Semper Fi! Commissaries celebrate Marines’ 242 years of service
November 10 is the 242nd anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Marine Corps by the Continental Congress in 1775. This gave the Navy a special armed force – essentially, a seagoing infantry – to be used during battles at sea and ashore.
Since then, millions of Americans have served in the Marines, sharing in establishing a superb record of valor, sacrifice and distinguished service during conflicts from the American Revolution to the modern conflicts in the Middle East.
Before the Marine Corps established its own commissary operations in 1910, they suffered right alongside sailors for access to fresh foods.
From 1775 to 1908, men aboard American warships found that the official rations were monotonous and nutritionally deficient, but they were not often able to procure non-ration goods to add variety to their meals. In the days of sail – and long before refrigeration – shipboard fare often spoiled or became infested with weevils or maggots. Marines and sailors alike eagerly anticipated visiting a port of call – it didn’t matter whether the port was foreign or American – where they could obtain fresh, tasty, healthful foods.
After reaching port, the men didn’t need to leave their ships to buy goods from local civilian merchants. Rather, these vendors – known as “bumboat men” and “bumboat women” – rowed, paddled or sailed out to visiting ships in small craft known collectively as “bumboats.” They conducted business from these boats with the Marines and sailors crowding the ships’ decks. Although they provided a valuable service by selling all sorts of local goods, many of these vendors charged exorbitant prices.
During the round-the-world voyage of the “Great White Fleet” from 1907 to 1909, the Navy Department realized that bumboats were unable to serve the needs of modern larger ships that carried bigger crews and larger contingents of Marines.
Even before the fleet's return, Congress took steps to establish ships’ stores aboard every vessel to take the place of the overseas bumboats, and sales commissaries – called “ships’ stores ashore” – at ports in the United States. The stores ashore were similar to sales commissaries the Army had established in 1867.
Although the Marines are part of the Navy Department, Marine Corps bases established and ran their own commissary sales stores. Beginning in 1910, at Marine Corps, Navy and Army stores alike, food items were sold to soldiers, sailors and Marines of all ranks, at cost. At first, these stores operated more like warehouses, where clerks pulled items from the shelves for customers. Self-service gained popularity in the late 1920s and became widespread in the 1940s.
As the armed forces’ mission expanded around the world, commissaries followed. Military commissaries have existed at more than 1,000 different locations on every continent except Antarctica. Although only a fraction of these were at Marine installations – there were fewer than two dozen Marine Corps stores following World War II – the Marines were intensely proud of their stores and their efficient operation.
Modernized commissaries comparable to civilian grocery stores, along with professionalized permanent store staffs, began to appear after the adoption of the Armed Services Commissary Regulation in 1949 standardized commissary terminology and practice. Beginning in the early 1950s, the USMC Installations and Logistics department, Facilities and Services Division, and later the Services Branch’s Commissary Stores Section, supervised the Marine Corps stores.
When the creation of the Defense Commissary Agency centralized all the services’ commissaries in 1991, the Marine stores were used as a model for various facets of the entire organization, including some aspects of store operation.
Today, DeCA provides the commissary benefit for all the armed forces, saving individual authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually when compared with civilian supermarkets. This benefit helps attract and retain quality military personnel.
Members of the Marine Corps community, along with their peers in the other armed services, may shop at any of DeCA’s nearly 240 commissaries at U.S. military installations around the world. Today, there are 16 DeCA stores at Marine Corps bases, including three in Okinawa and one in mainland Japan.