|Born||26 Jun 1898|
|Died||11 Oct 1971|
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseLieutenant General Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller is among the most decorated US Marines in history, and the only Marine to be awarded the Navy Cross five times. He is also one of the most colorful figures to have ever worn the Eagle, Globe & Anchor and the reputed source of many inspirational quotes still used in the Marine Corps today. During his career, he fought in the "Banana Wars" in Haiti and then Nicaragua and he was in the thick of some of the most intense campaigns in both World War II (Pacific) and Korea. Health reasons forced Puller to retire from the Marine Corps in 1955. After a decidedly noisy life, he died quietly in 1971.
ww2dbasePuller was born in 1898 in West Point, Virginia, USA. Puller's family had deep roots in the region and many ancestors had illustrious military careers. He is directly descendent from his namesake, Lewis Burwell, who was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary war and whose own great-grandfather, another Lewis Burwell, came to America from England as part of a military expedition in the 1600s. John Puller, Chesty's grandfather, was a Confederate Major who rode with Jeb Stuart in the Civil War and four of Chesty's great-uncles on his mother's side also fought in the War between the States; three for the Confederacy and one for the Union. One of his great-uncles was among the officers who led Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Additionally, Chesty Puller and Army General George S. Patton were fourth cousins, once removed.
ww2dbaseGrowing up in Virginia, Puller listened to aging Civil War veterans idolizing the war generally and "Stonewall" Jackson in particular. In 1916, Puller wanted to join the Army to fight in Mexico but he was too young. In 1917 he entered the Virginia Military Institute but left at the end of his first year intending to fight in the First World War. Inspired by the Marines at Belleau Wood, France, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
ww2dbaseThe Great War ended before Puller could see any action. He completed Officer Candidate training in June, 1919 and was a second lieutenant in the reserves for 10 days before post-war reductions returned him to the rank of Corporal. He served with the Marine contingent in Haiti where, as a Marine Corporal, he served as a Lieutenant in the Gendarmerie d'Haiti (the local constabulary). For four years in Haiti, he made a name for himself by leading several very successful jungle engagements against the Caco rebels.
ww2dbasePuller returned to the US and was recommissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1924. Late in 1928, Puller was assigned to the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions against armed bandit forces. He completed the Company Officers Course in Georgia, USA in July 1931 before returning to Nicaragua. In 1932 he was awarded a second Navy Cross.
ww2dbaseAfter his service in Nicaragua, Puller spent most of the next nine years in Asia. He was with the Marine detachments in Shanghai and at the American Legation in Peking (Beijing), China and he served two tours aboard the heavy cruiser USS Augusta in the Asiatic Fleet, commanded at the time by then-Captain Chester W. Nimitz. In China in the 1930s, Puller was able to make close observations of both the Japanese and Chinese Armies.
ww2dbaseIn Aug 1941, Puller, now a Major, returned to the US where he assumed command of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1st Battalion was still in training at the newly opened amphibious training facility at New River, North Carolina (later, Camp Lejeune).
ww2dbaseEarly in the Pacific War, Puller's command formed the nucleus of the 3rd Marine Brigade, arriving on Guadalcanal on Sept 18, 1942. On Guadalcanal, Puller led his battalion in a fierce action along the Matanikau River, in which Puller's courage, leadership, and quick thinking earned him the Bronze Star. Later, in the Battle for Henderson Field, Puller earned his third Navy Cross. During this battle, a member of Puller's command, Staff Sergeant John Basilone, anchored defensive positions in the middle of the line during one night of fierce fighting and would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
ww2dbasePuller was then appointed executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment and began preparing for operations on Cape Gloucester, New Britain. For his leadership on Cape Gloucester, Puller was awarded his fourth Navy Cross. He was promoted to Colonel Feb 1, 1944 and named commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. Later that year, Puller led the 1st Marines in the protracted battle on Peleliu, one of the toughest battles in Marine Corps history.
ww2dbasePuller returned to the United States in November 1944 and commanded Marine infantry training at Camp Lejeune until war's end ten months later. After the war, he continued to direct training for both regular Marines and reservists and later commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor.
