Giants Of The Corps: Lewis B. Puller

By Herb Richardson - Originally Published April 1975

More than 1,500 Marines and former Marines found their way to a remote grave site near Saluda, Va., when Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller was laid to rest in a church cemetery near his home.

Taps have been sounded for "Chesty," but his spirit remains very much alive in the Marine Corps today. Battle concepts that have been held as gospel for years carry his mark. Young Marines, infants when the general retired, speak of him as though they knew him personally. Senior staff noncommissioned officers boast that they served under him. And one bad word against Chesty around either group of Marines will probably earn the speaker a fat lip.

High tribute to a current troop leader is that he is "a Puller-trained man."

Puller was born June 26, 1898, at West Point, Va. Although he spent only one year at Virginia Military Institute, he was an avid student of the military.

The Civil War made exciting study material for him-he was brought up with stories of valor by his ancestors in that war. One of his older friends was former Sgt Willis Eastwood, the mayor of West Point, who had ridden with Puller's grandfather in the war.

Chesty enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1918, hoping to get into World War I, but the war ended that year while he was still in the States. Puller was appointed a Reserve second lieutenant in 1919, but was placed on the inactive list ten days later, when a massive personnel reduction occurred.

A few days later he rejoined the Marines as an enlisted man, and soon served as an officer in the Gendarmerie d'Haiti, a military force set up in that country under a treaty with the States.

Puller was noted throughout the Marine Corps for his habit of walking over positions exposed to enemy fire, stubby pipe in his mouth, stopping often to deliver a few words of encouragement to his men. The roots of that characteristic may have come from the remark of a battle-hardened Haitian sergeant major who reprimanded Puller after he had ducked from the whine of a bullet. "Captain Puller, officers do not flinch under fire. They stand. The men take note of this thing. It is of utmost importance."

He also learned the value of traveling fast, living off the land, and striking swiftly and aggressively during duty in Haiti and later in Nicaragua where he earned his first two Navy Cross medals.

Along the way he discovered, time and again, the tremendous knowledge his senior noncommissioned officers had, and the influence they wielded within the units. He respected these assets and this respect grew into unbreakable bonds of mutual regard between Puller and his men.

He did not, however, always hold his superior officers in the same high regard. If Puller had something to say, he said it and damn the rank or the consequences. Many believe that his outspoken manner contributed to the fact that he became a general only after 33 years in the Corps.

After nearly five years in Haiti, and extensive action against the Caco rebels, he returned to the States in March 1924 and was commissioned a second lieutenant that same month.

Because of an interest in air support that dated back to his Haiti assignment, Puller became a student naval aviator at Pensacola, Fla., in 1926. He flunked two solo flights and was dropped as "not suitable aviator material" over his vigorous protests.

Then followed tours at Pearl Harbor, San Diego, sea duty, Philadelphia, Camp Lejeune, and in China as a "Horse Marine."

From his earliest days as a Marine, Puller showed evidence of the cool courage, clear thinking and leadership by example that would make him a legend in his time, and one of the most dynamic leaders in the 200-year history of the Corps.

Although he could deal with "spit and polish" assignments, his main love was duty in the field, overseas-and in battle if war was being waged. He served more than 20 years overseas, and earned more than 50 decorations, five of them Navy Cross Medals.

He fought with the First Marine Division during World War II at Guadalcanal, Eastern New Guinea, Cape Gloucester and Peleliu. His third Navy Cross came at Guadalcanal after his unit killed 1,400 enemy troops while defending Henderson Airfield from the determined attack of a battle-seasoned regiment of Japanese troops.

It was Cape Gloucester after that, and another Navy Cross. Two battalion commanders were wounded. Puller took over their units, moved through heavy machine gun and mortar fire to reorganize the men, and then led them in taking a strongly fortified enemy position.

In Korea, as in other wars, the troops followed him into the hell of enemy fire, knowing they would see action with Chesty, and volunteering and scheming for the chance. There were several reasons they wanted to serve with him. They knew they would be ready when they went into combat. A Puller-trained man knew how to survive and be effective in battle-and if not that, how to die bravely. He worked his troops under the trajectory of artillery fire to get them accustomed to the sounds of war. He drove them relentlessly to build their bodies to the rigors of the field. And always, in peacetime training or in the heat of battle, he led from the front.

He was considered tough-but just as hard on himself as on his men. He always kept the welfare of his troops in mind, and would battle just us hard in the board rooms for his troops as he would in the field against the enemy.

It became his lot to command the rear guard of Marines "trapped" in the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. His reaction, when told they were surrounded by enemy troops was, "Those poor bastards. They've got us right where we want 'em. We can shoot in every direction now."

He and his troops fought their way through the Chinese and the bitter cold. They brought their dead and wounded with them, along with their vehicles and the supplies they had been ordered to destroy. He was awarded his fifth Navy Cross for his leadership during that ordeal.

Puller's last active duty was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he retired in November 1955. He tried to get into the fighting during the Vietnam War, but was rejected because of his age.

Chesty Puller died on October 11, 1971, at the age of 73, at Hampton, Va. Funeral services were held at Christ Church, near Saluda.

In Vietnam, a much discussed topic among enlisted men was what Chesty would have done if he had been there. General opinion was that he would have fought like hell, and they would have given their eye teeth to have been with him.

General Puller's decorations:
Navy Cross w/4 stars
Army Distinguished Service Cross
Silver Star
Legion of Merit w/1 star
Bronze Star
Air Medal w/2 stars
Purple Heart
Presidential Unit Citation w/4 stars
Good Conduct Medal w/1 star
World War I Victory Medal w/West Indies clasp
Haitian Campaign Medal
Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal w/1 star
China Service Medal
American Defense Medal w/1 star
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/4 stars
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Korean Service Medal w/5 stars
United Nations Service Medal
Haitian Military Medal
Nicaraguan Presidential Medal of Merit w/1 star
Nicaraguan Cross of Valor w/1 star
Korean Presidential Unit Citation
Korean Ulchi Medal w/1 palm
Chinese Cloud and Banner