Chesty: The Story Of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller - Pt. 2

By LtCol Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR - Originally Published October 2001

Excerpted from “Chesty” with the permission of Random House

His Last Years
Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller's last few years in the Corps were like a roller coaster. In the spring of 1950, he had expected to retire soon as a colonel. When the Korean War exploded on the scene that summer, he exclaimed: "I knew if I got to Korea I wouldn't be through." He led the First Marine Regiment through some tough fighting, and his reward was promotion to brigadier general. But upon his return to the States in 1951, his intemperate public remarks about the performance of the other services and soft training got him into enough hot water to boil a boatload of lobsters. He soon lamented: "I hope I don't get hung." The Corps still valued Puller's skills as a combat leader, however. He made major general in late 1953 and received orders to take charge of the Second Marine Division the following summer. It looked like things were going his way again.

The only ripple in Puller's new pond of contentment came in the spring of 1954 when he began to be troubled by swollen ankles. Instead of checking with military medical authorities, he visited his nephew, a doctor who lived in San Diego. The younger man told his uncle the problem was a sign of heart disease. Puller took the medication prescribed and made no mention of the problem to Navy doctors. (They already knew that he was suffering from mildly high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.) The general was not about to let any medical issue become a stumbling block in achieving his goal of commanding a division.

The Pullers drove across the country to Camp Lejeune, N.C., with an undercurrent of anxiety throughout the journey. Virginia did most of the driving in deference to her husband's high blood pressure and swollen ankles. Even the children vaguely understood that his problem was serious enough to warrant concern. Chesty, still seeking to keep his medical condition quiet, soon visited his nephew's friend, who practiced in nearby Wilmington.

Puller's tour with the 2dMarDiv began on 1 July with a formal division parade. When it was time to make his remarks, habit interfered with the opening of his brief speech: "It gives me great pleasure to assume command of the Ist Marine Division." A ripple of suppressed laughter in the ranks brought him up short and he corrected his error, but no one could blame him for the slip after his long association with the First. Most men got no more than a distant and fleeting glimpse of their new commander. They all knew he was a "giant" in the Corps, however, and many stood just a little taller and prouder at the sight of his ramrod posture and steadfast gaze. Chesty finally had the division command he had sought for so many years.

He soon had something else he had not desired. Due to a delay in the arrival of another general, the Commandant (General Lemuel Shepherd) assigned Puller to temporary additional duty as base commander. That necessitated supervision of a second staff and an entirely different set of challenges. Chesty's schedule was demanding and hectic as he performed both roles.

On 26 Aug., wearing his division commander "hat," he spent the afternoon inspecting the battalion landing team heading out to the Mediterranean a few days hence. It was a hot, humid Carolina summer day, but he stopped to check each weapon as he moved down the ranks of a thousand officers and men. That night he was out very late at a social event.

At the office the next morning, Puller was extremely tired and somewhat disoriented. He had difficulty signing papers, and Captain Marc Moore (his aide) thought the general was suffering from a bad hangover. While making his way to the staff mess, he walked into a wall. He missed the ashtray when he tried to stub out a cigarette and had trouble using his fork. The assistant division commander thought his boss "didn't look natural" and soon noticed Puller was staring vacantly. He quietly told Moore to escort the general to a nearby clinic. They barely had gotten out into the passageway when Chesty sagged against his aide and nearly blacked out. A few minutes and a wild car ride later, he was lying on an examining table in the clinic.

The young Navy doctor on duty thought the general looked "acutely ill." His blood pressure was an extremely high 194/126, and he could not properly perform simple tests of his motor skills. The lieutenant decided his patient had suffered a mild stroke and called for an ambulance to take him to the base hospital.

After his arrival at the bigger medical facility, Puller attempted to stand up. He immediately collapsed and went into convulsions. Medical staff rushed to his side and sedated him with an injection. Subsequent tests of his reflexes were symptomatic of a stroke-a deterioration of brain function due to decreased flow of blood, either from a clot obstructing an artery or from loss of blood due to a burst vessel. An electrocardiogram revealed some blockage in the arteries around his heart, as well as a pattern of strain as his heart struggled to pump blood out to his body. If the latter condition worsened, it could lead to a heart attack. Having lost awareness during this period, Puller later would recall that his only problem this day had been a slight twitching in his forearm at the infirmary.

Virginia stayed with him throughout the night and the next day. Puller's blood pressure decreased, but "his speech was irrational and somewhat thick." That evening he began to show "steady and consistent improvement." By the third day, he could sit up in bed without assistance. At the end of a week, the doctors took him off the serious list. He already was joking about the endless tests and minimizing what had happened. The examinations showed continuing abnormalities, however, with his vision. Tests also showed some heart enlargement, which, along with his high blood pressure, proved that his heart was working much harder than it should. The physicians confirmed the initial diagnosis of a stroke and ascribed it to a blood clot.

