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Captain Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC, whom I had first encountered as my instructor at Marine Corps Basic School in Philadelphia in 1937-38, had actively sought combat assignments.
In World War II and the Korean Conflict, he continued to advance in rank and to add three more awards of the coveted Navy Cross to the two he wore at that time. He had been considered by all Marines to be the Corps’ greatest hero,
Now, to his dismay, he had fought his last fight. He was however to be caught up in other controversies.
Upon returning from Korea, as a brigadier general, in May 1951, Puller was besieged by members of the press, eager to hear the personal observations of an outspoken military hero.
They were not disappointed. He expressed himself frankly, and some of his responses indicated a disdain for excessive schooling of officers, instead of combat experience.
He criticized the Army and Air Force and made remarks to the press that sometimes seemed to undermine national policy and could not have set well with the State Department.
He recommended openly that the United States support an attack by the Taiwan Nationalist Chinese on Communist-controlled China.
He was quoted by a reporter eager for a headline, as saying: “Get rid of the ice cream and candy. Give ‘em beer and whiskey – that’ll help some.”
On July 1, 1954, Puller, by then a major general, took over command of the 2nd Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, N.C.
And one of his first directives was that beer could be served with lunch at the base’s non-commissioned officers’ clubs, an act that further endeared him to his troops.
A personal aside: Contrary to Puller’s policy, I prefer the moderation of the U. S. Navy, which, unlike the British Navy, proscribes the consumption of alcohol aboard ship.
I served under an inspirational officer in the battleship USS Tennessee in 1938, but his one fault was his tendency to over-imbibe.
I can see him now, on the ship’s quarterdeck, looking up to the masts and pronouncing the sun to be over the yardarm, signaling it was time to go ashore for a drink.
In early years in the service, when the principal of privacy was not so pronounced, I recall receiving along with all officers, printed Navy Department Court Martial Orders, recording the results of military courts martial.
It seemed that the most prevalent offense for Naval Officers was “Through negligence allowing a vessel of the Navy to become stranded.”
For Marine officers, I must confess, it seemed to be “drunkenness!”
In August, 1954, a month after he assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division, Puller was hospitalized with a stroke and placed on sick leave, and on Oct. 29 he appeared before a board of medical examiners that pronounced him fit for duty.
However, in Washington, the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in its review of the case, pronounced that Puller was fit only for limited duty, a status unacceptable to him.
After a bitter struggle to regain full duty status, in which he used every available course of action, including legal representation, the final decision was upheld.
He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and retired in a simple ceremony on Oct. 31, 1955.
I last met Puller when serving in the 2nd Marine Division in Camp Lejeune. Maj. Gen. Philip Berkeley, the commanding general, scheduled a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of his division, which was held Feb. 1, 1961.
This event Berkeley dubbed “Operation Old Timer,” and he directed that I coordinate it.
All living former 2nd Division commanders attended. I remember well, when this group of general officers returned from observing a tactical demonstration in the field, we offered them help in getting out of the back of a truck.
Puller made a point of leaping to the ground unaided, obviously demonstrating to all that he was still fit.
Tragedy and a final salute
For all the difficulty and his insistence on proving his capabilities, Chesty Puller was about to face the greatest personal tragedy of his life.
His son Lewis Puller, Jr., following his father’s footsteps into the Marine Corps, was commissioned a second lieutenant and ordered to Vietnam, where he became leader of a rifle platoon.
On Oct. 11, 1968, Lt. Puller stepped on a land mine, losing both legs and part of both hands, though heroic medical efforts on the spot managed to save his life.
Chesty Puller, despite his apparent stoicism, was utterly devastated.
And three years from the day that his son had been so grievously wounded, Chesty, after a long illness, died on Oct. 11, 1971, at the age of 73.
I can find no better tribute to Chesty Puller as a combat leader than that expressed by his biographer, Lt. Col. Jon T. Hoffman, U. S. Marine Corps Reserve:
“Puller’s ability to motivate men came from a simpler source. His Marines knew that he would ask no more of them than he was willing to put forth himself, and that was everything he had. They knew that when they were putting their lives on the line, he would be right out front with them. They knew that he would zealously look out for their welfare and shield them as much as possible from both the daunting hardships and petty troubles of a tough profession.”
Puller’s son made a valiant effort to overcome his crippling wounds, and in 1978 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
In 1992 he received a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography, optimistically titled Fortunate Son.
On May 11, 1994, he killed himself.
In its May 23, 1994 issue, Timemagazine, reported:
“His marriage of 26 years was dissolving, and he suffered a serious relapse in his battle against alcoholism. Despondent beyond consolation, he picked up a gun and extinguished a life that had given so many others hope.”