ww2dbaseAt the outbreak of the Korean Conflict, Puller was once again in command of the 1st Marine Regiment for the landings at Inchon and liberation of Seoul in Sept 1950. Later in Dec, he commanded the reinforced withdrawal from the frozen Chosin Reservoir. Theater Commander Douglas MacArthur awarded Puller the Army's Distinguished Service Cross for that action. He was also awarded his fifth Navy Cross for his actions during the second half of the Chosin Reservoir withdrawal.
ww2dbaseIn Jan 1951, Puller was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed Assistant 1st Marine Division Commander. Because of an emergency command reorganization, Puller became the Division Commander briefly before he was transferred back to the United States. Albeit fleeting, this was Puller's only opportunity to fulfill his wish of commanding an Infantry Division in combat.
ww2dbasePuller was promoted to Major General two years later and served in various commands, primarily responsible for infantry amphibious training. He suffered what doctors called a stroke that removed him from front line service for a prolonged period. This triggered a medical and administrative battle that ultimately rated Puller medically unfit for continued service. Against Puller's wishes, he was retired in 1955 at the age of 57 after 37 years of distinguished service in the Marine Corps. On the day of his retirement, he was promoted to Lieutenant General.
ww2dbaseIn 1937, Puller was a 39 year old Captain assigned to the Basic School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By that time, he had been courting Miss Virginia Evans of Virginia for over 10 years and they married that fall. Despite being the very personification of a rough and tough Marine, Chesty was very affectionate and tender with his wife. A prodigious letter writer, he wrote his wife almost every day he was away from home and always showered her with warm, loving sentiments. Together (and apart), they raised two daughters and a son.
ww2dbaseWhen Chesty retired, he fulfilled the promises he made over his whole career: he settled down and devoted himself wholly to his wife. He attended a few 1st Division reunions where he was hailed by the men far above the fuss made for more senior officers. He came out of retirement for one day in 1956 to testify at the court martial of a Marine Sergeant but otherwise he saw no post-retirement duty.
ww2dbasePuller's son, Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr., also became a Marine officer. As an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968, Lewis Jr. was badly wounded by a mine and lost both legs. Chesty, unable to be the rough-tough Marine where his family was concerned, openly wept upon seeing his son in the hospital for the first time.
ww2dbaseThe legacy of Chesty Puller in the Marine Corps almost entirely revolves around his extremely capable talent for leadership. He lived according to every leadership cliché there was and he lived them every single day.
ww2dbaseHe always led from the front. He made every march he asked his men to do and usually walked more than anyone else because he walked up and down the line checking on his men and offering support. In battle, if his command posts were not receiving occasional small arms fire, he would move them forward. More than once, he would be temporarily relieved during the course of a battle and the new commander's first action was to move the command post back a couple hundred yards. He would also routinely walk up and down the front line positions checking on how his units were positioned and offering words of encouragement.
ww2dbaseHe took care of his men. He never lost sight of the fact that the largest portion of the work and the greatest of the sacrifices all fell to the enlisted men. He knew the best chance his men had to prevail in battle was for them to be well conditioned, well trained, and well led by their NCOs and junior officers; Chesty did everything he could to cultivate all of that. He respected the jobs done by the NCOs above anyone else's and showed that on many occasions and in many ways. On the day of his retirement when the time came to pin the third star on his shoulders, Chesty defied the tradition of having the ranking officer pin on the stars and instead asked the senior NCO to perform the honor.
ww2dbaseHe was incredibly brave. Many times, he stood facing enemy gunfire without so much as a flinch. He was convinced that seeing unwavering physical courage from their commander was essential for troops to muster the strength to stand their ground and do their duty. Through it all, he was wounded only once, on Guadalcanal.
ww2dbaseIt is fair to say that Chesty Puller rose to a legendary status in the Marine Corps and was a legend in his own time. His legend grew out of his courage in the face of danger, his unflagging support of his men, his success in battle, and to a certain degree, his own big mouth. One of the things that endeared Puller to his Marines was the fact that he was completely outspoken. This resulted in reporters seeking him out at almost every turn because Chesty could always be counted on for some pithy remarks. As Puller's words were reported, there were errors in transcription, remarks made at different times were consolidated, his quotes were sometimes "improved" or embellished, and on occasion they were simply fabricated.
