Men who enlist in the Marine Corps east of the Mississippi River and all women joining the Corps must first report to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, for four hellish months of physical training and conditioning. If they make it through, they emerge as Marines. An important teaching tool there is the Parris Island Museum, where raw recruits—and visiting civilians—can learn about the service’s heritage and the rich history of the island where Marines leave behind civilian life and become warriors.
The museum is located in a circa-1951 building that once housed an enlisted recreation center, was later transformed into the War Memorial Building, and dedicated as the museum in 1975 by then-Marine Commandant General Robert E. Cushman Jr.
Today the 10,000-square-foot building contains artifacts specific to the Marine Corps’ history from the turn of the 19th century to the present and also concentrates on the Parris Island and Port Royal area.
The heart of the museum consists of a two-story octagonal hall displaying uniforms and pictures that tell the island’s story. An introductory film describes present-day Parris Island and the process of training Marines. It cleverly contrasts the beautiful beaches of nearby Hilton Head, South Carolina, with the flea-ridden dunes of Parris Island.
The recruitment-training displays explain how the island became home to new enlistees in 1915 and has since produced more than one million Marines who have served their country all over the world. The exhibits in the main hall include an old field-drill sergeant’s hat, a female Marine’s 1948 uniform, and an M1 Garand rifle, the standard U.S. infantry weapon of World War II.
The Parris Island exhibits provide much more than the story of the Marine recruiting station. The museum traces the European cultural record of the region as far back as the 1500s, through artifacts from the French and Spanish colonies. It also describes the land and naval battles of the American Revolution and Civil War. Especially impressive is an interactive battle map of the 7 April 1863 naval attack on Charleston, during which Union ironclads tried to run a gauntlet of fire from Confederate batteries.
In addition, the museum’s website takes viewers back even further in time, covering the Native American and natural history of the region, with articles treating the Paleo-Indian period (more 10,000 years ago) through the Mississippean period (during the early 1500s). It also contains articles on Charlesfort, the French colony on Parris Island (1562–63); Spain’s colony Santa Elena I (1566–1576); and the 1715 sale of the island from Edward Archer to Alexander Parris, who laid its first plantations raising food, cattle, and indigo (sea-island cotton was grown into the next century using slave labor until the Civil War).
The second floor of the museum is dedicated to a more recent chronicle of the Corps, from 1900 to the present. The exhibits highlight its actions in Mexico, Central America and the Gulf of Mexico, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, international peacekeeping missions, the first Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its many displays include a doughboy helmet with a 2nd Infantry Division emblem (the Marines were attached to the Army unit during World War I), a Marine officer’s sword from the USS Arizona (BB-39), and a sight from a grenade launcher retrieved from Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
As part of its oral-history program, the museum features touch-screen kiosks that tell the stories of former Marines, their experiences as trainees on the island, and their time in the service. Their memories span many years of American history.
Marine uniforms, weapons, and equipment, as well as those of the United States’ various adversaries, historic photographs, and information for context, comprise each display. One particularly interesting exhibit includes a uniform designed for pregnant Marines. Before the 1970s, a female Marine who became pregnant was immediately discharged. The times, and the Corps, have changed.
The Parris Island Museum also houses a gift shop named after the late Phyllis Alexander, a retired chief warrant officer and former island drill instructor. The shop stocks numerous Marine Corps items, including clothes and memorabilia, many of which are exclusively designed for Parris Island.
Parris Island Museum
- Bldg. 111, Marine Corps Recruit Depot
- Parris Island, South Carolina 29905
- Tel.: (843) 228-2951
- Open daily 1000–1630
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter
- Admission free