Chesty: The Story Of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller
By LtCol Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR - Originally Published September 2001
Excerpted from “Chesty” with the permission of Random House
Guadalcanal, September 1942
When Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller and his Ist Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment landed on Guadalcanal in September 1942, the campaign on that island already had been raging for several weeks. The hungry, haggard, hard-pressed men of the First Marine Division welcomed the new arrivals because the 7th Marines was a fresh, well-supplied, well-trained force that constituted a huge shot in the arm for the beleaguered defenders. The only thing the regiment lacked was combat experience. Puller was one of the few Marines in the 7th Marines who understood just how vital a commodity that was.
A few days earlier, as the regiment had sailed from its staging area in Samoa, the brigade headquarters there had pronounced the 7th Marines "well prepared to enter into actual combat." Even a pessimistic member of 1/7's staff thought that "these men [are] mentally and physically ready to fight." Chesty was also confident that his battalion was as ready as it could be. He had even stoked the martial ardor of the unit with a bit of bravado: "I told the officers and men that if they followed me they would get the medals." But his outward optimism was tempered by inner realism: "I was the only member of the battalion that had been under enemy fire previously and had the slightest idea what a bloody mess we would go up against." He would later admit that he had withheld part of the truth about the decorations to be garnered: "I did not tell them what the cost would be."
The inexperience of 1/7 was reflected in its executive officer (XO), the second-most senior officer in the outfit. In civilian life Major Otho L. "Buck" Rogers had supervised the issue of new stamps for the U.S. Post Office. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve at the age of 31 in 1932, a time when boot camp was not required of reservists. The following year, after a two-week Reserve officer candidates' class, he earned his Reserve commission. In several years as a part-time company commander he had gained a reputation as a "conscientious officer," who always had "well-trained units." He was activated in November 1940 and became a company commander in 1/7, then the XO of the battalion in early 1942. He was promoted to major on Samoa. His experience as a Marine in September 1942 consisted of about two years of actual training time-a steep drop-off from Puller's 24 years of service and dozens of battles. What Rogers lacked in seasoning he tried to make up in enthusiasm. He thought of war as "something glorious" and joked in a letter from Samoa: "I am well and happy and about the toughest Marine you-ever saw." He was, in fact, "mild-mannered, soft-spoken, sociable, politically-oriented," almost the opposite of Chesty. The XO was "a brave man and a good gent," but ill-prepared for leading nearly a thousand men into battle. He was not alone in that regard, given the rapid expansion of the Corps in the months prior to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The inexperience of the regiment had manifested itself before a single Marine touched shore. During the movement to the Solomons, word passed among the Marines about the threat of enemy air and the need for rapid unloading to get the vulnerable amphibious shipping away from teh deadly waters around Guadalcanal. By the time ships hove to off Lunga Point at dawn on 18 Sept., the Marines and sailors were keyed up to expect the worst. That nervous energy brought forth a barrage of fire from naval crews and embarked troops that downed an American plane flying low over the convoy on an approach to Henderson Field. Luckily, the pilot survived. For the remainder of the day the Marines moved at a feverish pace to unload everything they could before the convoy departed that evening.
As dusk approached, the regiment settled into a temporary bivouac site in a coconut grove just behind the beach. There was no doubt they were now in the war. Many of the trees were shattered from bombardments; wrecked planes and vehicles lay scattered among the broken trunks; and hollow-eyed, scraggly men stood watch on guns trained up to the sky or outward over a shoreline sprinkled with the flotsam of sea battles. Puller passed the word for everyone to dig in, but most of the men were too exhausted, and many unit leaders failed to supervise, probably due to a combination of fatigue and the onset of darkness.
The Japanese on Guadalcanal had reported the landing to their superiors at 0630. The area headquarters at Rabaul immediately launched air and surface forces to attack the convoy. Bad weather prevented the pilots from reaching their destination. The swift departure of the amphibious shipping then foiled the hopes of the Japanese cruiser and four destroyers that arrived off Lunga Point in the middle of the night, The Imperial Navy task force had to content itself with a shore bombardment. Just after midnight the men of the 7th Marines were roused by an aircraft dropping flares to illuminate the target area-the airstrip next to their coconut grove. The ships opened fire, and those Marines and sailors without foxholes hugged the ground or frantically scraped at the earth with helmets, bayonets and bare hands.
