ARLINGTON, Va. -- They slowly emerge from behind the Marine Corps shrine like an apparition, four platoons in dress blues, turning sharply to echoing, guttural commands.
One platoon splits off and marches toward the crowd, their bayoneted rifles set at a 45-degree angle. There are no commands. The muggy night air is pierced only by sharp metallic "chunks" -- the slap of gloved hands against weapons.
They mechanically weave into intricate patterns, twirling their 10 1/2 -pound rifles with the swiftness of a baton. A Marine finally hurls the M-1 rifle over his head to an awaiting inspector, Marine Cpl. Terione D. Todd. He catches it mid-stock, with one hand. His steely posture never bends.
Hundreds of spectators, spread on a patchwork of blankets and lawn chairs, erupt in raucous applause, laced with several cries of "Yeah!" an astonished "Geez!" and a single "Hoo-ah!" the throaty victory call of the Corps.
The famous sculpture of the Marines struggling to raise the flag on Iwo Jima serves as a backdrop. Olympian at 72 feet tall, moss green with age, its huge flag fluttering and illuminated, it possesses an almost mystical tug. Set in gold letters at its base are the words: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue." In the hazy distance loom the tips of the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome.
Forget the visitors' gallery in Congress. Bypass the latest exhibit at the National Gallery. Get out of that endless, curling line at the Washington Monument. The best free summer show in Washington begins precisely at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays when the "Silent Drill Platoon" assembles at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial for the weekly "Sunset Parade."
For more than 40 years, the platoon has been performing at the memorial and at the Marine Barracks at 8th and I streets, S.E., where an "Evening Parade" complete with dramatic searchlights takes place Friday at 8 p.m. These hour-long shows of march and drill are equal parts patriotic festival and recruiting tool.
When Walter Cronkite reviewed the parade on a recent Friday he told the Marines he wanted to enlist. The close-order precision of the platoon, together with the brassy marches and popular tunes from the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, provides a night of pomp and parade so spine-tingling and toe-tapping it could prompt Saddam Hussein to salute Old Glory.
Cenon Naval, a 44-year-old marketing representative from Bethesda, sits cross-legged on the grass at the memorial with other spectators, mesmerized by the colorful display. He came to his first parade on July 3, 1987, at the Marine Barracks. He's been going to both the Evening and Sunset parades ever since. He's missed only one in 10 years.
Naval, who went to school at Valley Forge Military Academy and College, a prep school in Wayne, Pa., has never served in uniform, although he calls himself "very pro-military." His co-workers wonder if he ever gets bored, but he tells them "you learn something every week." Still, his favorite part is at the beginning when five officers and enlisted men with gleaming swords march in winged formation down the center of the field.
"It embodies all the essence of the parade," he says. "It's simple. It's disciplined."
The parade had its beginnings in the unlikeliest of places -- Bermuda.
In the mid-1950s, Col. Leonard F. Chapman Jr., then commander of Marine Barracks Washington, was invited to Britain's island possession to watch the Royal Marines' renowned "Searchlight Tattoo."
Tattoo is slang for "tap toe," a Dutch word for turning off the tap of a wine barrel. In the 16th century, a military drummer would march through the streets, signaling innkeepers to stop selling drinks and allow the soldiers to return to their barracks.
It evolved into an end-of-the-day ceremony for lowering the flag. The drummer was joined by a fife player. Over the years, military bands were added, illuminated by flares and later searchlights.
"I was really impressed," recalls the 83-year-old Chapman, in a phone interview from his summer home in Tennessee. "I got our officers together and said, 'Why don't we do our parade at night?' And we did."
For more than 150 years, Marine Barracks Washington -- "The Oldest Post of the Corps" and dating to 1801 -- had been ceremonially lowering its flag around 5 p.m., attended by a few hundred spectators, mostly barracks personnel and their families. But a late-evening parade bathed in floodlights was an instant success with the public when it began July 5, 1957.
"From the very first parade we had up to 3,000 spectators," says Chapman, who went on to lead all Marines as commandant in 1968. It was so popular that the Marines decided to add a second parade at the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1967.
The Sunset Parade is smaller than the Evening Parade, which also includes the U.S. Marine Corps Band, known as "The President's Own," and two additional Marine platoons. They spread out in front of the red brick buildings, whose ramparts produce a castle-like appearance.
Chapman attended some Evening Parades last year and says his favorite part comes at the very end. "The troops march off and the lights go off," he remembers, "and the bugler comes out on the ramparts and plays Taps."
The twin events quickly became Washington institutions, each with a ceremonial reviewing official. President Lyndon Johnson reviewed the Marines one night, as did Prince Philip of Great Britain. Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the former commander of troops in Vietnam, had that honor along with Gen. Curtis LeMay, a cigar-chomping World War II bombing strategist who led the Air Force in the 1960s.
The parades also went on the road, performing at Marine and veterans events around the country as well as at colleges and universities.
The Vietnam years
But during the Vietnam War, the drum and bugle corps was doused with beer by college protesters, who drowned out the "Marine Corps Hymn" with boos. "Our country was so divided, and it certainly wasn't fashionable to be a Marine," says Col. Truman W. Crawford, who has led the Drum and Bugle Corps since 1967.