The wire services beamed the incident around the nation. The news brought thousands of cards and letters to Camp Lejeune from senior officers and lieutenants, from first sergeants and privates, from veterans and civilians. General Oliver P. Smith made sure Chesty understood what that outpouring meant: "You may not realize it, but all hands in the Marine Corps were pulling for your rapid recovery. You occupy in their affections a place which no other officer does. You have every reason to be proud and grateful for the respect and affection you have earned."

As September progressed, Chesty's outward symptoms slowly disappeared. Since he was feeling "no ill effects from my sickness," he was soon convinced it had been nothing more than a bit of heat prostration. The physicians admitted he was making "remarkable improvement," but that did not mean he was completely healthy. His blood pressure remained high, and his heart and arteries were still impaired. Chesty's only concession to his condition was to rest as ordered, cut back on cigarettes and chew more tobacco. He told a friend that his wife was not entirely pleased with the latter change in habit: "I try to keep out of Virginia's sight, but she has suspicions and is willing to put up with it [only] as long as I do not smoke so much."

Among the letters that Puller received during his convalescence was one from a retired Marine general who raised a cautionary flag: "Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but anyone who has been through what you have, will probably be threatened with retirement." The official establishment had not yet broached that subject with Chesty. Shepherd's letters to Puller spoke of the major general getting "in top shape again" and referred to an October inspection of "your division."

Puller already had considered the possibility of his health bringing his career to a premature end. On 14 Sept. he wrote: "I was told unofficially [by the doctors] I could not be retired, and no retirement board could give me any disability at this time." Soon after, Chesty assured the Commandant: "There was no heart attack or stroke." His responses to well-- wishers repeated that claim and added: "I can't understand who gave the papers that story that was exaggerated to such an extent around the country." Fuller was putting a much better face on his condition than the situation warranted. The doctors kept him on sick leave throughout October.

On 29 Oct., Chesty went before a board of medical survey at the base hospital to determine if he was fit for duty. The three physicians noted that he no longer showed residual affects of the August incident, though he still suffered from arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure. Their concluding diagnosis was that he had high blood pressure that was "mild in character" and "not disabling." They pronounced him fit for full duty, but also explained that the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (Bulled) would have to review his case and make the final decision. The new diagnosis reflected Puller's condition at the time of the board; it did not alter the belief of the physicians that their patient indeed had suffered a stroke. Chesty chose to interpret their pronouncement differently. He was certain there had been no stroke, and he wanted to believe the doctors also had changed their minds about what had happened.

As Chesty marked his 37th Marine Corps birthday in November, a Navy captain at Bulled reviewed the work of the Lejeune medical board. Doctor Robert Bell differed with those conclusions: "In my opinion this officer is not now and will not at any time in the future be physically qualified to command a combat division. I believe he should be retired at this time for physical disability. It is my understanding that the Commandant of the Marine Corps will not presume to direct the medical decision in this case. Further. that the Commandant strongly desires that no officer be retained in a duty status unless fully qualified physically to perform such duty."

A week later, Bell made an additional report to the Navy's surgeon general: "I have had extensive conversations with [the director of personnel at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps] who in turn has discussed it on numerous occasions with Gen Shepherd. He apparently will go along with Med. Dept. but feels that so sick a man should be retired and not carried on the active list."

The chief of the bureau was Admiral Herbert L. Pugh. By chance, he and Puller had served together in the 3d Officers Training Class in 1919. Normally Pugh would have been responsible for the final decision on Chesty's case, but he himself was recovering from a heart attack.

On 19 Nov., Bulled placed its endorsement on the report of the Lejeune board: "It is considered desirable that this officer, for his own good as well as that of the service, receive further special study in a specially equipped and staffed center. In view of the foregoing it is recommended that he be transferred to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, for further study, evaluation and report." The brief ruling was signed "by direction" for Pugh by CAPT Bell. Puller was "surprised and chagrined" at this completely unexpected turn of events.

On I Dec. 1954, Chesty was admitted to Bethesda. For the next two weeks he underwent tests. The doctors confirmed the problems with his heart and arteries. A new test also revealed "minimal generalized abnormalities" in his brain that were consistent with damage inflicted by a mild stroke.

Although the doctors initially indicated that Chesty was healthy enough to perform limited duty, Bell informed him that it was Bulled policy that anyone who had suffered a stroke could not continue on active duty. Puller challenged that by naming previously ill generals still on duty.