There was little Puller could do except to shout calmly to those around him to keep their heads down. The shelling lasted for half an hour. In this baptism of fire, 1/7 lost three dead and two wounded. When it was over, the battalion commander walked through the area, smoking his pipe and quietly reassuring his men. One Marine recalled that the aroma of the colonel's tobacco and the sound of his favorite expression-"Everything will be all right, old man"-did much to soothe frayed nerves.
The division wasted no time in putting the 7th Marines to work. On 19 Sept. the 2d and 3d battalions moved into the two southern sectors. They covered the area from the bank of the Lunga River running east to the flank of the 1st Marines, in position along Alligator Creek. It was flat ground blanketed by jungle, except in the center where there was a low, north-south rise covered with Kunai grass. This latter feature bore the name of Edson's Ridge following the desperate battle of 11-13 Sept. In two nights of bitter fighting the 1st Raider Bn and 1st Parachute Bn, supported by artillery, had beaten off the Kawaguchi Brigade and killed more than 600 of the enemy. The remainder, many of them wounded, retreated into the interior.
The division commander, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, wanted to ensure that the Japanese were not regrouping for another assault, so he ordered the 1st Raiders and 1/7 to reconnoiter beyond the perimeter and disrupt any enemy concentrations. Colonel Merritt "Red Mike" Edson's men would move down the east side of the Lunga while Puller's battalion operated on the west bank.
The rifle companies of 1/7 formed up and headed south at 1430 on 19 Sept. The long column crossed the Lunga at Pioneer Bridge, where it encountered scattered rifle fire from a few Kawaguchi Brigade stragglers. One Marine went down. Puller, accustomed to poor enemy marksmanship and much tougher numerical odds, strode along the narrow trail and told his troops not to worry about this "small stuff." His cavalier attitude in the face of enemy fire impressed his officers and men and increased their confidence.
The battalion stopped for the night on a low ridge, but the Marines got little rest. Like the men of other untested units before them, they saw the enemy in every shadow and shot at these ghosts or fired simply because someone in the next foxhole did so. Puller tried to put a stop to it, without much success. That same evening the rest of the regiment opened up on the Raiders as they tried to re-enter the perimeter. When the sun came up, 1/7 resumed its patrol. The battalion commander had warned his troops about the scarcity of water, but they drank as freely as they shot. The concept of water discipline then espoused by military leaders simply did not work in the face of oppressive heat and steep hills. Soon every man had emptied his single canteen, and all struggled forward with parched throats. A number fell by the wayside with heat prostration. The Lunga appeared like an oasis in the desert in midmorning. Many Marines raced for it and drank deeply without taking time to purify the water with iodine.
After fording the river, 1 /7 neared the site of a suspected enemy bivouac. Chesty called in an artillery barrage before advancing into the area, which proved to be unoccupied. The battalion did come under fire several times during the day from small bands or individual Japanese. In one of these micro engagements, Maj John P. Stafford, the commander of Co B, was wounded by a Marine rifle grenade that exploded prematurely. The pace of the battalion slowed to a crawl thereafter as men bore his stretcher up and down the rough terrain. The force finally reached friendly lines late in the evening and went into reserve between the airfield and Edson's Ridge. At a cost of three casualties, 1/7 had killed 24 Japanese and confirmed that there were no organized enemy near the southern perimeter. They also had weathered their first ground action and made strides along the road to becoming a veteran outfit.
That night there was considerable firing in the front lines of 3/7 and 2/7. The regimental command post thought it was under attack. Col Amor Sims, the 7th Marines commander, called out Puller's battalion to reinforce the area, but the weary troops found no enemy. The "trigger happy" 7th was "the subject of much scorn and merriment" among the rest of the division, though most of those who were laughing had acted the same way just a few short weeks before.
