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‘Chesty’ Puller Part I: The Marines’ greatest hero

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Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was one of the Marine Corps’ great characters. In the first of a 3-part series, meet the man who could really dress you down.

By Ron Van Stockum

In columns about my 30 years service in the regular U. S. Marine Corps, I have occasionally mentioned a unique and memorable individual, one not lost in the crowd of his associates, but separate and apart, known in the service as a “character.”
The first of this breed that I met in the corps was Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller
I was barely 21 when, in mid-1937, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the regular the Marines. I had done well in Army ROTC at the University of Washington in Seattle and had learned the classic close order drill of those times: squads right, squads left, squads right about.
Also I had learned by rote answers to such grave military questions as “What is azimuth”? “It is direction.”
Also, “How does the rifle platoon attack”? “It attacks in two waves.”
My ROTC training had not required the exercise of much imagination.
While commissioned in the regular service, like my classmates, I was required to serve a 2-year probationary period, during which we could be dismissed for not living up to the standards expected of a Marine officer.
Also, during this period we were not allowed to marry. One of our instructors cautioned us that “The Marine Corps, gentlemen, is a jealous mistress.”

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Meeting Chesty
Only one of the 82 members in my class failed to survive probation; he was discharged for writing a bad check.
Commissions arrived late that year. For some reason, undoubtedly political, the required Senate confirmation was delayed. It was ever thus!
On Aug. 4 I was sworn in, and a few days later commenced my trip by rail to the Marine barracks at the Philadelphia Naval Base, where I joined 81 other recently commissioned second lieutenants from all over the country.
We wore the brass bar of our rank, but we were treated like raw recruits and called ourselves “brass bar cadets.” It was assumed that we knew nothing about the Marine Corps, and for most of us this was true.
Here we met Capt. Lewis B. Puller, later to be called “Chesty.”
He was not a large man, but he had a barrel chest that was emphasized by an upright bearing.
He had been known in the banana wars as “El Tigre” because of his aggressiveness and boldness in leading Marine and gendarmerie forces in Nicaragua and Haiti. He already had been awarded two Navy Crosses, the nation’s second-highest award for valor, at a time when decorations were infrequently awarded.
Chesty was a stern disciplinarian, although approachable and pleasant when not on duty. It was he who, as our drill and command instructor, would lead the effort to make Marines out of us.
He would form us, like privates, into squads, arranged by height, and issue us 1903 Springfield rifles, admonishing us to treat them with respect.

Tailor-made
Chesty also was charged with the fitting of our new tailor-made uniforms. I chose to buy mine from Horstmann of Philadelphia, which claimed to have made uniforms for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, the superbly attired centerpiece of the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, an engagement with the Indians in eastern Montana Territory, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” where he and his outnumbered command were annihilated.
Horstmann charged a little more than other tailors but was meticulous in its tailoring. Seventy-three years later, I still recall the Horstmann representative, Mr. McKenna, in his gravelly voice, assuring me that I would never regret paying this premium. He was right.
First measurements were taken, and a week or two later the uniform was brought back, with individual sections of cloth loosely stitched together, adjustable for a careful fit.
This was a process called “basting” in the tailor’s parlance. The uniform would be practically molded to the body.
Then the completed uniform would be brought back again, not for the wearer’s approval, but for Captain Puller’s!

Tight standards
Chesty was convinced that we “college kids,” had been accustomed to wearing loose-fitting, sloppy attire, a condition he was determined to correct. My experience was typical.
Despite my collar size of 15 ½ inches, he insisted that I wear size 14 ½. My hat size was 7 3/8; he thought 7 1/8 would be just right.
I quote from the journal I kept during my first five years with the corps, now part of the Van Stockum Collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville:
13 January 1938: I have been very much dissatisfied with my uniform caps which I believe too small for me. A 7 1/8 sits on top of my head like Happy Hooligans hat. Imagine my surprise today when Capt. Puller called me out in front of the company as an example of an officer wearing a correct size hat correctly.
We had to buy: evening dress, blue undress (with the traditional high collar and red-striped trousers), winter service (green), summer service (khaki), white undress, boat cloak, and overcoat.
These uniforms cost us in excess of $1,000, a large part of a second lieutenant’s annual salary of $1,500.
Chesty insisted that we remove all the gold plating on our swords and Sam Browne belt buckles so that the underlying brass would shine.
We would then polish them with “blitz cloth,” an item of unknown toxicity. We applied linseed oil to our rifle stocks, which we polished by hand, following Chesty’s stricture: “The human hand is the best polishing surface known to man.”

A fighting man
Chesty also taught a course in “small wars,” with emphasis upon the corps’ experience in counter-guerrilla actions during the ”Banana” wars of the early 20th century.  He was certainly well qualified for such instruction, as extracts from his two Navy Cross citations indicate:
First Navy Cross Citation – Nicarauga 1930: “[Puller] successfully led his forces into five successful engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces . . . with the result that the bandits were in each engagement completely routed with losses of nine killed and many wounded.”
Second Navy Cross Citation – Nicarauga 1932: “[Lt. Puller and his command of 40 Guardia] . . . penetrated the isolated mountainous bandit territory for a distance of from eighty to one hundred miles north of Jinotega, his nearest base. This patrol was ambushed . . . by an insurgent force of one hundred fifty in a well-prepared position . . . .Lieutenant Puller, with great courage, coolness and display of military judgment, so directed the the fire and movement of his men . . . that [the enemy] were scattered in confusion with a loss of ten killed and many wounded.”
Chesty Puller’s course, based largely upon his own experiences, and taught with a touch of humor, was the most popular of all those included in our year of study at The Basic School.

Next: Chesty teaches counter guerilla tactics for “Small Wars.”

Ron Van Stockum’s new book, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, may be purchased at Smith-McKenney in Village Plaza. He can be reached ronvanstockum@mac.com.