Embassy Marine

By Raymond J. Barrett - Originally Published Mar 1971

A Foreign Service Officer offers tribute to Marine security guards, attesting to their concern and initiative in carrying out a unique duty assignment.

The Foreign Service is proud of "Our Marines." Not only do they do a superlative job of projecting the security of our embassies and consulates, they also play a significant role in the conduct of American diplomacy.

A young Marine was the first American that Stalin's daughter confronted when she defected. She simply walked into the American Embassy in New Delhi, India, after office hours. On duty was a Marine security guard and it was to him that she made her first appeal for help from the United States. The Marines have careful instructions to call in experienced embassy officers in case of emergencies. Even so, a tremendous responsibility fell on the young Marine.

Imagine for a moment the dilemma that he suddenly confronted. A woman had appeared without warning out of the night, claiming to be Stalin's daughter-not a very probable story. Embassies attract plenty of eccentrics. If this were a prankster or crank he would have to jolly her along and try to get rid of her. On the other hand, if this were really Stalin's daughter her defection would be tremendously important to the United States. He could not risk antagonizing her. He had to display just the right blend of sympathy and reserve. Until embassy officers could arrive he did not want her to panic and flee; nor could he be so forthcoming that she could later allege that he had made commitments to her on behalf of the United States. The young Marine was the American who had to make the first-and some of the key-decisions that led to the startling propaganda coup of Stalin's daughter's defection to the United States.

From out of the night another enormous challenge confronted other Marine security guards in Saigon. At 0250 January 31, 1968, the Viet Cong attacked the American Embassy there. Two Marines were on duty in the lobby when they heard the first shots. They pulled the unarmed Vietnamese front gate guard from certain death and slammed shut the 3-inch teakwood front doors. With bullets ricocheting through the lobby they coolly telephoned for reinforcements and broke out additional weapons. As they did, a rocket came through the wall and exploded. One Marine was seriously wounded and the other slightly. Rockets continued to explode on the embassy's facade. As reaction forces arrived, the Viet Cong attack on the building itself diminished. But their fire was so intense that the American reinforcements could not get into the embassy itself. The two Marines, another Marine who had been stationed on the roof, and the few embassy staff members on duty were without physical contact with other Americans through most of the night. A helicopter got through to the embassy roof about 0615 to evacuate the seriously wounded Marine; the intense fire caused the helicopter to make an emergency landing in a rice paddy before the Marine could be taken to a hospital. Only after first light, about an hour later, could 101st Airborne Division paratroopers land on the roof and fully secure the building. Until then, the courage and coolness of two Marines had played a vital role in denying the Viet Cong entrance into the embassy itself.

During the night of 25 January, 1968, in another part of the world, the Marines on duty at the embassy in Panama learned that the roof was on fire. The Marines found the top door engulfed in smoke. They secured the char force but one man was missing. He was trapped in the elevator. Using a fire ax, the Marines forced the elevator door and got the man out safely. Meanwhile, the fire department, off-duty watchstanders and appropriate embassy officers had been notified. The firemen put out the fire while American personnel maintained control over the areas containing classified material. The Marines' calm efficiency and rapid performance that led to early containment of the fire were credited with preventing large-scale damage to the embassy.

Fire also created a sudden emergency in Kinshasa, the Congo. On 11 April, 1968, a woman ran into the Embassy to tell the Marine on duty that the Spanish Embassy next door was on fire. The Marine immediately summoned the fire department, the NCOIC and off-duty watchstanders. Leaving one Marine to maintain the duty at the embassy, the others rushed to extinguish the blaze. The door was secure but one Marine imme: diately scaled the wall and found a second story window open. Another Marine followed right behind and tried to pass him a fire extinguisher. In doing so, he grabbed an electrical wire for balance; the wire was live and the jolt threw the Marine to the ground, fracturing a bone in his left foot. Another Marine succeeded in passing the extinguisher to the first Marine who managed to put out the fire. As a result of the Marines' quick thinking and decisive action both the Spanish and American Embassies were spared extensive damage.

Regularly, in many less crucial or heroic ways, Marine security guards play a personal part in the day-to-day details of American Embassy operation. It is the Marine on duty who receives the often-anguished request of an American citizen seeking emergency help at night or on a weekend. He has to be a model of tact and assurance until he can sort the problem out and contact the embassy's duty officer. Many less urgent requests come to him for street directions, locations of hotels or restaurants, sightseeing, etc.; he serves as a "short-order" information service, dispensing answers in a reassuringly American accent. In similar fashion, he deals with foreign citizens who come to the embassy seeking information; the stream of such callers is heavy on American holidays or on Saturdays which are normal workdays in many countries. To tact and competence, he must often add some knowledge of the local language.

The help extended by Marine security guards often goes beyond the strict limits of duty. Many an American who has suddenly found himself without funds overseas has been comforted by a cup of coffee, a sandwich or some cigarettes provided by a Marine guard. On occasion, a Marine has even kept a benevolent eye on a penniless American sitting out the night in an embassy lobby until help can be arranged in the morning. Countless times, Marines have helped frightened, bewildered or belligerent Americans with soothing conversation and patient comfort, A trim and efficient Marine at the reception desk is a familiar and reassuring sight for visitors to American diplomatic missions overseas.