Division arranged for Martin Clemens, a coast-watcher and head of the native scouts, to give the officers and senior noncommissioned officers of the regiment a class on nighttime jungle noises. Word went round that Vandegrift also forbid them to fire at night anymore without orders from division; they were otherwise to rely solely on their bayonets. One nervous but obedient sentry promptly stabbed a fellow Marine the very next evening. Puller lost patience with the uncontrolled shooting, and his angry reprimands helped instill calm. The battalion surgeon observed that the problem gradually disappeared as the green troops of the regiment had the "chance to taste actual combat, to get the feel of their weapon, to kill, to be fired at, to hear the noise of battle, and to get over their first fright." Before long they would be amused by newer arrivals going through the same process of adjusting to war.
The 1stMarDiv was aware that Japanese ships were making nightly runs to Guadalcanal and dropping off supplies or troops at the western end of the island. To help keep this new threat at arm's length from the airfield, division ordered 1117 to find and reconnoiter a trail that led from south of Edson's Ridge and past Mount Austen to the headwaters of the Matanikau. The battalion then would cross the river and move down the far bank to clear it of Japanese. After that the Raider Bn would establish a patrol base nearby and be in position to give advance warning of any Japanese activity in the region. The division chief of staff, Col Gerald C. Thomas, later recalled why they selected 1/7 for the mission: "We thought if any person could get a battalion up the river and get it across and get above the Japanese, it would be Lewis Puller."
Unbeknownst to the division, the Japanese had gathered about 4,000 men in the vicinity of the Matanikau. Most were west of the river, but one company was in the foothills of Mt. Austen to collect stragglers from the battle on Edson's Ridge.
Chesty decided to leave his heavy weapons and take only his three rifle companies on the operation. The force of just under 600 men departed the perimeter on the morning of 24 Sept., with Co A in the lead, followed by the command group and companies B and C. They had a native scout and Marine Gunner Edward S. Rust from the 5th Marines to guide them, plus a liaison team from the 11th Marines to direct artillery fire. The lieutenant acting as forward observer stayed close to Puller and found that meant he was "always right up in front." It was not the way most senior commanders operated, but the artillery officer thought it "was good for the men's morale."
Under a cloudless sky the Marines made their way through thick jungle lowlands and over precipitous grass-- topped ridges. The terrain played havoc with the formation; the column slowed while the lead unit went uphill, then suddenly the tail found itself scrambling to catch up as the head went down slope at a rapid clip. After their earlier experience on patrol, many men were carrying field-expedient canteens fashioned from sections of bamboo. Even with this extra supply they were fast running out of water, until a cloudburst in mid-afternoon brought welcome relief. But the rain also made the slopes treacherously slick and further slowed the advance.
Late in the afternoon the point squad under Corporal Harold L. Turner started looking for a suitable bivouac site. He investigated a grassy rise. His platoon commander, Captain Regan Fuller, followed close behind and stumbled upon two Japanese squatting beneath a tree over a pair of cooking pots full of rice. He shot one, and Turner's squad got the other. Puller, in his habitual position near the head of the column, quickly came up to the scene. The battalion commander was reaching down to sample the captured chow when Japanese machine guns began to rake the area. The Marines had surprised an outpost of the enemy company, which used the brief warning to occupy defensive positions. Chesty escaped the initial burst of fire and managed to work his way back to cover. His runner and several other men were not so lucky.
Co A was pinned down by "withering" fire, so Puller called for Co B to come up and deploy. Lieutenant Alvin C. Cockrell Jr. led the 1st Platoon of "Baker" Co up the right-hand side of the trail while Lt Walter B. Olliff took the 2d Plt toward the left. Olliff thought the enemy fire was so heavy "the bushes and leaves waved and bent over as if there were a gale." His men tried to move up by rushes whenever the shooting seemed to slacken, but progress was halting, and they sustained a number of casualties. Olliff was hit in the hip after he rose to his knees and threw a grenade. Cockrell died charging forward and yelling for his men to follow. This loss of leaders further slowed the maneuver. Puller shouted curses at the company commander when he failed to respond to repeated calls; it would be some time before Chesty realized that Cockrell would never answer.
The 1st Bn could not gain the upper hand. The enemy were dug in on ground they knew, and they maintained fire superiority with their heavy weapons, a capability 1/7 could not match. The forward observer called in an artillery mission, but the first adjusting round landed on his own lines, and he gave up trying to establish his location on the poor map. An Able Co NCO recalled: "This was our first real fire and we were having a little trouble putting into practice our tactics which we had so thoroughly been drilled in."