Bell replied that flag officers were an exception to the rule-they were retired only if the Commandant or the Chief of Naval Operations agreed with Bulled. That possible exemption did not make Chesty optimistic, since he believed that Shepherd would have prevented the second look by Bethesda if he intended to keep the division commander on duty. Puller was convinced the decision already had been made to force him out of the Corps. Once the doctors had observed all that they could, they allowed Puller to go home on sick leave.

Puller's spirits did not improve over the holidays, because he and Virginia disagreed. He wanted to battle to the last, but she believed he should accept whatever ruling the new board handed down. Virginia stood her ground, however, and Lewis agreed to follow her advice.

Just after New Year's Day, Chesty returned to Bethesda. The evening before the review by a new medical board, he wrote a short note to Virginia. He told her he had met with Shepherd that day and received no encouraging words. Lewis reassured her that he would accept his fate in accordance with their agreement: "Please don't worry, I won't go off half cocked. ... I have done and will do exactly as you said but still think you should have advised me to go down slugging."

The board of three medical officers met on 5 Jan. 1955 and announced their decision the same day. They acknowledged that medication was reducing Chesty's blood pressure, but it was still high and they believed the threat of a stroke or heart attack remained. They recommended that Puller "avoid execssive physical and emotional stress" and "be returned to limited duty ... if his services with these restrictions are desired."

That evening Chesty telephoned Virginia with the bad news. Since he believed the Commandant already had indicated the Corps had "no place for a limited duty officer," Puller expected to go before a retirement board within days. He told Virginia his only desire was that the process go quickly so he could get home. He was certainly unhappy, but he put up a resolute front for his wife: "Knowing that you love me is all that matters now. We will have enough to live on decently."

But Puller went back on another pledge to Virginia. He enlisted the aid of legal counsel and drafted a statement formally challenging the findings of the board. He rejected the very concept of limited duty for a general and argued he would be better off remaining a division commander: "Since I am completely familiar with my daily tasks, there are no unusual stresses. ... There will be nothing scheduled to take place before next fall which will require any activity in the field on my part. ... The normal duties of a division commander do not require physical effort or strain." He assured higher authorities: "I shall refrain from doing things inappropriate for a man of my age and rank, such as personally inspecting all the rifles of an infantry battalion."

In his initial draft statement, never submitted to the board, he had been more colloquial: "Contrary to popular opinion, the duties of a division commander do not require him to run through the woods, brandishing a sword, and yelling, `Follow me, boys.' "

Puller went home to Camp Lejeune on 7 Jan. with the final resolution on his future now in the lap of the Commandant. After conferring with senior medical officers, Shepherd issued his decision. He wrote a lengthy letter to Puller justifying the outcome and placing the entire burden on the doctors: "I wish to make it clear that neither I personally nor any officer in this Headquarters was responsible for your being brought to Bethesda for further examination. ... I do not have the authority, nor would I care to exercise it if I did, to overrule a decision of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery." Based on the board's conclusion, Shepherd determined: "I cannot leave you in command of the 2d Marine Division." However, he offered a surprising olive branch to Puller. The Commandant was willing to create the post of deputy base commander at Lejeune "as an assignment involving the limited type of duty specified in the recommendation of the board." Chesty could have it for five months, which would "enable the children to complete their school year and for you and Virginia to make plans for the future."

Shepherd tried to soften the blow with praise: "Your name is legend as a troop leader and professional soldier and will go down through generations of Marines yet to be born." He also told Puller to accept the inevitable: "I know how hard it will be for you to live any other life than that of an active Marine officer. You must realize, however, as I am beginning to do, with only eleven months more of active duty before I retire, that there comes a time when all old soldiers must pass on their swords to those we have been training to take our place. I confess it's a tough bullet to chew, but I am confident you will face it with the same courage you have demonstrated so many times on the battlefield."

The Commandant's final words made a major impact on Puller, but not in the manner Shepherd desired. The letter only aroused Chesty's basic instinct to fight; it had never been in his nature to ride off graciously into the sunset. Puller penned a tough letter disagreeing with the medical board and rejecting the offer of limited duty. After some reflection, he decided to take a less-confrontational approach. He undoubtedly saw the wisdom of having an additional five months to carry on the battle and to prepare for retirement if he did not win. The harsh draft letter went into the files. On 1 Feb., Chesty sent a two-sentence note to Shepherd, accepting his offer of limited duty and thanking him for his "consideration" in making it.

Chesty's carefully restrained reply masked the deep resentment that he now held toward his superior. In the coming weeks, Puller would tell many friends: "This was the time I required help from the Commandant, but failed to receive it." The assistance that Puller had wanted was a decision to reject the results of the board. His anger was fueled by a sense he had been betrayed by a longtime associate he thought he could count on; Shepherd was not only a fellow Virginian, VMI alumnus and 1st MarDiv veteran, but also the godfather of Puller's only son. Chesty's animosity would grow in the coming months, and he would never forgive nor forget.

