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.