. Semper Fi rolling casually from the lips of a non-Marine is considered by many to be sacrilege. It is a seventy-odd year old omnipresent catchphrase used by newly-minted six-month reservists as well as Old Salts with 40 years of hash marks yet is not found in any Marine Corps manuals.

Whatever it is the Marine Corps does to drum the concept of brotherhood into us, this brotherhood is permanent, forever and eternal. It is well defined in Full Metal Jacket when R. Lee Ermey said; “… you are Marines and you will be Marines until the day you die..” Semper Fi might be considered a simple expression of this unique brotherhood and is as profoundly fixed in Corps tradition as the eagle, globe and anchor itself.

Several weeks ago while standing in the checkout line at the local food market I placed my few purchases on the counter while the young girl finished bagging the items for the woman in front of me. A very old man hobbling along slowly on a walker got in line behind me. In the small basket affixed to his walker he had a quart of milk, two bananas and a small box of cookies. The emaciated-looking man appeared old beyond his years, in his nineties, I am sure.

His thick glasses, sitting slightly askew, made his rheumy eyes appear three times larger and were sunken in a face as heavily lined as an un-ironed shirt. His clothing, although clean, hung on him as though draped over a branch. A few wisps of white hair protruded from beneath the bright red baseball cap he wore. The old man withdrew one of those old, soft leather coin purses with a clasp and was digging through the change inside, probably hoping he had enough to cover his purchases.

When I looked at his baseball cap, I handed the cashier twenty dollars and said quietly, “This should take care of this old man’s purchases, and give him the change, please.” Then I left.

The front of the old man’s cap had just one word in large yellow block letters: TARAWA.

That old man is Semper Fi.

How does one explain that?

***

Jack Wise usmc marine corpsAbout the Author: Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day.  Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife live quietly in Colorado.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Jack,

    Thanks for explaining the word so eloquently and precisely. I had the honor and privilege to serve during peacetime
    1983 until 1987, MOS 6123 ADJ-Jet Engine Mechanic, 3rd Marine Air Wing, Marine Air Group-16, Headquarters & Maintenance Squadron-16, Power Plants T-64 Engine Shop, and was attached to Heavy Marine Helicopter-363, “Lucky Red Lions,” or we affectionately referred to it as “Luck Red Jellyfish.” I got out as a an E-4 Corporal and still keep in contact with my buddies to this day. Semper Fi Mac

  2. Semper Fi mac, Semper Fi, I served in the U.S.M.C from 1954-1957, I was stationed in Kaneoeh Bay Marine Corps Air Station Hawaii, I was with the 4th marines 3rd marine div. and was in G company, later turned into Golf co. I was in the 3rd battalion, arrived in Hawaii from Japan, then on to Camp LeJeune N.C, was an M.P., just wanted to get in touch with another Marine, and Thank you for your service, Semper Fi. Mac.

    • And Semper Fi Mac back at you,
      I just realized that upon scrolling down from my story, there were other comments below and yours was written last June. I, too, was stationed at Kaneohe Bay, C Company, 1st Bn, 4th Marine Regiment. I very much appreciate hearing from you. Write anytime you wish to!

      Semper Fi,

      Jack Wise

  3. Very well put, My brother, But, you seem to have forgot some of the other terms, Like (HAT) is a COVER, Door is a
    hatch. etc.

    64-75
    SSgt. Baker
    USMC. Ret.

    Semper Fi, My brothers, Honor all that serve.

    • Staff Sergeant Baker,
      I only recently discovered that by scrolling down below my story (Semper Fi) that there were other comments below as well. Hey, I was 0300, whadaya expect?
      No, I actually didn’t forget that a HAT is a COVER. In the story above, when it’s some civilian in a restaurant chowing down, as far as I’m concerned, he’s wearing a f**ing hat. Marines wear covers. Civilians wear hats.
      But what do I know? I’m just an old 0300..
      Semper Fi, SSgt.!
      Jack Wise (Former PFC.)