The Marine security guard program has been invaluable to the U.S. Foreign Service. It has provided American diplomatic and consular missions with highly competent protection for their classified material and assistance in protecting government property and the lives of employees. Prior to the program's inauguration the Department of State had had to hire civilians, American and foreign, to protect its establishments abroad. Only a limited number of guards could be hired and often they were of doubtful background, ability and suitability. In many cases the guard positions were found to attract only the old and the lazy. Furthermore, many of the American guards resided permanently in foreign countries and were married to aliens. This system was obviously unsatisfactory in the rising international tensions that followed WWII. Thought naturally turned toward a guard force that was young, alert, trained and under military discipline.

The historic association between the U.S. Foreign Service and the U.S. Marine Corps suggested the Marine security guard program. During the history of the United States, Marines had served many times on special missions as couriers, guards for embassies and legations and to protect American citizens in unsettled areas such as China and Cuba. Probably the most dramatic example was the defense of the legation in Peking in 1900 against the siege by the Chinese "Boxers." In fact, President Roosevelt, at the request of the Department of State, issued a Presidential Order establishing guards at certain embassies and legations. Drawing on this precedent, and with great foresight, the drafters of the 1946 Foreign Service Act included authorization for the Secretary of the Navy, on request from the Secretary of State, "to assign enlisted men of the Navy and the Marine Corps to serve as custodians" at embassies, legations and consulates.

The Marine security guard program is more than 20 years old. A Memorandum Agreement was signed on December 15, 1948, by Secretary of the Navy Sullivan and Undersecretary of State Lovett. The first 83 Marines reported to the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State in January, 1949, for training. On January 28, 1949, the first 15 Marines departed for assignment to Foreign Service posts abroad; six went to Bangkok and nine to Tangier. The program developed rapidly and by the end of May, 1949, over 300 Marines had been assigned to posts around the world. The agreement covering the Marine security guard program was renewed and broadened in 1955 with the signature of a "memorandum of agreement between the Department of Defense and Department of State." Close to 1,000 Marines are currently serving as Marine security guards at 95 American diplomatic and consular posts in 85 countries.

To facilitate administration of its personnel Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Arlington, Virginia, established Company F to perform administrative and training functions for the program. In 1952 a junior Marine officer was assigned to each of the regional security headquarters of the Department of State at Frankfort, Beirut, Manila and Panama. Fox Company was upgraded in February, 1967, to become the Marine Security Guard Battalion. Headquarters Company is still at Henderson Hall. Company A serves the embassies in Europe. Company B guards the American missions in Africa and the Middle East. Charlie Company takes care of the Far East and embassies in South America belong to Company D.

The composition of Marine guard detachments and their duty situations vary. At any minute of any day Marines are standing duty at embassies around the world. Most detachments consist of about six-to-eight Marines. The larger or more sensitive posts have more Marines. Each detachment is headed by a non-commissioned officer in charge. The NCOIC or his designate is on duty at the embassy during normal working hours and at such other times as necessary to supervise the work of the detachment. At most posts two Marines are on duty during other than normal working hours. One is always at the reception desk. He is ready to help callers and to receive emergency messages and relay them to appropriate duty officers; he is also alert to and ready to deal with any other problems that may arise. The other Marine tours the building periodically to be sure that all classified material has been properly secured and escorts the char force while they clean classified areas; this Marine also handles other duties such as locking the doors that are kept closed to ensure building security during nonoffice hours. The watch is arranged so that the Marines on duty are relieved about the middle of the night. Quite apart from being on call 24 hours, seven days a week, Marine security guards average 89 hours a week on the job.

The Marines wear uniforms on duty at most posts; the rest of the time they wear civilian clothing. Before departing for his post a Marine is issued a set, of dress blues and outfitted with appropriate civilian clothing at Department of State expense. Quarters are also provided by the Department of State. These usually constitute a house or apartment for the NCOIC if he is married and a large house or apartment for the other members of the detachment. All other pay and allowances are those applying to the Marine Corps generally; there is no extra pay for security guard duty. The normal assignment to the program is two years.

Requirements for the program are simple but rigorous. A Marine must be single if a sergeant or below and remain single until his tour is completed. He must be a lance corporal or above, have had at least 18 months active service and have 30 months or more yet to serve. Corporals and lance corporals must have average proficiency and conduct marks of 4.4 or higher. An applicant must also be a U.S. citizen, be in excellent physical condition and be able to qualify for a top secret clearance.

Training is given at the joint State-Marine security guard school at Henderson Hall. Candidates undergo an intensive six-week program of instruction and two thorough screenings. A quarter or more of the candidates are eliminated. The principal subjects covered include physical security, protocol, detection of sound devices, the Foreign Service, security tasks, tactful replies to criticism of the United States, conference security, dealing with hostile demonstrations and mob action and Communist measures of espionage and subversion. Once the classroom work is done, the students are taken to the State Department itself where they try to find security violations in the building. The school's prime objective is make the future Marine guards security-minded.

