Virginian Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller was an all-American hero who served in conflicts around the world including the Pacific in World War II and the Korean War in the 1950s. He was a Marine, and even although he died almost 50 years ago, he is still a legend within the ranks of that elite U.S. military outfit.
Puller was born in June 1898 in West Point, Virginia, to parents Matthew and Martha. His father was a grocer, but sadly, he died when Puller was just ten years old. It has been said that the fatherless boy would while away many childhood hours listening to tales of derring-do from old campaigners from the American Civil War.
That conflict had ended in 1865 – not much more than 30 years before Puller was born – so there was every chance that the impressionable young lad met veterans who had actually participated in the war. Indeed, legendary Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was apparently a particular hero of the youngster’s.
In 1916 the teenaged Puller was eager to see some action for himself and to generate some war stories of his own. The young Virginian attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army so that he could play his part in the Border War with Mexico. Alas, he was too young to join on his own say-so, and his widowed mother refused to give the required permission. And so Puller’s first attempt to get into active service was thwarted – but it would not stay that way for long.
In 1917 Puller finally succeeded in joining the U.S. fighting forces. Or at least he managed to enroll for training at the Virginia Military Institute. But life at the oldest service college in the States was not enough for the ambitious young cadet. He reportedly announced his intention to “go where the guns are!” when the U.S. joined World War I in April of that year.
With this in mind, Puller left the Virginia institution in August 1918 and joined the United States Marine Corps. Signing up as a private, he was sent for training to the elite branch’s boot camp on Parris Island in South Carolina. Puller was said to have been attracted to the Marines by reports of their determined fighting at the ferocious 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood in France. This is when the opposing German forces gave members of the corps the nickname of “Teufelhunden,” or Devil Dogs. And Puller, for one, was certainly pulling at the leash…
But unfortunately for our hero, World War I ended that November – before Puller got a chance to fire a shot in anger. And worse still, after the Virginian graduated as a second lieutenant from officer training school in his home state in 1919, peacetime cutbacks to the Marines meant he was surplus to requirements.
But as we have seen, Puller was nothing if not determined, and he re-enlisted as a corporal almost immediately. He was now posted to Haiti to join the paramilitary police, the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, where he was given the rank of lieutenant. This force was tasked with keeping the peace in the Caribbean country while it was occupied by the U.S. And in his five years in Haiti, Puller was involved in some 40 operations against insurgents.
After his Caribbean service, Puller’s lieutenancy in the Marines was restored in 1924, and for the next four years he largely served on various bases around Virginia as a trainer. In 1928 another foreign posting came up for the now 30-year-old. This time Puller was to travel to Nicaragua to fight guerilla forces who were opposed to the U.S. occupation of the Central American country. The rebels, led by August Sandino, were known as the Sandinista – a name still familiar in modern Nicaraguan politics.
It was while serving in Nicaragua that Puller earned the first official recognition of his bravery: a Navy Cross. This is the second-highest military award available for outstanding courage in action. And for Puller, the medal came after a sustained period of fighting in 1930 when he was in command of the Nicaraguan National Guard troop.
Puller’s Navy Cross award citation stated that he had led his men in “five successful engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces… with the result that the bandits were in each engagement completely routed with losses of nine killed and many wounded.” The commendation also went on to praise his “intelligent and forceful leadership.” But that would not be the last we heard of the officer’s brains and brawn…
Puller found himself back in the U.S. in 1931 for a 12-month company officers course at Fort Benning in Georgia. He then returned to service in Nicaragua towards the end of the next year. And brief though this second visit may have been, the intrepid Puller still found time to win his second Navy Cross. In fact, the Virginian was only in the country for little more than a week. Yet he nevertheless engaged in a ferocious series of actions against the Sandinistas that won favor with the powers that be. This time the medal citation highlighted Puller’s “indomitable courage and persistence.”
His time in Central America at an end, Puller was now posted to China, where he joined a unit known as the China Marines. The task of this detachment was to guard the American diplomatic service in Beijing. And over the next few years, Puller’s service was divided between East Asia, time spent on board the USS Augusta and a stint back home as a trainer in Philadelphia.
In August 1941 the lieutenant travelled to North Carolina and took up command of a Marine battalion there. It was good timing, too, because on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the U.S. entered World War II. In September of the following year, Puller and his unit were posted to the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. And the seasoned scourge of guerrilla forces soon led his men into action against the Japanese in the notorious six-month campaign on the largest of the Solomon Islands.
Indeed, Puller’s service in Guadalcanal would see him pick up his third Navy Cross, this one towards the end of October 1942. On the night of heroism in question, tropical rainfall was pouring from the South Pacific skies. Meanwhile, Puller’s battalion and a second infantry unit were in a battle line that stretched for about a mile, defending the perimeter of Henderson Field. For the record, Henderson Field was an air base that the Marines had captured from the Japanese earlier in the year.
Now in one of their repeated attempts to reclaim the airfield, the enemy launched a night attack with a force greatly outnumbering the U.S. presence. A three-hour exchange ensued, and the American defenders suffered some 70 casualties. About 1,400 Japanese combatants were killed during the hostilities, and the enemy failed in their objective. The citation for this Navy Cross highlighted Puller’s actions in “courageously withstanding the enemy’s desperate and determined attacks…” In addition, it said that the now-lieutenant colonel was “largely responsible for the successful defense of the sector assigned to his troops.”
Puller’s next outstanding display of boldness and bravery came in January 1944. By now he was elsewhere in the Pacific, leading his men on the New Guinea island of New Britain. At the Battle of Cape Gloucester, Puller’s unit came under a punishing barrage of Japanese machine gun and mortar fire. The lieutenant colonel led his men in a successful counteroffensive, though, overwhelming strongly defended enemy positions. And as a consequence of this courage in combat, Puller was awarded his fourth Navy Cross.
In November 1944 the much-decorated Puller returned to the U.S. and took command of the Infantry Training Regiment based at Camp Lejeune at Jacksonville, NC. Then after the conclusion of World War II, other commands in New Orleans and at Pearl Harbor came his way. But nevertheless Puller still retained his appetite for action. In June 1950 the Korean War broke out – and gave Puller another chance to show what the Marines could do.
By now a fully fledged colonel, Puller led the First Marine Regiment ashore at Incheon in South Korea in September 1950 and later received the Silver Star Medal for his valiant efforts. Then three months later, Puller’s bravery at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir won him an incredible fifth Navy Cross. It was while he was serving in Korea that Puller also made one of his most famous statements – at a time when his unit was surrounded by enemy troops. In 1999 the service newspaper Marine Corps Times recalled his astonishing words; he’d said, “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us… They can’t get away this time.”
As well as the five Navy Crosses and numerous campaign medals that Puller won, he was awarded an Army Distinguished Service Cross, making him the most decorated of all U.S. Marines. After his almost four decades in the elite service, Puller finally retired in 1955, and he later died in 1971 at the age of 73. He was posthumously made a lieutenant general, but despite this and his chestful of medals, some Marines actually feel Puller was hard done by. They point to the fact that the hero did not receive the highest U.S. award – the Medal of Honor. And it is certainly difficult to believe that his incredible derring-do did not deserve this recognition. As successive Marine cadets are reported to have said at the end of a given day during boot camp, “Good night, Chesty, wherever you are!”