  4. dear jack,
    my father was a career marine–all my life I was raised with the pride that my father was one of the elite branch of the military—no matter what a marine is a special type of person and not everyone is cut out to be one–I have said this before that you can always tell a true marine by the way that he carries himself—just the way it is!!!

    he was a gunny during the Vietnam war so when he came home there was nothing but he still carried himself with pride!!! That is a true marine—people may not agree with what you had to do but you served your country and became part of the best and for that they should always hold their heads up with dignity!!!

    So the children of marines understand the meaning of this phrase all to well!!!!

  5. Semper Fi, buddy. – “Dave” – H&S/2/12/3rd Mar.Div. – WW2. Serial No. 410936. 1942 – 1946 – Corporal (E-3) – Combat action, Consolidation of the Northern Solomons, Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima.

  6. Semper Fi Marine. I know what you mean about ‘uncovering’ indoors although my parents had already instilled that courteousy before I joined our beloved Corps. A great football coach in my home state also made it a point to not wear a hat indoors as well, even in this ‘brave new wold’ we live in today, that was Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant of Alabama. I served from 1960 to 1966 proudly and still proud today over 50 years later.

  7. I to am a daughter of a career Marine, I could sang the Marines hymn when I was three years old.i was always proud of my dad.RIP Richard H. Ray USMC retired

  8. Jack most of my family were marines so i joined to but air force guy did paperwork cause marine recruiter was at lunch so much for that most still don’t believe

  9. I came across this welcome site while surfing through various web sites hoping to find some of the Marines served with during our time in MCRD. While reading the comments I spotted what might be someone I served with in Boot Camp. Imagine my suprise when I saw the Author’s picture in the books we all received when we graduated from boot camp. even more interesting is the placement of the author , whose name may be Lowell W Brown . If that is the case, my picture in our Platoon book is just to the left of yours. My name is William J Bobzin. after Boot Camp and indivual combat training at Camp Pendleton California I was sent to NAS Memphis Tennesee for aviation training. from there I was sent to, of all places, NAS Brooklyn New York., where I served for one year , maintaining the Marine reserve aircraft and training Reservists. from Brooklyn I was sent to 2nd Marine Air Wing, Cherry Point N Carolina Marine Air Group 24 Squadron VMA 332. I hope that I might connect with some of my friends from that time in the Corps. Semper Fi brothers.

  10. I thought it may have meant “Never Give Up,” but it appears it means a variety of things, if the article in correct. But if it means a lot of things , then it starts to become meaningless. Does that make sense?

  11. Not a Marine but served alongside them in the field as a Navy medical officer – never met a more dedicated or cohesive group of soldiers and was proud to associate with them. They did manage to beat the hell and shape out of my cover, but I never did lose their shot records.

  12. I came across this page as I was looking for images of Marine tattoos. I thought about the phrase “Semper Fi”. I’m not Marine but my Dad served in the early 1970’s. My Dad just passed away, unexpectedly on July 3, 2017. He was given a military ceremony, I cried as the Marines presented his wife (not my mom) with the flag. I cried because he was gone and I cried because I know she didn’t want the flag and she doesn’t understand the meaning of it. I want to get a tattoo to memorialize him and his service but I feel I shouldn’t because I didn’t serve myself. Any thoughts on this?

  13. My dad was in the USMC and served in WWII. He was at Palilu where the Marines to a hell of a beating. Then he was at Guadalupe Canal. He was proud of himself and the Marines. I got a tattoo in his honor. It’s what is in your heart.

  14. Dear John
    My name is William I’m the son of a U.S. Marine. my father was honorably discharged due to a spinal injury he can walk and do everything a Marine but with great pain and when je talks about boot camp i can see the love and honor in his eyes and i want to be part of that i was hoping for some guidance on enlisting as my father doesn’t believe i have what it takes but i want to prove him and the world wrong im 19 years old and have made a lot of mistakes and I am currently on probation for felony charges but the charges will be dropped once I graduate this year It and it would be an honor to serve as a Marine

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