USS KEARSARGE, At Sea -- In the tradition of the Royal Navy during the age of sail, from which much of the American naval tradition and order sprang, the Marines aboard a ship were in place with two roles in mind. The first was that of naval infantry; the specialization of ship-to-ship warfare and life at sea dictated that Marines be trained differently from land bound infantry. From this, many of the traditions of the United States Marine Corps have evolved: its naval traditions and verbiage, its tight binding to the sea, and even their nickname of leathernecks, hail from an older time, when Marines existed solely at sea.
The second was the maintenance of order aboard ship. Sailors in that age were as likely to volunteer as they were to be press-ganged, or forcibly removed and placed aboard ship in the service of the Navy, from towns around the naval ports to serve aboard a ship for an open-ended period. Mutiny, while not common, was certainly a more present possibility than it is today. The Marines were a check against that – armed infantry charged with putting down mutinies against the captain of a sailing vessel, keeping the indentured sailors in line.
Obviously, that role has changed.
In the modern era, the place of the Marine Corps is in constant flux. Whether it’s used as a force of shock infantry or as sea-based troops operating primarily off the decks of naval amphibious ships, the modern Marine still very much has a place aboard the vessels of this nation’s Navy. A chosen few Marines take this to a different level, working hand-in-hand with the sailors aboard the ships, in what is known as the ship’s tax.
Ship’s tax is the use of Marines from the unit aboard ship, in this case the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to fill roles in services provided to the Marines riding aboard the ship. An advanced party from the MEU is currently acclimating to this aboard the USS Kearsarge, the amphibious assault ship that will convey a good portion of the MEU around the world during its upcoming deployment.
This leads to placing Marines in all of the galleys, from the flag mess on down to the wardroom and troop mess. Marines also take a role in handling hazardous materials, ship’s laundry, cargo, and embark departments.
“It’s awesome. I think it’s a great experience. No joking,” said Sgt. Michael Harris, wires chief for the 26th MEU from Augusta, Ga., currently seconded to the ship’s laundry section. “This is my first time getting deployed aboard a ship, so it’s kind of a new experience.”
“It’s not too bad at all. They have a different way of breaking things down here; divisions and so forth instead of shops and sections,” said Lance Cpl. Jakob Hansen, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist from Atlanta, Ga. Hansen is currently working in the Hazmat shop aboard the Kearsarge. “Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same. Work hard and get it done.”
“It’s essential to put Marines in some of these roles,” said Cpl. Michael Showalter, a radio operator, currently working in the wardroom galley. While there’s regularly enough sailors to handle the needs of the couple thousand of sailors stationed aboard the Kearsarge, the influx of Marines, nearly doubling the number of bodies aboard, requires more Marines and sailors to handle the demand for hot food, clean laundry, and the other services reinforced by the ship’s tax. The Marines helping these tasks serve both the Navy and the Marines, allowing them to do their jobs aboard ship, supporting the operations of the MEU.
The personnel of the ship’s tax Marines will periodically rotate, so that no one Marine is separated from his unit or section for too long, and to give as many Marines as possible the opportunity to see ship life from the other side. “It gives them more people that can do the job,” said Hansen. “It just helps get the job done.”
The 26th MEU is currently completing the final phase of a six-month pre-deployment training program, preparing for this year’s deployment. The MEU is a task-organized, scalable Marine Air-Ground Task Force, serving as an expeditionary crisis response force operating from the sea, and capable of conducting amphibious operations across the full range of military operations.