Puller responded aggressively to the situation. He was "on his feet throughout, organizing, moving, exhorting" and trying to rally his unit. One officer called it "the greatest exhibition of utter disregard for personal safety I ever saw." But the problem of deploying an inexperienced battalion from a column on a trail into a line against an unseen enemy as darkness fell was simply too much. Chesty decided to break off the action and regroup. He ensured that the wounded were gathered up and then ordered a withdrawal of 300 yards to another ridge, where 1/7 set up a perimeter for the night.
At 2030 Puller made his first report to division. The terse message gave a rough location of the battle and listed friendly casualties of seven killed and 28 wounded. Most of the wounded were in poor shape and unable to move under their own power; three would die during the night. He also requested air support the next day to bomb the enemy position and drop stretchers and water. Chesty made no estimate of Japanese losses, but there was a feeling among some in the battalion that the Marines had gotten the 11 worst" of the fight. A private, wounded slightly that day, thought, "They could have slain us all that night; I'm sure of that."
Puller made the rounds of his "weary and dejected band" to reassure them that all would be well. A squad leader who had experienced the "terrible feeling being under enemy fire the first time" thought that the colonel's display of courage and calm during the fight "really raised our morale." Even those who had not seen their commander firsthand benefited from the tales that circulated around the perimeter. In one story, he had lit his pipe in the dark, then quickly hit the ground and rolled away in an effort to draw fire from a Japanese machine gun and locate its position.
Vandegrift realized that it would take a large number of men to escort the stretcher-borne wounded over the rough terrain, so he ordered 2/5, temporarily commanded by a captain, to depart prior to dawn and join up with 1/7. He informed Puller that the additional battalion would come under his command and left the next step up to him: "Continue attack or return as you decide [in] accordance [with] your situation in morning. Well done and good luck."
The 2d Bn covered the five miles to 1/7 in less than four hours, arriving at 0845. Puller already had discovered that the Japanese had withdrawn from their "well-prepared positions" during the night. He called off the requested air strike. Chesty gave his A and B companies the mission of taking the wounded back to the perimeter. He then buried his dead and prepared to continue the operation with his Charlie Co and 2/5.
On 25 Sept. the combined unit advanced along the trail, but encountered no enemy soldiers. That evening, Puller informed division that he would return to the perimeter the next day along the coast road. The Marines moved out early in the morning of 26 Sept. and finally reached the Matanikau. Chesty did not cross as originally planned, though he did send one platoon of 2/5 to make a brief reconnaissance of the opposite bank.
Puller's force moved down the east bank of the river through the narrow, steep valley and received some desultory fire from the far side. At 1400, Co E, the lead unit, attempted to cross the river at its mouth. The men were barely in the water when Japanese on the far bank opened up with mortars and machine guns. The Marines withdrew with six wounded. Chesty immediately got on the radio to report this opposition to his crossing. The division operations section offered supporting arms and advised that the Raiders were moving up the coast road in accordance with the original plan. In the meantime, Co E provided a base of fire for two assaults by platoons from Co G, both repulsed.
Puller reacted to the failure of his initial tactics; he called off the infantry assaults and resorted to firepower. He requested support from artillery and air, while Private First Class Johnny Smolka, a signalman from 2/5, went out to the beach under fire and used semaphore flags to contact USS Monssen (DD-436). The destroyer's boat picked up Gunner Rust, who pointed out targets for shore bombardment. While high explosives softened the position, Chesty pondered what to do next.
He already had 25 casualties requiring evacuation. At 1630 the 1 st Raiders, now under the command of LtCol Samuel B. Griffith, arrived on the scene, accompanied by high winds and rain. Just minutes later, Puller learned that division had dispatched Edson to "command combined forces in continuation [of the] attack." Although the original plan had not contemplated much enemy opposition, Vandegrift was resolved to achieve his objective. He still believed there were no more than 400 enemy in the area.
