Lewis Burwell¬†Chesty‘¬†Puller:¬†June 26, 1898‚ÄďOctober 11, 1971


‚ú™ Lewis Burwell¬†“Chesty”¬†Puller was a¬†United States Marine Corps¬†officer who began his military career fighting guerillas in Haiti and Nicaragua¬†as part of the¬†Banana Wars. He later served with distinction in¬†World War II¬†and the¬†Korean War¬†as a senior officer. By the time of his retirement in 1955, he had reached the rank of¬†lieutenant general.

Puller is the most decorated Marine in American history.¬†He was awarded five¬†Navy Crosses¬†and one¬†Distinguished Service Cross. With six crosses, Puller is second behind¬†Eddie Rickenbacker¬†for citations of the nation’s second-highest military award for valor.¬†Puller retired from the Marine Corps in 1955 after 37 years of service. He lived in¬†Virginia¬†and died in 1971 at the age of 73.

Puller was born in¬†West Point, Virginia, to Matthew and Martha Puller. Puller was of English ancestry; his ancestors who came to America emigrated to the¬†colony of Virginia¬†from¬†Bedfordshire, England¬†in 1621.¬†His father was a grocer who died when Puller was only 10 years old. Puller grew up listening to old veterans’ tales of the¬†American Civil War¬†and idolizing¬†Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He tried to enlist in the¬†United States Army¬†to fight in the¬†Border War¬†with Mexico in 1916, but was too young and could not get parental consent from his mother.

The following year, Puller attended the¬†Virginia Military Institute¬†but left in August 1918 as¬†World War I¬†was still ongoing, saying that he wanted to “go where the guns are!”¬†Inspired by the¬†5th Marines¬†at¬†Belleau Wood, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as a private and attended boot camp at the¬†Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.¬†Although he never saw action in that war, the Marine Corps was expanding and soon after graduating he attended its¬†non-commissioned officer¬†school and¬†Officer Candidates School¬†(OCS) at¬†Quantico, Virginia. Graduating from OCS on June 16, 1919, Puller was appointed¬†second lieutenant¬†in the¬†reserves,¬†but the reduction in forces from 73,000 to 1,100 officers and 27,400 men following the end of the war led to his being put on inactive status 10 days later and given the rank of corporal.

Corporal Puller received orders to serve in the¬†Gendarmerie d’Haiti¬†as a lieutenant,¬†seeing action in Haiti.¬†While the United States was working under a treaty with Haiti, he participated in over forty engagements during the ensuing five years against the¬†Caco¬†rebels and attempted to regain his commission as an officer twice. In 1922, he served as an¬†adjutant¬†to Major¬†Alexander Vandegrift, a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Puller inherited a force of one hundred Gendarmes who were supported unofficially by about the same number of female¬†camp followers. Puller’s assigned chief assistant was acting Second Lieutenant Augustin B. Brunot, a Haitian who was fluent in English.

Brunot advised Puller on how to combat the Cacos insurgents. They advised him that daylight patrols had little chance of encountering the Cacos, as they hid during the day, only emerging from hiding to ambush government patrols whenever they had superior numbers.

Brunot advised that the Cacos encamped at night and that night patrols would have a better chance of surprising them. When Puller and his unit, following this advice, patrolled along a ridge-top trail one night, he observed campfires and heard drums nearby. After returning, Puller came up with a plan to ambush the Cacos at dawn. Puller would go on to plan & conduct many more offensive operations to suppress the Cacos.

The Cacos Rebellion collapsed altogether when a Marine patrol killed the top Cacos commander Batraville on May 19, 1920. A month later, the last significant Caco leader surrendered.

Puller returned stateside and was finally recommissioned as a second lieutenant on March 6, 1924. After completing assignments at the Marine barracks in Norfolk, Virginia; The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia; and with the 10th Marine Artillery Regiment in Quantico, Virginia, he was assigned to the Marine barracks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in July 1926 and in San Diego, California in 1928.

In December 1928, Puller was assigned to the¬†Nicaraguan¬†National Guard detachment, where he was awarded his first Navy Cross for his actions from February 16 to August 19, 1930, when he led “five successive engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces.”¬†Puller led American Marines and Nicaraguan National Guardsmen into battle against¬†Sandinista¬†rebels in¬†the last major engagement¬†of the Sandino Rebellion near¬†El Sauce¬†on December 26, 1932.