ww2dbaseOne of Puller's most famous "quotes" may be something he never said. It came out of the encounter around the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea (or sometimes Guadalcanal) and the quote usually goes something like: "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things." Several variants on this theme are each attributed to Puller by different sources but the reason there is no definitive version is that he likely never said any of them. There was one dispatch from his command post on Guadalcanal reporting he had "contact on four sides" but that is all it said. This is the best documented statement from Puller about being surrounded. As the stories were told and retold, the magnitude of his remarks grew into something Chesty may have wished he had said, so he never made the effort to set the record straight.
ww2dbaseLike his quotes, Chesty's military awards and decorations were often mischaracterized in the press in ways that were never worth the effort to correct. The assertion that Puller was the most decorated U.S. Marine in history has been put forward many times and has drawn fire from people who see it differently. The statement is true or it is almost true depending on how one considers the awards. No matter how they are scored, it cannot be disputed that Puller was among the most decorated US Marines in history.
ww2dbaseAmong Puller's many awards, the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor, is not on the list. This alone eliminates Puller from the "most decorated" category in the minds of some. But what matters more than whether he was the most decorated or nearly the most decorated or among the most decorated is the collection of decorations he actually did earn and the career that collection represents.
ww2dbaseThe highest award offered by the Marine Corps below the Medal of Honor is the Navy Cross, which is also the Navy's highest award below the Medal of Honor. Puller received the Navy Cross five times (twice in Nicaragua, twice in WWII, and once in Korea). Navy submarine commander Roy Milton Davenport also received the Navy Cross five times but only Puller and Davenport can claim this. Puller is alone among Marines with five Navy Crosses. On top of this, MacArthur awarded Puller the Army's comparable award, the Distinguished Service Cross, in Korea; so Puller received the nation's second highest award for gallantry in battle six times. He is alone on the planet with that score.
ww2dbaseBelow the ribbons for these top six awards, Puller wore ribbons for the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit with the V-device for valor, the Bronze Star with the V-device for valor, the Purple Heart, three awards of the Air Medal, five awards of the Navy Presidential Unit Citation, two awards of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal (given only to enlisted men), two awards of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, the World War I Victory Medal with West Indies clasp, the Haitian Campaign Medal, the Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, the China Service Medal, the American Defense Service Medal with Base clasp, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with 4 battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal with 5 battle stars, the Haitian Medaille Militaire, the Nicaraguan Presidential Medal of Merit with Diploma, the Nicaraguan Cross of Valor with Diploma, the Korean Eulji Cordon Order of Military Merit, the Chinese Order of the Cloud and Banner, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the United Nations Korea Medal. This is a total of 27 ribbons representing 40 separate awards with 11 strictly for valor in combat.
ww2dbaseIn 1971, Chesty Puller died quietly at age 73 in a Virginia nursing home a year after a stroke launched his final decline. By that time, his legacy in the heritage rich Marine Corps was well established and persists to this day. Chesty Puller stood for everything the Marine Corps wants to stand for and what every Marine aspires to stand for. The name of Chesty Puller is still invoked in cadence calls, during physical training, and at all other times when one Marine encourages another. In fact, somewhere in a Marine barracks on this very day, a Drill Instructor will announce lights-out by calling across the room, "Good night Chesty Puller, wherever you are."
Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller by Burke Davis
Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller, USMC by Col Jon T. Hoffman
"Marines" Magazine August 1998: "Chesty Puller; Everyone Needs a Hero" by SSgt Kurt M. Sutton
United States Marine Corps Official Biography – Lewis B. Puller
Last Major Revision: Feb 2013
Lewis Puller Timeline
|26 Jun 1898||Lewis Puller was born in West Point, Virginia, United States.|
|16 Jun 1919||Lewis Puller graduated from the US Marine Corps Officer Candidates School at Quantico, Virginia, United States.|
|6 Mar 1924||Lewis Puller was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.|
|28 Aug 1941||Lewis Puller returned to the United States from China.|
|26 Jan 1951||Lewis Puller was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.|
|24 Feb 1951||Lewis Puller assumed temporary command of US 1st Marine Division in Korea.|
|20 May 1951||Lewis Puller departed Korea for the United States.|
|11 Oct 1971||Lewis Puller passed away in a nursing home in Hampton, Virginia, United States.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945