Puller's ire was understandable, but unjustified. Shepherd undoubtedly had more leeway than his letter indicated, but he believed he was making the right decision for Chesty and for the Corps. Although doctors at Lejeune had declared Puller fit for duty, many assumed the Navy officers were doing so because they were reluctant to offend a general and national hero. The senior physicians at Bethesda were telling Shepherd that Puller had suffered irreparable degradation from years of high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis, and was in danger of another stroke or a heart attack.

The Commandant, perhaps feeling a sense of responsibility for having overloaded his subordinate with two jobs in the summer of 1954, was reluctant to ignore this expert opinion. He often had demonstrated his interest in taking care of the Puller family, and now took into account the possibility of Puller's untimely death, which would leave Virginia with three school-age children and only a half pension. Shepherd would say repeatedly in the future: "I would not sign that man's death warrant."

In February 1955, Puller turned over the reins of the division to his ADC. In a sign of his tremendous frustration over this early departure, he held no ceremony and merely issued a memorandum thanking the men of the command for their "loyal support." Along with Capt Moore and Gunnery Sergeant Jones (his longtime driver), Chesty moved into an office in the base headquarters.

Camp Lejeune's commander was not comfortable with the situation. He requested "clarification" from the Commandant "as to the specific stresses or nature of duties which must be avoided" by Puller. In the end, the commanding general simply gave his new deputy nothing to do. That left Chesty with more time to brood over his impending fate.

For the next few months, he fought behind the scenes with the help of old friends to get the decision overturned. It was like the Battle of Peleliu all over again. Puller and his troops were butting their heads against an implacable foe who would not be dislodged from strong defenses. Chesty was running out of options, his forces shrinking as each new attack met an unassailable cliff.

The annual August reunion of the 1 st Marine Division Association gave a welcome boost to Puller's morale. His arrival in the lobby of the hotel brought rowdy shouts and a "traffic jam" as men crowded close to talk with him. He worked his way through the press, shaking hands and greeting them all with the earnest salutation: "Good to see you, old man." The public outpouring of admiration left Chesty "choked with emotion."

The matter was now up to the Secretary of the Navy. Like the Commandant, he was reluctant to override the firm opinion of the medical experts. He might have authorized continued limited duty, but that was an unlikely option. Chesty had vowed repeatedly that he would not serve in a restricted status and had taken the brief stint in the base headquarters solely to have the chance to fight for a return to full duty. Shepherd also believed, with some justification, that Chesty could never sit idly back in a purely ceremonial role. The Commandant told his son-in-law: "If General Puller stayed on active duty, he would kill himself."

On 6 Oct., the Secretary informed Puller that he would be retired at the end of the month. Chesty had expected it, but it nevertheless was "a great disappointment and a stunning blow." He still felt he had been treated unfairly and his career had been cut unjustifiably short. The campaign, indeed, had turned out like Peleliu. In both cases, Puller still thought he had plenty of fight left in him, but higher authorities were convinced otherwise and ordered him off the field of battle, his objective still not secured. Now there would be no additional five years of duty, no fresh opportunities to campaign on behalf of Corps and country, no more whirring shrapnel or cracking bullets, no more husky commands or the heavy tread of marching feet, no more morning colors or twilight taps. But there was, and always would be, 37 years of glory unparalleled in the history of the Corps.

Puller was in no mood for an elaborate ceremony to mark his retirement; it was a day to be dreaded, not celebrated. It made no difference that he would receive the rank of lieutenant general for "having been specially commended for performance of duty in actual combat."

Virginia and the children remained at the quarters; he did not want them to attend the event. The only observers were two correspondents, Capt Moore, GySgt Jones and Sergeant Major Robert L. Norrish (who had served as a private in Puller's trophy-winning drill platoon in 1926). Chesty asked the sergeant major to do the honors of pinning on the new stars. Puller stood ramrod straight and stone-faced as Norrish added the final tribute of a grateful country to the shoulder straps of the general's beribboned service blouse.

Chesty then explained his rationale for choosing Norrish for the duty: "I wanted to show my great admiration and appreciation to the enlisted men in the Marine Corps and the junior officers." He added that without their assistance "I would never have risen to my position of lieutenant general," and his units "would never have gone forward and achieved their objectives, regardless of almost certain death." He expressed only one regret after 37 years, two months and 29 days of duty: "I won't be present for the next war."

The low-key ceremony produced high emotion as a legendary career came to an end. The few men present struggled to keep their composure as their eyes misted over. A reporter provided a welcome distraction when he asked the general and the other three Marines to pose for a picture. As the shutter snapped, Chesty growled out his last official words: "I hate like hell to go."