Marines, once overseas, must also study foreign languages for at least 100 hours. Most acquire some knowledge of the local language and many become quite proficient. Marine security guards currently are studying about 40 languages or dialects.

The Marine security guard program has assumed added importance because of the increased frequency of mob action or other attacks against American Foreign Service posts. Training at the Marine security guard school in dealing with mob action has been intensified. During sensitive periods Marine guards inspect all packages entering an embassy and carefully check restrooms and other public areas against planted explosives. Mob actions require not only courage but careful judgment and firm discipline. The integrity of the building and files must be protected if at all possible. But actions must be avoided that would endanger American lives, particularly those of the defenseless American wives and children in their homes. The Marines can fulfill the damage-control function. Prompt and courageous use of fire hoses by the Marines prevented extensive damage during an attack on the American Embassy in Cairo in 1961; they did so in a hail of stones from the mob and one Marine was badly gashed over the eye. The presence of armed and obviously competent Marines may have deterred the out-and-out sacking or further degradation of Foreign Service posts that were attacked. Certainly the presence of Marines inside embassy compounds often has been psychologically comforting to American personnel during hostile demonstrations and civil disturbances.

At the same time, Marines on the security guard program have compiled an amazing record in fostering better relations with people all over the world. It is a trite but true comment that each Marine abroad is personally an ambassador of the United States. By his behavior, foreigners judge Americans. He is viewed especially as an example of American youth and of the American military forces. The Marine guard detachments have done a wonderful job by simply reflecting the warmth, generosity and initiative of the American people. In their free time they have carried an untold number of projects to help the people among whom they live.

A sample of recent projects demonstrates vividly the concern and initiative of the Marines. The detachment at the embassy in New Delhi, India, sponsored a charity ball for a hospital and earlier they manned a fruit stand to raise money for a sterilizer. They also participated in a fund raising drive for retired Indian soldiers; the Marines built a bowling game that was the attraction of the benefit event. The detachment in Vientiane, Laos constructed swings and seesaws for the children of the Catholic orphanage. In Bangkok the Marines held a series of dinner parties for the Marines of Thailand. The detachment in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, conducts classes in physical training and body building at the Ivory Coast University.

The Manila detachment reconditioned a bus no longer needed by the U.S. aid program and presented it to an orphanage; not only was the bus put in first class running condition, it also sported new tires and a newly painted body. In Colombo, Ceylon, the entire detachment responded to a call by the hospital ship S.S. Hope for blood donations owing to insufficient local supplies. The Marines in Dhahrian, Saudi Arabia, rounded up magazines for the local eye clinic and a hospital. Aid and cheer were brought to a Madrid school for homeless and destitute children; the Marine detachment held a Three Kings Day party for the girls and donated badly needed supplies and cash to the school. In Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the Marines conduct water safety classes for dependents of the foreign community.

This list of projects-covering only a few months, chosen at random and far from complete -speaks for itself.

Understandably, we in the Foreign Service, and many other Americans abroad, have a warm spot in our hearts for the embassy Marines. Marine House, the quarters for the detachment, is invariably a well-known locale. Everyone at the embassy, from the ambassador on down, visits there and enjoys himself thoroughly. Marine House is justly famous for friendship and good fun. The annual Marine Ball is a moving highpoint of the year; many of us are honored and pleased to take turns standing watches so that all the Marines can participate fully.

The Marines join with us in the embassy and local American community life. Another random check shows them participating in softball leagues in Geneva, Kabul, New Delhi, Tel Aviv, Calcutta, Dhahran and Helsinki. They played Volleyball in Nicosia and Bombay and basketball in Ankara, organized a bowling league in Tel Aviv, and even sponsored a team in dart league in New Delhi. Marines coach Little League teams in Rabat and Ankara and a football team at the American School in Tehran. In Amman they conduct physical education classes at the American Community School and in Ankara they supervise an annual summer physical fitness program. Marines lead Scouting activities in Amman, Bogota, Mogadiscio, Mexico City and Tegucigalpa. During the long winter in Reykjavik the Marines showed full length movies Sunday afternoons and evenings. In Ankara the annual Easter egg hunt was held in the Marine House yard.

Marines participate actively in American community endeavors. Around the world they play an honored and helpful role in celebrations of the Fourth of July. At Wellington, New Zealand, members of the detachment took part in the annual ceremony at the memorial honoring Adm Richard Byrd, explorer of the Antarctic. In Tripoli, Libya, the detachment participated in the Memorial Day ceremony at the graves of five American seamen killed in the explosion of the USS Intrepid during the Barbary Wars. The Marine security guard in Tokyo somehow found the strength to fulfill the request of the press attaché and escort Miss Universe to a reception in her honor. The NCOIC of the detachment in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Association.

An American Ambassador often speaks affectionately of "My Marines." Even more so do we in the Foreign Service cherish "Our Marines."