Leath•er•neck () n. Slang. 1. A U.S. Marine. [The Marine uniform originally had a leather-lined collar.] 2. The magazine of the Marines.
Since the days of the Barbary pirates, United States Marines have called themselves "leathernecks." Legend and lore have it that the term leatherneck was derived from leather neckbands worn in the late 1700s to protect Marines from the slash of the cutlass. Another more likely reason is that the high stocks were worn for discipline to keep the Marines' heads high and straight. Neither explanation has ever been verified. Whatever the reason, the name leatherneck stuck and the distinctive dress blue uniform blouse still bears a high stock collar to remind Marines of the leatherneck legacy.
In 1917 a couple of enlisted Marines wanted a newspaper for themselves and their fellow Marines stationed at Quantico, Va. They wanted stories and features that chronicled their Corps and contained news of specific interest to Marines. With the assistance of the Army-Navy YMCA, the men, in their off-duty time, published their first newspaper on Nov. 17, 1917, and they called it The Quantico Leatherneck. In 1918 the word Quantico was dropped from the title.
The base commander gave the paper his imprimatur. Funding was paid by advertisements from local merchants catering to the base Marines and sailors. The result was a one-fold, four-page, broadsheet newspaper.
By 1920 The Quantico Leatherneck was very popular with enlisted men and officers alike. The men who ran the paper were, nonetheless, Marines and subject to transfer. If the paper was to continue, the Marine Corps would have to step in. This happened during the era of Major General John A. Lejeune, who as Commandant of the Marine Corps not only wanted his Marines to have a newspaper but also wanted to raise the level of knowledge and education in the Corps. As a result, he formed the Marine Corps Institute (MCI). It seemed a natural marriage to move the newspaper from Quantico to Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., and put it under the auspices of MCI.
In 1925 Leatherneck's format was changed from that of a newspaper to a magazine. It remained a small circulation magazine in a small Corps. Prior to World War II, the Corps was smaller than the New York City Police Department. As such, a circulation of 13,000 to 17,000 Marine readers during the Great Depression was exceptionally good.
It was during this time that professional illustrations and photos in Leatherneck became prominent.
Japanese Zero aircraft spitting bullets at the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa, Hawaii, and at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, signaled a tremendous expansion of the Corps and, proportionately, of Leatherneck magazine. The Corps also enlisted its own combat correspondents, many with civilian experience gained from working on the nation's best commercial newspapers and magazines. Many of them were assigned to Leatherneck. The magazine reflected this with an even higher level of professional news and feature stories, high-quality art, and photos.
The Leatherneck staff grew to more than 100 and published an overseas edition (without advertisements) for Marines island-hopping across the Pacific. Circulation reached 225,000. Leatherneck also ensured that Marines in every clime and place received all the news through free distribution of civilian magazines.
While the Marine Corps may have its own cadre of public affairs talent, it traditionally has not had a compelling interest in managing the news for Marines and did not want its commanders to be distracted in this area. In 1943 Corps officials decided that Leatherneck magazine should be more autonomous. Thus, the Leatherneck Association was founded. Under the purview of Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, the association was governed by HQMC-based officers. The sole purpose of the association was to manage Leatherneck in the interests of the Marine Corps and to provide a governing body answerable only to the Commandant.
After the war's end, Leatherneck's circulation dropped proportionately with the number of Marines who had earned enough overseas points to be shipped home and back to civilian life. Many of the Leatherneck staff went back to the various news media they had left. A great number went on to fame as writers, editors, artists and photographers. Some of the magazine's department positions were converted to civilian billets. In several cases the Marine who occupied a billet when it was converted went to work the next day as a civilian.
Even so, Leatherneck was still staffed primarily by active-duty Marines until 1972 when all billets for Marines at Leatherneck were eliminated and moved to more needed positions in the Corps. That same year, the magazine's offices moved back to Quantico. Four years later, in 1976, the Leatherneck Association merged with the Marine Corps Association in a partnership that has proven beneficial to both organizations.
Today Leatherneck boasts a circulation of nearly 100,000 readers. And although the look of the magazine has evolved dramatically since its inception, its mission remains the same: to be the magazine of Marines—yesterday, today and tomorrow.