Edson and Puller conferred and issued orders for the next day. In an effort to envelop the enemy, the Raiders and 1/7's Co C would move 2,000 yards south along the Matanikau, cross over and then attack back toward the coast. To keep the enemy fixed in place during this flanking maneuver, 2/5 would conduct a frontal assault across the river mouth. The third element of the plan called for the remainder of 117, back in the perimeter under Maj Rogers, to make an amphibious landing near Point Cruz to seal off the enemy's avenue of retreat.
After a night of continuing rain, the Raiders and Co C began their movement. At 1050 they ran into a Japanese company that had crossed the river the previous afternoon to secure a lodgment for a future attack. Mortars on the far bank peppered the Marines in their confined space between the river and a ridge. Maj Kenneth D. Bailey, the Ist Raider Bn executive officer and a hero of Edson's Ridge, went up to the front to help break the impasse. He died in a burst of machine-gun fire.
Griffith then took both Charlie companies (1/7 and Ist Raiders) up onto the high ground in an effort to flank the stubborn resistance. The enemy had this approach covered, too, and Griffith was hit in the shoulder. There were 13 other casualties. With the two senior Raiders down, there must have been some confusion in the battalion command group, and that translated into an ambiguous report of progress. Both division and Edson interpreted the message to mean that the Raiders were fighting on the western side of the Matanikau. At 1030, 2/5 had launched Co G in an attack across the river mouth, but the Marines were turned back yet again.
Maj Rogers had not received word of his part in the battle until 1000 that morning, when he was called away from Sunday religious services. Capt Charles W Kelly got 1/7's A and B companies and a few crew-served weapons moving toward the beach, while Rogers reported to division headquarters for instructions. The 398 Marines of 1/7 embarked in landing craft, and Rogers joined them, still wearing the shiny, starched khaki uniform he had dug out of a footlocker for church. He made a quick speech about 1/7 being the "finest body of fighting men in the world" and exclaimed: "I hope every man gets the Navy Cross." The only plan he passed to his force was that they would land in two waves at 1300. Division had arranged for the seaplane tender USS Ballard (AVD-10) to provide fire support, but a Japanese air raid came in, and the ship sped away to take evasive action. The small boats bored ahead and deposited 1/7 ashore just beyond Point Cruz. Rogers led his force toward a grassy ridge about 500 yards in from the coast road.
The Japanese reacted quickly. Mortar shells began to fall as the lead elements of the Marine battalion reached the high ground. One of the first bursts killed Rogers and wounded Capt Zach D. Cox, the Co B commander. Kelly succeeded to command of the force. Meanwhile, a Japanese battalion came up the coast road from the west, and a company counterattacked from Matanikau village in the east. The tail of 1/7 was clearing the beach when it saw the enemy approaching. Lt Richard P. Richards and Platoon Sergeant Rufus A. Stowers set up a machine gun and inflicted numerous casualties until the onrushing Japanese overwhelmed the position. At that point the Marines were effectively cut off from the sea. They formed a perimeter on the ridge.
Due to 1/7's hasty departure from Lunga Point, it was not well prepared. The rump battalion had brought only one 81 mm mortar and just 40 rounds. Kelly also discovered that his outfit had no radio; he had no means to request supporting arms or even inform division of his plight. An attack across the Matanikau mouth at 1310 by 2/5's Co F failed to reach the far bank, while the Raiders remained bottled up along the river. Kelly's unit, surrounded and under attack by superior forces, was on the verge of reenacting Custer's Last Stand.
Marine pilot Lt Dale M. Leslie came to the rescue. As his dive-bomber circled overhead, Kelly's men used their white undershirts to spell out "HELP" on the ground. Leslie radioed the news to division, which relayed it to Edson's command post. Puller argued for a renewed attack by the units on the east side of the river in an attempt to break through to his own outfit. Edson refused to order yet another hopeless charge across the open water into a strong enemy defensive position. He also authorized the Raiders to withdraw. Chesty was livid: "You're not going to stop them when they've had only two casualties? Most of my battalion will be out there alone, cut off without support. You're not going to throw these men away."
The angry battalion commander took matters into his own hands. He walked out to the beach and had a signalman contact Monssen, which was steaming by. At Chesty's request, a launch picked him up just after 1600. Once on board, he explained the situation to the destroyer's commander, who readily agreed to assist. Puller, familiar with the mechanics of naval firepower after his two tours in the cruiser Augusta (CA-3 1), huddled with the gunnery officer, while the ship's captain radioed Lunga Point for landing craft.
