Washington D.C. can have the swanky balls with the dress-blue uniforms. Philadelphia prefers a block party on Oregon Avenue to commemorate the birthday of the United States Marine Corps.
“People come from all over to come to this thing,” said veteran William Shields. “I think it’s the main informal celebration.”
The US Marine Corps celebrated its 239th birthday on Monday. The yearly tradition celebrates the founding of the Corps, which was formed by the Continental Congress as an amphibious unit at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia on Nov. 10, 1775. The first Marine birthday was celebrated in 1923.
But in 1970, James R. “Daddy Wags” Wagner started drinking with a few buddies at his uncle Bill “Cookie” Cook’s South Philadelphia bar and it grew every year thereafter. In 1977, Wagner bought the bar, kept the name and declared that an annual block party will be held outside the tavern at 10th and Oregon, which attracts Marines from across the country every November.
“I’m sure they have some hoytie toytie dress blues ball in Washington D.C.,” said Shields, from Wilmington. “But Philly is a working-class, kind of tough town and it’s just a perfect place for Marines to gather and celebrate the birthday.”
Mark Slaymaker, from Delaware, enlisted in 1983 and served until 1987. He said he returns to the block party for the camaraderie.
“Getting around old Marines, it doesn’t matter when they served, it’s just that we all have that one thing in common,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a former Marine. Once you’re a Marine, you’re a Marine.”
Shields, who served as a corporal in the Corps from 1971 to 1975, said despite the federal holiday Tuesday, the annual birthday celebration is the Marine’s official holiday.
“Marines don’t care about Veterans Day that much,” Shields said. “Marines care about the Marine Corps birthday. Veterans Day is for somebody else. God bless them and everything, but they have their day and we got ours.”
What about Memorial Day?
“Memorial Day is a little different,” Shields said, “because it’s a solemn day. You’re talking about a day when you remember military people who passed on and died in battle and in combat. So nobody is going to belittle that day.”
But the Marines, he said, think they’re special.
“Marines think they’re better than everyone else,” Shields said. “And they always try to be.”