Parris Island is in coastal Beaufort County and is approximately four miles long and three miles wide. The famous Marine Corps Recruit training base is surrounded by Port Royal harbor and the Beaufort and Broad Rivers, and includes Archer’s, Ballast, and Ribbon Creeks. Parris Island is a protected sea and animal wildlife refuge that lists structures on the Register of National Historic Sites. Another recruit depot is in San Diego, California, but Parris Island is older and trains all female Marine recruits.
The French built and then abandoned Charlesfort on Parris Island in 1562. The Spanish subsequently occupied the island and built Santa Elena. The English crown first granted the island to Robert Daniel in 1698. It was later purchased by Edward Archer, who in 1715 sold it to Colonel Alexander Parris, whose name for the island survived.
The Parris Island vicinity fell to Union forces during the Civil War in November 1861. During Reconstruction and after, the spacious Port Royal harbor welcomed all types of ships, and a Port Royal (Parris Island) Naval Station was formally dedicated on June 26, 1891. A hurricane and tidal wave inundated the island on August 28, 1893, and it was reported that several thousand persons died along the South Carolina coast.
Between 1909 and 1911 a Parris Island Marine Officers’ School was founded, and a temporary recruit training program was short-lived. Parris Island in 1911 was designated the U.S. Naval Disciplinary Barracks, Port Royal, a military prison site. Yet, as World War I neared, U.S. Marines warranted a unified and larger facility to replace its recruit training at Norfolk, Virginia, and at other naval bases in the United States.
The Port Royal Naval Station was transferred to the Marine Corps on October 25, 1915, and was renamed Marine Barracks, Port Royal. However, the Port Royal mailing address resulted in confusion between the base and the nearby town of Port Royal. The Marines accepted the designation Marine Barracks, Paris (spelled with one r) Island. In 1919 the Marine Corps clarified that the colonel’s name was spelled with two r’s, and the correct spelling, Parris, was adopted.
The island base expanded from 1915 to 1917, and especially when the United States entered World War I. Parris Island trained approximately 46,000 World War I recruits. The base was connected to the mainland during the 1920s via the construction of an earthen causeway and a bridge spanning Archer’s Creek. The Great Depression threatened Parris Island’s closing during the 1930s, when recruit training was significantly curtailed. The Naval Disciplinary Barracks closed in 1933, but a Page Field aviation facility became operational in 1934. A devastating 1940 hurricane severely damaged Parris Island but inadvertently contributed to the growth and modernization of the base on the eve of World War II.
Parris Island from 1941 to 1945 trained 240,509 World War II recruits. The tremendous base expansion greatly altered the Beaufort vicinity, more so than during the previous war. In 1946 the base was designated as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, as the demands of war-time training were greatly reduced. Yet, the respite was brief. The Korean War (1950–1953) revitalized the base, which saw the largest number of recruits in training on the island at any one time. In 1952 there were 21,540 recruits.
During the mid and late 1950s Parris Island entered a modernization period that introduced permanent brick recruit barracks and more beautification of the base. Scores of old buildings were razed or removed from the post. Parris Island received international attention when a training accident resulted in the deaths of six recruits, who drowned in Ribbon Creek, on April 8, 1956. The ensuing investigation resulted in significant changes to the recruit training program.
An impressive off-base Broad River Bridge was dedicated in 1958. It and one other span reduced the distance from Parris Island to Savannah, Georgia, by half. The bridges facilitated remarkable growth in the South Carolina lowcountry and on Hilton Head. More modernization and base expansion ensued during and after the Vietnam War.
Parris Island was designated as Marine Corps Recruit Depot / Eastern Recruiting Region, Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1983. Visitors to the base were welcome to attend recruit graduations and to visit the Parris Island Museum and designated location of Charlesfort. Parris Island has been the subject of numerous motion pictures, documentaries, and books.
Alvarez, Eugene. Parris Island. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2002.