MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
On any given day, Butler Stadium can be found teeming with activity—sporting events, training, ceremonies, or just unit physical training. Located in the heart of main side, the 100-year-old stadium sits between John Quick Road and McCard Road, just west of Barber Physical Activity Center. While it serves as a popular place for both recreation and exercise for Marines and their families, Butler Stadium holds its own rich history.
The stadium received its name from the former base commander and legendary Marine, Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, who, according to records was likely the Marine Corps’ biggest advocate for football and other sports. Butler believed a greater emphasis on sports would have a positive impact on the Corps and its Marines. This included boosting morale, gaining popularity for the Corps in the general public, and assisting recruiting efforts. Records of Butler’s official correspondence and letters show that he dearly loved his Marines and their football team.
Although the “Quantico Marines” football team was created a year before he took command in 1920, Butler pushed for the team to travel, bringing the Marines Corps into the public eye. Everywhere the team played, thousands of Marines, including Butler, were there to cheer them on. Even though the team gained popularity, they didn’t have their own facilities to play at Quantico. As a result Brig. Gen. Butler began his ambitious plan to build “the world’s largest stadium.” In a letter sent to the president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, Butler stated:
“This command has voted to build itself a stadium for athletic contests, open air moving pictures, and general assembly, holding approximately 33,000 people. You may think that a capacity of 33,000 is unnecessarily large, but the men feel that they wish to do this work as a tribute to the memories of all the 33,000 Marines who have died in the uniform of their Corps since its organization on November 10, 1775. The idea is that eventually each seat will bear a little bronze plate with the name of one of our dead.”
Many found this goal to be unrealistic considering the lack of appropriated funds. There were many critics of Butler’s ambitious product, the most notable being Charles Adams, the secretary of the Navy at the time. According to Butler’s autobiography, Adams previously disliked him from past interactions and therefore told Butler the project was “one of your (Butler’s) follies.” Others thought that taking so many Marines away from their regular jobs wasn’t worth the time or effort of the project. Butler did not let this deter him in the slightest and the project continued. It was halted many times due to training exercises and other military responsibilities; the stadium wasn’t officially completed until after World War II.
According to documentation, only about $5,000 went into the stadium, which paid for the cement needed for the stands and support structures. Butler got creative and looked elsewhere for resources. Iron was salvaged from old World War I bases that had closed down, rail donations from the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Company reinforced the bleachers, and local contractors agreed to donate sand and gravel. The stadium was cut straight out of the side of the valley, earning itself the nickname “Butler’s Colosseum.” All of the trees, stumps, and rocks were manually moved out before digging could begin and a stream that cut through the site was redirected by a six-foot concrete drain pipe that was installed.
Butler stated in his letters that his Marines voted to do the labor and pay for as much as they could themselves. Therefore, all of the labor for the stadium came from the Marines aboard Quantico. Butler used the construction to offer lessons of leadership to the Marines. Not a single Marine was exempt from the construction duty; from Butler himself and all of his officers, all the way down to enlisted privates. On this project, rank was irrelevant. Butler’s only sympathy went to the members of the Quantico Band, who were concerned the hard labor required would damage their hands. Butler agreed, but decided that any time a single Marine was working on construction, there would be a band there to play while they worked to boost morale.
“We had to excavate a large quantity of earth with old fashioned steam-shovels. Together with about 150 men from my battalion we worked some 80 days on the stadium. We moved about 19,307 cubic yards of earth, 200 excavations for concrete pillars were dug, 197 pillars were poured, 30 rails were laid, 381 concrete slabs were placed, and concrete footing were poured for all stone walls,” said Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, a young officer stationed on Quantico at the time.
A popular story comes from the alleged events that took place at a 1928 game of the “Quantico Marines” versus the Navy’s football team in the half completed stadium. After the Navy destroyed the Marines with a 42-0 first half, the Navy band began to play “Anchors Aweigh” during the halftime. However, the Navy drum major made the mistake of punting Sgt. Maj. Jiggs, the Marines’ bulldog mascot, down the field. While Jiggs was unharmed, Butler would not stand by and watch his team and his dog be defeated by the Navy. Letting out a scream of, “Chaaaarge!” Butler pointed to the Navy’s side of the field, resulting in, “a good old fashioned riot.” The Navy band, having started the fight, attempted to stop them by playing the “Star Spangled Banner,” in hopes that the service members would all stand at attention. This worked; however, only after 16 choruses of the anthem played.
Since the original construction, the stadium has gone through several renovations to keep it useable, the latest took place in September 2011. It brought major changes and updates such as an artificial turf field with the Marine Corps logo at the center, new drainage systems, replacement field goals, replacement of damaged seating and railings, new sealant on the stone walls, new concrete in worn areas, and renovation of the press box and VIP seating area. This year of work made the stadium look the way it does today.
The stadium now holds just as much fighting spirit as it did during the time of Butler and his Marines. The love of competition remains a trait found all across the Marine Corps and Butler Stadium stands to represent the hard work and determination of the Marines that originally dug it out of the ground nearly 100 years ago.