When Chesty Puller retired, as a 55-year-old lieutenant general, he was the most decorated Marine of all time.
Five Navy Crosses, three Air Medals, two Legions of Merit, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star Medal, and a Distinguished Service Cross adorned the man’s uniform.
The pride of his troops and a legend, even in life, to the Marine Corp, many knew him as one of the toughest, most tenacious fighting men to ever serve in the American military.
His name was Lewis Burwell Puller, but he was best known as “Chesty.” To this day, over 50 years after his death, Americans celebrate him as a Marine’s Marine, a hardtack, courageous, stubborn warrior who exemplifies the fighting spirit of the Marines.
Puller’s biography reads, in some ways, like fiction. His quotes are some of the most inspirational, intuitive, and downright humorous thoughts to ever come from an American mind.
Who Was Chesty Puller?
Puller was born in 1898 in the town of West Point, Virginia. (Not to be confused with West Point, New York, home of the United States Military Academy.) He was born to a family with a history of military service; his grandfather was John Puller, a major in the Confederate army, and his distant cousin was none other than Gen. George S. Patton.
His entry into the United States military did not follow a direct, typical path. He started at the Virginia Military Institute in 1917, but when the U.S. entered the First World War, he quickly left VMI and enlisted in the Marines, all in the hope that he would soon experience combat. He was ordered to France, but before he left the orders were canceled. Peace in Europe, quite possibly to the disappointment of a man like Puller, had been declared.
Puller’s career went through a series of stops and starts. He graduated from Marine Office Training School but was eventually discharged because of post-war reductions. His officer career, at that point, lasted two weeks.
Puller’s Combat Experience
He finally met combat, in no small measure, in Latin America, including Haiti and Nicaragua.
There, he defended his life with 45 Auto ammunition loaded in an M1911 pistol.
In Haiti, he first saw combat when his pack train was ambushed by rebels. Puller served four years in Haiti, fighting over 40 battles on the island. He also served, during two different terms, in Nicaragua during the U.S. occupation. There, according to tradition, enemy fighters named him “the Tiger” and leaders put a bounty of 5,000 pesos on his head.
One of Puller’s most visible leadership accomplishments came not in combat, but drilling. For years, the Marines participated in the National Silent Drill Competition, but consistently lost to the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. They had never won until Puller took command. Instilling a vigorous from-scratch approach, he led the Marines to victory at the 1925 competition.
Puller went through a variety of assignments, including service at Ft. Benning in Georgia where, according to legend, he quarreled with Army leaders over military tactics and strategy. Most notably, he was allegedly in an argument with an Army officer who supported a strategy emphasizing rate of fire over accuracy. Puller, being a seasoned combat veteran, took issue with the thought, emphasizing accuracy over anything else.
Already holding two Navy Cross awards, Puller had a career worthy of high honor long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the second World War, however, Puller would go from an honorable Marine to an outright legend.
World War II Service
Puller’s service in World War II was exemplary. He fought in numerous battles that had a direct impact on the war’s result. Most famous of these battles was Guadalcanal, which saw ruthless fighting between the Japanese and American forces. In one instance on the jungle island, the enemy surrounded U.S. forces. Without hesitation, Puller ran to the shore and signaled a U.S. destroyer. Boarding the ship, he directed fire and drove the enemy off, likely saving numerous Americans.
Like many great military leaders, Puller was willing to put himself in harm’s way to achieve an objective. One night during the Pacific campaign, Puller intentionally lit his pipe to draw machine-gun fire from the enemy. This allowed his own gunners to destroy the nest by targeting the gun flashes.
By the end of the war, Puller was the owner of four Navy Crosses. Puller’s exploits and honors during World War II and the Pacific Campaign were numerous. He could have left the military as one of the most honorable warriors to ever serve, but he continued in his storied career.
Puller In The Korean War
In Korea, Puller served in major operations and significant combat. He was part of the legendary Inchon assault, an amphibious operation masterminded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. During this battle, Marines seized a foothold in Korea that eventually led to the recapture of Seoul from communist forces. Without this operation, the democratic, free-market, economically vibrant nation of South Korea would likely not exist, at least not in its current form.
Puller also fought in the massive Battle of Chosin Reservoir where his leadership and bravery were a shining light for American forces. Massively outnumbered, Puller, in his to-the-point humor, said “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” Puller led a fighting withdrawal that crippled seven Chinese divisions. According to captured documents, 25,000 fighters were killed and another 12,500 were wounded, while American forces saw under 800 deaths and about 3,500 wounded. For his bravery and leadership, Puller won his fifth Navy Cross.
Korea was the last theater where he saw active combat. Serving in various command appointments, we rose to Lt. General. After suffering a stroke, the stubborn Marine was forced to retire (amidst his ringing protests) in 1955. A man whose life was defined by war, combat, struggle, violence, and bravery, he died peacefully in 1971 at the age of 73.
He was not, as was his right, buried in Arlington Cemetery. Instead, he rests in a local, small-town Virginia cemetery.
Where Did the Name “Chesty” Come From?
There are varying theories on the roots of his nickname “Chesty.” Possibly, the name comes from his large, protruding barrel chest. However, the term “chesty” also means “cocky” or “confident.” Possibly, his unrelenting, self-assured attitude led to this nickname.
Either way, “Chesty” remains an important name in the legends of the Marine Corp and the American military.
Famous Chesty Puller Quotes
“You don’t hurt ’em if you don’t hit ’em.”
When arguing with Army trainers over military strategy
“I’ve always believed that no officer’s life, regardless of rank, is of such great value to his country that he should seek safety in the rear”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“Unless the American people are willing to send their sons out to fight an aggressor, there just isn’t going to be any United States.”
“We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
When surrounded during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir
“When the Marine Corps wants you to have a wife, you will be issued one.”