When Monssen reached the scene, Chesty sent messages by blinker and semaphore flags to his troops ashore. Looking through his field glasses, he saw a Marine standing on the fire-swept ridge wigwagging a reply. Puller directed the destroyer to lay down a barrage between the coast and the ridge and then shift it to the flanks as the Marines withdrew. After he passed that plan to the men ashore, Monssen fired 38 5-inch rounds.
Kelly got his outfit underway, but artillery fire (apparently from Marine howitzers) came crashing down, and the column split up. Japanese infantry rushed forward to cut off most of Co A. PltSgt Anthony P. Malanowski Jr. picked up a Browning Automatic Rifle from a casualty and covered the withdrawal until he was killed. The rest of the battalion made its way to the beach about 200 yards to the east of Able Co. The first boats to approach shore came under heavy fire, and three coxswains were hit. The others backed off. Lt Leslie then strafed the Japanese and circled low over the landing craft to shepherd them to the coast. Capt Thomas J. Cross, the Able Co commander, also swam out to the boats to bring them in.
Chesty already had boarded one of the small craft. He ordered it into shore and shouted at others to follow him. The battalion laid down additional covering fire, and the landing boats finally came in at both locations. The Marines carried their wounded out into the surf, but had to leave the dead behind. As Puller's force pounded over the waves toward Kukum, division directed the withdrawal of the troops along the Matanikau.
The fighting on 27 Sept. had cost the Raiders two killed and 11 wounded, while 2/5 suffered 16 killed and 68 wounded over two days. Puller's unit had lost 24 dead and 32 wounded (three casualties from Co C during its operations with the Raiders and all the rest from the amphibious landing). There was no way to determine total Japanese casualties, though Chesty believed 1/7 had killed about 80 enemy near Point Cruz. The engagement was a clear defeat for the Marines, however, since they had failed to achieve their objective and been forced to retire from the field. All concerned felt lucky to have escaped without greater bloodshed.
The official division report cited the "good judgment of senior commanders" in preventing a debacle, but off the record there was considerable finger pointing. There was indeed plenty of blame to share among the leaders of this engagement, generally known as Second Matanikau. The men involved rated some glory, though. One participant accurately observed that "individual heroism" had saved the day. Puller nominated a number of his Marines for medals and officially praised the work of Rust, the boat crews and Monssen.
Lt Dale Leslie, Sgt Robert D. Raysbrook, PltSgt Anthony P. Malanowski Jr. and two Navy coxswains would receive Navy Crosses, and Coast Guardsman Douglas A. Munro would be posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor. Capt Kelly thought his entire force had displayed "fine fighting spirit." The division chief of staff believed that Chesty also merited commendation, since his "force of will" had played a decisive role in rescuing 1/7 from the trap.
Coupled with the fight on the 24th, 1/7's casualties for the operation totaled 91, more than 10 percent of the battalion. The losses included not only the battalion XO but also all three rifle company commanders. As the officers and men returned to the perimeter on the night of 27 Sept., the extent of their losses set in, and morale plummeted.
Puller called his officers together the next day and tried to buck them up. He told them that everyone had to die sometime and doing it for one's country was a fine way to go. Then he stressed what they should learn from their hard-won experience. Above all, he enjoined them to be more than just commanders-he wanted them to lead their men from the front, not simply issue orders to attack. He reminded them what he had been taught since his earliest years: "That in the Confederate Army, an officer was judged by stark courage alone, and this made it possible for the Confederacy to live four years. There are other qualities in the makeup of a man, but stark courage is absolutely necessary in the makeup of an infantry leader."
Puller would admit years later: "I have as much fear in me as the average man. ... [But] for the sake of your men you had to appear fearless." He believed that he personally had demonstrated his own fearlessness as "the battalion leader" in the first nine days on the island. His men certainly would have endorsed that opinion. And two weeks later, then full-fledged combat veterans themselves, they would defeat the Japanese soundly in another rematch along the banks of the Matanikau River.
Chesty: The story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller is available for purchase at The Marine Shop