Virginia Montague Evans was 29 when she married then-Marine Capt. Lewis Burwell Puller in Saluda. The new Mrs. Puller followed her husband during his career while he served in China, Hawaii and across the United States.

After his service in Nicaragua, Puller was assigned to the Marine detachment at the American Legation in Beijing, China, commanding a unit of China Marines. He then went on to serve aboard USS Augusta, a cruiser in the Asiatic Fleet, which was commanded by then-Captain Chester W. Nimitz. Puller returned to the States in June 1936 as an instructor at The Basic School in Philadelphia.

Early in the Pacific Theater, the 7th Marines formed the nucleus of the newly created 3rd Marine Brigade and arrived to defend Samoa on May 8, 1942. Later they were redeployed from the brigade and on September 4, 1942, they left Samoa and rejoined the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal on September 18, 1942.

Soon after arriving on Guadalcanal, Lt. Col. Puller led his battalion in a fierce¬†action along the Matanikau, in which Puller’s quick thinking saved three of his companies from annihilation. In the action, these companies were surrounded and cut off by a larger¬†Japanese force. Puller ran to the shore, signaled a United States Navy destroyer, the¬†USS¬†Monssen¬†(DD-436), and then directed the destroyer to provide fire support while landing craft rescued his Marines from their precarious position.

He was promoted to colonel effective February 1, 1944, and by the end of the month had been named commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. In September and October 1944, Puller led the 1st Marine Regiment into the protracted battle on Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, and received his first of two Legion of Merit awards

During the summer of 1944, Puller’s younger brother, Samuel D. Puller, the¬†executive officer¬†of the¬†4th Marine Regiment, was killed by an enemy sniper on Guam.

Puller returned to the United States in November 1944, was named executive officer of the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune and, two weeks later, commanding officer. After the war, he was made director of the 8th Reserve District at New Orleans, and later commanded the Marine barracks at Pearl Harbor.

At the outbreak of the¬†Korean War, Puller was once again assigned as commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. He participated in the¬†landing at Inchon¬†on September 15, 1950 and was awarded the¬†Silver Star Medal. It was at the¬†Battle of Chosin Reservoir that he said the famous line, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”

In July 1954, Puller took command of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina until February 1955 when he became Deputy Camp Commander. He suffered a stroke and was retired by the Marine Corps on November 1, 1955, with a promotion to lieutenant general.

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His nickname was related to the way his barrel chest stood out due to his aggressive stance, with legends claiming that a steel plate had been inserted by surgeons to treat a battle wound. Puller was also a distant cousin to U.S. Army General George S. Patton.

Puller’s son,¬†Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr.¬†(generally known as Lewis Puller), served as a Marine lieutenant in the¬†Vietnam War. While serving with¬†2nd Battalion, 1st Marines¬†, Lewis Jr. was severely wounded by a mine explosion, losing both legs and parts of his hands. Lieutenant General Puller broke down sobbing at seeing his son for the first time in the hospital.¬†Lewis Jr. won a 1992¬†Pulitzer Prize¬†for his autobiography, Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet. He committed suicide in 1994.

Puller remains a well-known figure in U.S. Marine Corps folklore, with both true and exaggerated tales of his experiences being constantly recounted among U.S. Marines.

A common practice in U.S. Marine Corps boot camp is to end one’s day with the declaration, “Good night, Chesty, wherever you are!”¬†Another common encouragement is “Chesty Puller never quit!”

In U.S. Marine Corps¬†recruit training¬†and¬†OCS¬†cadences, Marines chant “It was good for Chesty Puller/And it’s good enough for me” as well as “Tell Chesty Puller I did my best.”‚ÄĒChesty is symbolic of the¬†esprit de corps¬†of the Marines. Also, the recruits sing “Chesty Puller was a good Marine and a good Marine was he.”

U.S. Marines, while doing pull-ups, will tell each other to “do one for Chesty!” The¬†Marine Corps’ mascot¬†is perpetually named “Chesty Pullerton.” He is always a purebred English¬†Bulldog.

Puller insisted upon good equipment and discipline; once he came upon a¬†second lieutenant¬†who had ordered an enlisted man to salute him 100 times for missing a salute. Puller told the lieutenant, “You were absolutely correct in making him salute you 100 times, Lieutenant, but you know that an officer must return every salute he receives. Now return them all, and I will keep count.”

Following his retirement Puller lived in Saluda, Virginia, where he died on October 11, 1971 after a series of strokes. He is interred at Christ Church Cemetery next to his wife, Virginia.✪

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