Annoyed by the protests, Vince Lombardi, then coach of the Green Bay Packers, invited the entire Marine parade group to perform as a halftime show. The Packers even handed out tiny flags to fans, who waved them from the stands.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter reviewed the parade and had a request: that they go up to Camp David, where he was about to hold a meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin that would produce a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process.
"We had two weeks to focus on it and make it happen," says Crawford. But he recalls the first words out of Sadat's mouth after the performance: "What a marvelous art form."
Cpl. Terione Todd never heard of the Silent Drill Platoon until he finished boot camp and arrived at Camp LeJeune, N.C., in the fall of 1994 for infantry training.
His first sergeant told him about a "spit and polish" unit based in Washington, believing Todd had the bearing and skills to be one of the 24 select members. Todd survived the screening from visiting Silent Drill recruiters, who also cull Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Watching the precision of the platoon at the 8th and I barracks, Todd yearned to be part of the elite unit. He'd been a part of a high school Junior Army ROTC drill team in North Philadelphia. But this was more rigorous, more exacting. He wondered if he could make it.
"I didn't think I was going to be good enough or fit in," the Marine says.
He forced himself to train. Like the others selected, he began an apprenticeship as a member of an honor guard, adding color and flourish to ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon. And he took part in the burials at Arlington National Cemetery, accompanying the Marine body bearers, whose unofficial motto is: "The last to let you down."
The real work began in the winter of 1995 at a Marine base in Yuma, Ariz., where Todd and other Silent Platoon hopefuls spent 12 to 14 hours each day for six weeks learning the routine. Chilly mornings stretched into hellish afternoons as temperatures hovered around 100 degrees.
Marching back and forth on a parking lot, they repeatedly polished the 11-minute routine.
Over and over they would march. A maze-like routine called "Crazy House." A rifle twirling portion that misses each member by inches. It's called "Meat Grinder."
The M-1's bayonet, although chrome and ceremonial, has a sharp point that has lashed into more than one platoon member -- although not Todd. Last year there were more than 60 stitches. But the Marines are taught to keep their bearing and march on.
Twirling the M-1 was the most difficult for Todd, now 20. Platoon members must be able to spin the rifle and march -- without looking at the weapon. They should be able to complete some of the close-order routines with their eyes closed.
Todd dropped his rifle 10 times in training. "You just do it over and over until it's right," he says. There are more than six months of practice before a new member of the Silent Drill Platoon performs before the public.
More than half the trainees wash out during winter training at Yuma and spend their two years on ceremonial escort duty and as one of the other platoons that accompanies the Silent Drill Platoon.
But Todd made it to the elite unit. While carrying the M-1 in the platoon his rifle never fell to the ground.
Before each of the Tuesday and Friday night performances, there are two practice sessions. Marines stand on the edge of the parade field, marking each error on a clipboard, no matter how insignificant: A delayed salute, a slight bow in the line, a lagging cadence are all marked on a sheet and shared with the platoon.
This year, Todd serves as one of two "inspectors" for the Silent Drill Platoon, walking at a slow pace down the long line of blue and white, catching the rifle, twirling it and spinning it back to the Marine in a flurry of dizzying motions: "the helo-side winder," "the wrist breaker" and "the over-the-shoulder."
With all eyes on you, "it tends to put more stress on you to do a better job," he says.
His first night out this year, he dropped the weapon during the first inspection. But the Silent Drill members are taught not to panic but to simply work the mishap into the routine: Todd snapped his head down, picked up the rifle with both hands and twirled it into the night sky. "It's all part of the performance," he says.
On this night at the Marine Corps War Memorial, Todd spins the M-1 flawlessly and hurls it over his back. The Marine, staring straight ahead, catches it mid-stock. And Todd marches into the darkness to cheers.
Both Silent Drill Platoon parades are free and reservations are not required, although it's a good idea to reserve seats at the Evening Parade at the Marine Barracks to get the best ones. For information, call 202-433-6060.
Tuesday, 7 p.m. through the last Tuesday in August at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington, Va., at the intersection of Route 110 and Marshall Drive. Wide lawns provide ample room for blankets and folding chairs. No other seating is available. It's a short walk from the Rosslyn Metro station, which is on the Blue and Orange lines. There is no public parking at the Memorial Grounds during the performance. Guests may park at the Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center, $2.50 for the first hour and 50 cents for each additional hour. The Marines provide a free shuttle service from the visitors center from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. before the parade and from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. after the parade.
Friday, 8 p.m. through the last Friday in August at the Marine Barracks, Washington, 8th and I streets, S.E. The gates open at 7 p.m. The only public seating is in bleachers, which can accommodate 5,600 spectators. Parking is available at the Washington Navy Yard, 2nd and M streets, S.E. Free Marine shuttles to the barracks begin at 7 p.m. and run until 8: 30 p.m. After the show, the shuttle runs from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. back to the Navy Yard. The barracks are two blocks from the Eastern Market Metro station on the Blue and Orange lines.
Pub Date: 7/28/97