Chesty Puller

By Sgt Nolle T. Roberts - Originally published June 1948

In Shanghai during the summer of '41, a leathery-faced major dropped into the NCO club where a few non-coms were sampling hair of the well-known dog.

The major was acting battalion commander and the non-coms were crack Marines of a crack outfit-the old Fourth. But they knew that any moment might bring the international explosion which seemed imminent. They knew that they had little more than courage to pit against the massed might of a treacherous enemy.

"What are you going to do if a shooting war starts, Major?" asked a sergeant.

The major thrust his prominent jaw forward and growled:

"I don't know what the United States Government will do; I don't know what Marine Headquarters will do; and I don't know what the regiment will do. But-no orders to the contrary-I'll take my battalion and fight my way the hell back to Frisco."

That's "Chesty" Puller-the Chesty of Haiti and Nicaragua, the Chesty of the South Pacific, and the Chesty of today. He's still tough as knotty pine and cocky as a bantam rooster.

Colonel Lewis Burwell Puller is the same living legend at 50 years of age that he has been during most of the 30 years he has spent in the Marine Corps as an enlisted man and as an officer.

In a respite from the field, he is in New Orleans directing the Eighth Reserve District, but the men who served under him, and a big slice of the civilian population, are glad to know that he has good years ahead, if someone starts another "shooting war."

Col. Puller, a Virginian by birth, had finished only one year at the Virginia Military Institute when he joined the Corps on August 1, 1918.

After graduation from the Third Officers' Training School, in 1919, he was placed on the reserve inactive list. At the end of World War I, Puller resigned his commission in the Corps and enlisted for duty with the Gendarmerie d'Haiti.

Although an enlisted Marine, he rose to the rank of captain in the Haitian outfit and served the apprenticeship which made him one of the world's foremost jungle fighters.

In 1924, he was given a commission as a second lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps. He shoved off for Nicaragua two years later and began his fabulous tour which lasted almost seven years and brought him his first two Navy Crosses.

When the inevitable day arrives on which an ambitious biographer begins to assemble the life stories of the men who have made the reputation of the Marine Corps, the writer will have unusual difficulty with the history of Chesty Puller. It will occupy considerable space in the section devoted to the 1918-1948 period, and will require much sorting of facts from the scores of fanciful tales concocted by the men of Puller's command.

"Pullerisms" are an accepted part of Marine Corps lore, and many have foundations in fact while others are products of vivid imaginations.

The nickname, "Chesty," was a natural in view of the colonel's ramrod stance and belligerent appearance and nature. However, the men of the wartime First Division boasted that Col. Puller had a false "steel chest," apparently replacing the natural bone structure which had been hacked away by machette-swinging bandits in the Banana Wars. A few claimed that he developed the chest from shouting commands above the noise of battle.

"We don't need no frontline communications," men under Puller bragged, "Chesty yells commands up and down the line. You can hear him for miles."

He lived with his men. There were no officers' messes in Puller's outfit and he fell in line with the privates, carrying his own mess gear. In combat, he rigidly refused comforts unattainable for his men, and in training, he carried his own pack and bedding roll while marching at the head of his battalion.

The attitude is no pose. During a 28-day combat patrol through New Britain, he refused to allow native bearers to carry his pack which had been stripped to the barest essentials. Like the men, he adhered to a monotonous diet of "K" rations. He sacked in on the deck or on the bare floor of an abandoned native hut, refusing to allow the natives to make a mattress of banana leaves for him.

While on a long patrol, he sent a runner back to division headquarters with information. The runner asked if there was anything he could get for the colonel, for delivery in the jungle on the first available plane hop.

"Well, old man," growled Chesty, "Get soap, tobacco and mail for the men."

Chesty loves a fight.

After Guadalcanal, where his outfit had turned in a sensational performance, he was rushed back to the States to lecture before officers and men of the three services. Although it was a necessary task and an honorable assignment, Chesty fretted until he was returned to the field. He promptly dispatched a letter to the Commandant which contained this true and typical "Pullerism":

"It is respectfully requested that my present assignment to a combat unit be extended until the downfall of the Japanese government."

Although there may be sharper disciplinarians in the Corps, Col. Puller demands and receives absolute obedience to orders. No "Gung Ho" advocate, his units have a chain of command and the colonel insists that every link in the chain be strong.

The officer or enlisted man who violated security regulations in a combat area was certain to regret it. Although generally soft-spoken, except when roaring commands in the line, the colonel can cut loose a verbal blast that is said to peel the bark off hickory trees.

A lieutenant on Guadalcanal who had come up from the ranks was reprimanded for violating blackout regulations. "Hell." he grumbled, "I was a good sergeant and now I'm told I'm a lousy lieutenant."

The colonel heard the muttering and cut loose a parting blast. "Lieutenant So-and-So," he roared, "you never were a good sergeant!"

But these outbursts are rare. The colonel usually refers to everyone as "old man" and growls his words in a Virginia drawl.

His attention to his men goes beyond the boundaries of his unit area. Every man who went to the brig from his command was brought back before the colonel. The offender was told that the unit needed him, now that he had paid for corking off. Few went back to the brig.

Puller spent available time in the hospitals during combat, seeking out his men. All wounded men of the 1st Battalion received a personal letter from the CO which brought them cheer in those dark days. A typical letter in the scrapbook of one veteran contains the following:

"The officers and men of the 1st Battalion, Seventh Marines, recall with pride the part that you played in our success against the enemy until you received your injury in action.

"They employ this medium to express their appreciation for the part you played while you were here, wish for you a speedy recovery and hope that when you return to further action, it will be with the same outfit.

"They further assure you that until you return and thereafter until the enemy is destroyed, they will continue to fight with ever increasing vigor and determination . . ."

Col. Puller was wounded seven times by shrapnel in one engagement on Guadalcanal, and the incident resulted in one of the most famous "Pullerisms."

Sergeant Leopold Jupiter, a Marine Combat Correspondent, wrote this vivid account from the spot:

"On Guadalcanal where heroes are made, I have found a man whom many call 'the perfect soldier.'

"I picture my perfect soldier to be an inspiring leader of men, a fighting fool, a kind and tolerant officer, and above all, a fearless warrior.

"My attention became focused on Colonel Puller while he was commanding a sharp engagement with the Japanese that began on the afternoon of November 8. He was wounded seven times by shrapnel early in the fight. At dusk, when the dead and wounded were being removed, a doctor pinned a casualty tag on the colonel and suggested that he be evacuated.

"The colonel straightened up from his foxhole, revealing blood-soaked bandages on his arm, leg and foot, and in his deep Virginia drawl shouted: 'Evacuate me, hell! Take that tag and label a bottle with it. I will remain in command!'

"As eager eyes watched him with growing admiration, he remained at the head of his men throughout the night, lying within 300 yards of the enemy."

Col. Puller submitted to evacuation only after his wounded leg had stiffened and he found himself unable to keep up with his men.

"It takes a lifetime to become a good officer," Col. Puller has said.

The key lies in his concept of a "good" officer, which he expounded continuously to the unit leaders of his command and which he practiced in combat.

"Be a model of valor by example and precept," is his motto. And it has brought him four Navy Crosses, a record in the Corps, and an enviable reputation as an outstanding field officer.