- Special Sections
- Public Notices
Lewis Burwell Puller, at 5 feet 8 inches and 144 pounds, was a little below average size of his time, but he stood out among his contemporaries because of his barrel chest.
Even so, I still have difficulty referring to him by his nickname, “Chesty,” because when I first met him in 1937, he was called “Lewie,” although not by us second lieutenants, who were careful to address him quite formally as “Captain Puller!”
He had inspected our uniforms, assuring that they fit tightly according to Marine Corps, i.e., Puller’s, standards. He had drilled us on the field, inspected us in ranks, trying mightily to make Marines out of us.
He demanded perfection. If he could find no defects, he would bellow “get a haircut,” for he insisted on finding something wrong.
We were impressed with Chesty.
In a time when few medals were awarded, he wore three rows of ribbons, including two awards of the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
Man of Virginia
He had descended from the gentry of Virginia, but his speech was more like that of the mountainous areas of the state.
His biographer, Lt. Col. Jon T. Hoffman, has described it as a “Virginia drawl combined with an individual Brooklynese.”
That connection to Virginia even extended to his away-from-the-barracks life.
In November 1937 the whole Basic School class was startled and perhaps even dismayed when it learned that, while on a short leave, hard-bitten Chesty Puller, age 39 and “wedded” to the Marine Corps, had taken a bride. He was married on Nov. 13 in Middlesex County, Va., near the homes of their childhood, to the lovely Virginia Evans, whom he had quietly but consistently courted for 10 years.
I well remember meeting Mrs. Puller at a reception shortly after Chesty had brought his bride back to the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia.
She told a group of us second lieutenants that she had been surprised one day upon returning home to find her husband in the bedroom, polishing his brass and shining his Sam Browne belt, with all these accouterments spread on the bed.
She was learning what many of us already knew: Chesty Puller was committed to the Marines and to his job.
Small wars instructor
Later we encountered him as our instructor in the Small Wars Course, which was based largely upon the so-called “Banana Wars” in the West Indies and Central America, in the early part of the 20th Century.
These may have been “small” to those at home who read in the newspapers about the Marine Corps’ exploits and adventures, but they were anything but small to the participants.
Chesty Puller’s course, using examples from his own experiences in the campaigns in Nicaragua and Haiti, and taught with a touch of humor, was the most popular of all those included in our year of study at The Basic School.
A man of expressions
I kept a record of my first five years in the Marine Corps (1937-42), now part of the Van Stockum Military Collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.
These recollections have reminded me of some of the combat experiences related by Puller and some of his aphorisms.
There never seemed to be any exaggeration or self-aggrandizement in Puller’s stories and expressions. Here are some samples with background:
“It’s no more trouble to carry a rifle than it is a swagger stick.”
Later, after World War II, a commandant of the Marine Corps directed that officers carry swagger sticks, as in the British Army. This was an unpopular decree, and Gen. David Shoup, hero of bloody Tarawa, upon succeeding him as commandant, announced to all: “I consider the swagger stick to be an item of unnecessary encumbrance.” Swagger sticks disappeared immediately.
“Don’t overload with provisions. When you run out of food turn back. Two days without food won’t hurt you.”
“Get up with the leading element of your patrol. Your life is no more valuable to you than an enlisted man’s is to him.”
Puller, while a stern disciplinarian and leader, was always concerned about all his troops, especially the enlisted men.
“In an ambush as soon as the first shot is fired hit the deck. There will be a second or two interval before the rest open up on you and their shots will go overhead.”
“I threw this grenade and the damn thing exploded practically in my face. It turned out that there were three trees and I was behind one also.”
Puller would have thought discretion to be the better part of valor and not fall on a grenade, as recorded in some citations, but “hit the deck!”
I did not again have the privilege and challenge of serving with Chesty Puller. Basic School ended on May 24, 1938, with a simple graduation ceremony.
Along with my other 81 classmates, I departed for my next duty station, as junior Marine officer in the battleship USS Tennessee, stationed at San Pedro, Calif.
But it wouldn’t be difficult to keep track of Chesty.
After Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, the United States found itself on the threshold of conflict and proven combat leaders like Puller were very much in demand.
Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was assigned command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (infantry), forming in the new Marine base at New River, N.C. (later, Camp Lejeune).
In October 1942, he commanded this battalion in the fierce action in defense of the Marine beachhead on Guadalcanal, receiving his third award of the Navy Cross.
During the Cape Gloucester campaign in January 1944, he received his fourth Navy Cross, and he later commanded a regiment in the bloody landing at Peleliu in September of that year.
On to Korea
In the Korean War, Puller commanded the 1st Marine Regiment of the 1st Marine Division (3rd Marine Division) in its landing on Sept. 15, 1950, at Inchon, Seoul’s seaport.
This was a hugely successful enveloping action that isolated the invading North Koreans, who had been continuing their attack toward Pusan, at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
Later, in October, he landed his regiment at Wonson, on the eastern coast of Korea and participated in the attack of the 1st Marine Division towards the Yalu River.
When Communist Chinese forces entered the conflict in support of North Korea, the 1st Marine Division was forced into a withdrawal in mid-Winter, with snow and sub-zero temperatures adding to the hazards.
Puller was serving at that time under the command of a brilliant Marine leader, Major General O. P. Smith, for whom I had served as a second lieutenant in 1939.
It was Smith who described this crucial disengagement in these terms: “Retreat, hell. We are just attacking in another direction.”
For this, his last battle, Puller was awarded his fifth and last Navy Cross.
Next: The final days of Chesty Puller
Next: Chesty Puller’s last years