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Marines History Part Eight

 Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller

Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller was an officer in the United States Marine Corps and the most decorated Marine in Corps history. He is the only marine to have earned five Navy Crosses, the United States Navy’s second highest decoration after the Medal of Honor. In his career, he fought guerillas in Haiti and in Nicaragua and participated in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and the Korean War. He retired from the Corps in 1955.

Puller who earned the nickname inspired by his barrel chest was born in West Point Virginia. He had a second cousin in the United States Army General George S Patton. His grandfather died fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy and his heroes as a child were Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee. He graduated high school with a mediocre record then enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in 1917. After a year he dropped out and enlisted in the Marine Corp. At that time there was a rapid increase in the Corps which meant Puller was given a commission and he was sent to fight in Haiti and World War I ended before he could make it to France.

He was appointed to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the reserves on June 16 1919 but following World War I the corps was being reduced and he was placed on inactive status on the 26th of that month. He re-enlisted in the Marine Corps the same year and as an enlisted man he saw action in Haiti with the Gendarmerie d’Haiti which had a working treaty with the United States. He participated in over forty engagements during the five years against the Caco Rebels. March of 1924 he returned to the States and was once again commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In 1928 Puller was assigned to the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment where he earned his first Navy Cross. He returned to the states in 1930 and completed the Company Officers Course which was a year long at Fort Benning then returned to Nicaragua to earn his second Navy Cross for leading five successive engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces. After Nicaragua he was assigned to the American Legation in Beijing, China commanding a unit of Chinese Marines. He then went on to serve aboard the USS Augusta, a cruiser serving in the Asiatic Fleet.

Major Puller returned to the US on August 28th 1941 and after a shore leave he was given command of the 1st Battalion 7th Marines of the 1st Marine Division then stationed at New River which would later be known as Camp Lejeune. The 7th Marines formed the nucleus of the newly created 3rd Marine Brigade and arrived to defend Samoa on May 8th 1942. They were later redeployed from 3rd Marine Brigade and they left Samoa on September 4 1942 and rejoined the 1st Division on Guadalcanal on September 18 1942. Shortly after arriving at Guadalcanal he led his battalion in the fierce action along the Matanikau in which his quick thinking saved his three companies from destruction. In the action his companies were surrounded and cut off by a larger Japanese force. He ran to the shore and signaled a US Navy destroyer, then directed the gunfire to provide support while landing craft pulled his marines out of their precarious position.

He earned his third Navy cross on the night of October 24-25th 1942 when his unit was the only American unit defending Henderson Field against a regiment strength Japanese force. His unit sustained 70 casualties while the Japanese suffered over 1400 KIAs and his battalion held the airfield. While serving on Guadalcanal he was shot twice by a sniper and wounded in three different places by shrapnel and he was awarded the Purple Heart. He earned his fourth Navy Cross for overall performance of duty between December 26th 1943 and January 19th 1944 when the commanding officers of the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines and later the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were knocked out of action he assumed temporary command of both units. In each instance while under heavy mortar and machine gun fire he expertly reorganized the battalions and led successful attacks against heavily fortified Japanese defensive positions. In February 1944 he was promoted to Colonel and named commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. He would lead this unit in the battle of Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history in Sept and Oct 1944. In November 1944 he was named executive officer and later Commander of the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune. After the war he was made director of the 8th Reserve District in New Orleans and later commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor.

With the outbreak of the Korean Conflict he was once again assigned commander of the 1st Marine Regiment which made the landing at Inchon on September 15th 1950. He earned his 5th Navy Cross for action during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. It was during that battle that he made the famous quote, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” He was promoted to Brigadier General and was assigned duty as assistant division commander of the 1st Marine division. On Feb. 24th his superior Major General O.P Smith was transferred to command the IX Corps very hastily when the Army commander Major General Moore was killed. This left Puller in command of the 1st Marine division. He also knew the army would not allow General Smith, a Marine, to command a unit that included army troops. When he was ordered to begin the last phase of Operation Killer, Puller made the best of the opportunity by skillfully leading the 1st Marine Division and achieving its objectives. General Smith returned on March 5th and Puller would serve as ADC until he completed his tour of duty and returned to the United States on May 20th 1951. Puller subsequently received promotions to Major and Lieutenant General and served in various command capacities until his retirement due to health reasons on November 1st 1955.

In 1965 General Puller requested to be reinstated in the Corps so that he could see action in the Vietnam War but the request was denied on the basis of his age. He died on October 11th 1971. He is buried in Christchurch Parish Cemetery on the southeast side of Christchurch School off Highway 33(also called “General Puller Highway”) in Christchurch Virginia. His widow Virginia died in 2006 at the age of 97 and is buried next to him.

While the exact counts of Puller’s total number of decorations vary from source to source the accepted number of 52 separate, subsequent, and foreign awards is commonplace. The reason for difficulty in assigning an exact total comes from the variety of foreign decorations that each carry different protocols in regard to wear and display. His military decorations are the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Legions of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Haitian Campaign Medal, Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, China Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Nation Defense Service Medal, Korean War Service Medal. He received the following awards by non-U.S. governments-Haitian Medaille Militaire, Nicaraguan Presidential Medal of Merit with Diploma, Nicaraguan Cross for Valor with Diploma, Republic of Korea Ulchi Medal with Gold Star, Chinese Order of the Cloud and Banner, Korea Presidential Unit Citation with bronze star, and United Nations Service Medal, Korea.

Chesty Puller remains a well Known figure in Marine Corps folklore with both true and exaggerated tales of his experiences being constantly recounted in the U.S. Marine Corps. A common incantation in the tradition of the Marine Corp is to end one’s day with the declaration , “Good night Chesty, wherever you are!” In boot camp and OCS, Marines chant “It was good for Chesty Puller/And it’s good enough for me”- Chesty is symbolic of the esprit de corps of the Marines. While on duty in Hawaii and inspecting the armory, Puller fined himself for discharging a weapon in an unsafe manner. Some of his quotes are “All right they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in the front of us, they’re behind us… they can’t get away this time.” ”Hit hard, hit fast, hit often” “You don’t hurt ‘em if you don’t hit ‘em” “We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them”