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11 Things You Might Not Know About the Marine Corps

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“The few, the proud” who serve are not only part of one of the most effective fighting forces in history, but also one of the most storied organizations in the world. Here are 11 things you might not know about the Marines.

1. The first retired Marine to ever receive an honorary promotion was in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

In Full Metal Jacket, actor Tim Colceri is famous for his helicopter scene where he says over the roar of the helicopter, "Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC." He would have been even more famous in the part for which he was originally cast—as the strict and unrelenting senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. That role, however, went to R. Lee Ermey, who had been hired for the film as a technical advisor.

Ermey, a former Marine drill instructor and Vietnam veteran, filmed a tense 20-minute reel of himself in character dressing down and squaring away the movie’s extras, without repeating himself. When director Stanley Kubrick saw the video, he recast Ermey for the role on the spot.

The fictional Hartman became perhaps the most famous gunnery sergeant in the history of the Corps. Ermey retired as a Staff Sergeant, and in 2002, the Marine Corps granted him an honorary promotion in accordance with the rank for which he is most associated. He is the first retiree in the history of the Marines to receive such an honor.

2. The Marines' Hymn refers to the Battle of Chapultepec.

The Marines’ Hymn famously begins, “From the Halls of Montezuma...” This refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847, in which U.S. Marines conquered Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City and subsequently occupied the city as part of the Mexican-American War. The battle is also famous (according to Marine tradition) for the establishment of the “blood stripe,” a red stripe sewn into the trousers of the uniform commemorating the Marines killed at Chapultepec.

3. "The shores of Tripoli" is a reference to the first overseas land battle fought by the United States military.

In 1801, the United States decided to do something about piracy in the Mediterranean so President Jefferson sent in the Navy. In 1805, the Marines finished the job. The Battle of Derne, on the shores of Tripoli during the First Barbary War, was the decisive action of the war, and the first overseas land battle fought by the United States military.

4. The "leatherneck" nickname is an historic one.

In 1798, the Marine Corps began issuing "one stock of black leather and clasp" to Marines. The item was worn to protect their necks when fighting with swords. Today, the standing collar on the dress coat of the Marine Corps uniform is a vestige of the leatherneck tradition.

5. The Marines were held back at Normandy.

The purpose of the Marine Corps is amphibious warfare, or attacking the land by storming from the sea. And yet the Marines are largely absent from the Normandy Invasion—history’s most famous amphibious assault. Why did the Army get the job?

More people. The Army had 89 divisions; the Marine Corps had 6. (As goes the saying, “The Marines win battles; the Army wins wars.”) And almost all of the Marines were in the Pacific. But there was a contingent of Marines on board the U.S.S. Texas who were held back, probably because of the ongoing rivalry between the Army and the Marines. Because the leaders of the Allied Forces were Army generals, there was no chance they’d share the spotlight on the biggest operation of the war. Even when the invasion looked grim, the Marines who watched from the U.S.S. Texas were never unleashed. As journalist W. Thomas Smith has written, the leadership didn’t want headlines the next day to read “Marines save Rangers at Normandy.”

Marines assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces, were on the ground, however, secretly working as observers of the invasion and facilitators for Army paratroopers who were jumping behind enemy lines.

6. When the Fast Food Wars are fought, a Marine will come out on top.

In the 1993 film Demolition Man, Sandra Bullock’s character makes reference to the Fast Food Wars, of which only one restaurant survived—Taco Bell. This is probably in no small part because the founder of Taco Bell was Glen Bell, a Marine who served in the Pacific Theater in World War II.

The Fast Food Wars would have been quite savage, however. Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars, and Tom Monoghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, are also former Marines.

7. An American to orbit the Earth? You’re gonna need a Marine for that.

During the Korean War, a Marine Corps fighter pilot nicknamed “magnet ass” shot down three MiG fighter jets. (He earned his nickname because of how often shrapnel hit his planes.) None of that was scary enough, apparently, because after he got back from the war, he became a test pilot. As part of Project Bullet, he set the transcontinental speed record, flying a Vought F8U Crusader from California to New York at 725.55 miles per hour. (The project was so named because he flew faster than a .45-caliber pistol round.) By the time the pilot—John Glenn—was recruited by NASA and became the first American to orbit the Earth, it must have seemed like a pretty boring day at the office. In 1998, we strapped him into another spacecraft and made him the oldest person to ever go into space, at age 77. It was a safe bet because clearly the man is invincible.

8. There are some pretty famous Marines who aren’t famous for being Marines.

Before he became famous for co-hosting the Tonight Show, Ed McMahon was a Marine fighter pilot with six air medals and 85 combat missions under his belt. While Drew Carey was a reservist in the Marines and looking for a way to make a little extra money, he tried stand-up comedy—it worked. Robert Ludlum’s time in the Marine Corps no doubt informed his novels about a super-spy named Jason Bourne. And Paulie probably could have taken Rocky in a fight—actor Burt Young is a former Marine.

9. The Corps was born in a bar.

The U.S. Marine Corps celebrates its birthday on November 10, 1775, the day the Second Continental Congress passed the Continental Marine Act of 1775, ordering, “That two battalions of Marines be raised...” The Continental Marines disbanded in 1783 and was formally reestablished in 1798. The first Marines enlisted at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, which is considered the birthplace of the Marine Corps.

During the annual birthday celebration, Order No. 47 is read, which says, in part, “it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.” The commanding officer cuts the birthday cake, and the first piece is given to the oldest Marine present, who passes it to the youngest Marine present.

10. The phrase “a few good men” is older than the modern Marine Corps.

On March 20, 1779, Captain William Jones of the Continental Marines placed a recruiting advertisement in the Providence Gazette: "The Continental ship Providence, now lying at Boston, is bound on a short cruise, immediately; a few good men are wanted to make up her complement." He’s been recruiting Marines ever since.

11. If you’re fighting a war in space, you’re going to need a few good men.

Marines don’t just fight on Earth. Popular culture has the Corps on planet Mars in the video game Doom; on moon LV-426 in the film Aliens (“Game over man! Game over!”); in the tabletop role playing game Warhammer 40,000 (“Give me a hundred Space Marines. Or failing that give me a thousand other troops.”), and on planet Pandora in the film Avatar (“was a marine. A warrior of the Jarhead Clan”).

This post originally ran in 2012.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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