U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Burwell Puller was a born fighter and he saw expeditionary service in Nicaragua, Haiti and China, and fought in World War II and the Korean War. He is considered the most decorated Marine in Marine Corps history.
Chesty Puller, as he is affectionately known in the ranks, served for 37 years as a mustang officer (prior enlisted officer), 27 of those years were overseas or at sea. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and enlisted in the Corps in 1918. About a year later, he was appointed a Marine Reserve second lieutenant, but due to personnel cuts in the Marine Corps after World War I, Chesty was placed on inactive duty ten days later. He rejoined the Marines days later to serve as an officer in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, a Haitian military force set up in cooperation with the United States. Many of its officers were U.S. Marines, while its enlisted personnel were Haitians.
Chesty Puller spent almost five years in Haiti and he saw frequent action against the Caco rebels. He returned to the United States in 1924 and he was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant in March. He served at the Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia, completed the Basic School in Philadelphia, and served with the 10th Marines at Quantico, Virginia. He was then detailed as a student naval aviator at Pensacola, Florida, in February 1926.
In 1928 Chesty Puller joined the Nicaraguan National Guard Detachment and earned his first Navy Cross in Nicaragua. Outnumbered, he led his troops in five engagements and relentlessly pursued the enemy until he had defeated them. He returned to the United States in July 1931 and attended numerous military education courses, but returned to Nicaragua in 1932 and earned his second Navy Cross. The Marines were in Nicaragua to train and lead nascent military forces in fighting against an insurgency that was threatening U.S. interests in the country.
Chesty Puller earned his second Navy Cross when he was leading his platoon of 40 men on patrol 100 miles from the nearest support base. They were ambushed by a guerilla force of 150 enemy. Puller used high ground to aggressively attack and took out the enemy. Two of Puller’s men were killed, six were wounded. The enemy was crushed and those who weren’t killed fled into the jungle. While returning to the base, a week’s march away, the platoon was attacked twice more and in both instances Puller and his men repelled the attacks and inflicted severe casualties.
In January 1933, Chesty Puller left Nicaragua and joined the Marine Detachment in Peiping, China. He commanded the famed Horse Marines while in China. In 1934, he assumed command of the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Augusta. In June 1936, he became an instructor in the Basic School at Philadelphia and three years later in 1939, left to serve another again as commander of the Augusta’s Marine detachment. Eventually Puller ended up with the 4th Marines at Shanghai, China in 1940 as a battalion executive and commanding officer.
In September 1941, Chesty Puller took command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, at Camp Lejeune. That regiment was detached from the 1st Division in March 1942 and as part of the 3rd Marine Brigade, it sailed for the Pacific theater. The 7th Marines rejoined the 1st Marine Division later in 1942, and Puller, still commanding its 1st Battalion, earned his third Navy Cross at Guadalcanal.
The action which brought him that medal occurred in October 1942. For three hours Puller’s battalion, stretched across a mile-long front, was the only defense between vital Henderson Airfield and a regiment of seasoned Japanese troops. The Japanese repeatedly attacked Puller’s defensive lines and Puller moved up and down the line encouraging his men and directing the defense. After reinforcements arrived, he commanded the force until the next afternoon. The Marines suffered less than 70 casualties, while 1,400 Japanese soldiers were killed and 17 truckloads of their equipment was captured.
After Guadalcanal Chesty Puller became executive officer of the 7th Marines. He was serving in that capacity when he earned his fourth Navy Cross at Cape Gloucester in January 1944. When two battalion commanders were wounded, Puller took over their units and moved through heavy machine gun and mortar fire to reorganize the Marines for an attack. Under his leadership, they took a strongly-fortified enemy position.
In February 1944, Chesty Puller took command of the 1st Marines at Cape Gloucester and commanded the regiment for the remainder of the campaign, sailing with the unit to the Russell Islands in April 1944, and commanding it at Peleliu in the fall of 1944. Upon his return to the United States in November 1944, Puller was named executive officer of the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune in January 1945, and took command of that regiment the next month.
In August 1946, Chesty Puller became director of the 8th Marine Corps Reserve District and after that he commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor until August 1950. Puller then was assigned to Camp Pendleton where he was charged with reestablishing and commanding the 1st Marines, the same regiment he had led at Cape Gloucester and Peleliu.
In September 1950, Chesty Puller landed with the 1st Marines at Inchon, Korea. He would earn the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for heroic actions in battles in the latter part of November 1950. Puller would earn his fifth and final Navy Cross as a colonel just a few days later in December 1950. He was cited for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations.” The battle was fought in sub-zero temperatures at the frozen Chosin Reservoir against the North Koreans who badly outnumbered Puller’s regiment.
Chesty Puller’s men repelled countless enemy attacks by larger forces. As usual, Puller moved along the defensive line, ducking machinegun, artillery and mortar fire, organizing, leading and directing his troops. Puller fortified the line and more importantly kept supply routes open for the division. As they moved to south, the enemy launched two additional attacks and once again, Puller was in the action.
He commanded that regiment until January 1951 when he was promoted to brigadier general and named assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division. In May 1951, Puller returned to Camp Pendleton to command the newly reactivated 3rd Marine Brigade, which was redesignated the 3rd Marine Division in January 1952.
Chesty Puller was promoted to major general in September 1953, and in July 1954, he assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. Despite illness he retained command until February 1955, when he was appointed deputy camp commander. He served in that capacity until August, when he entered the U.S. Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune prior to retirement. He was promoted to lieutenant general in 1955.
Chesty Puller died in October 1971. He earned 14 decorations in combat, including his five Navy Crosses, the Army Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star, as well as a Legion of Merit with a Combat “V” device, and three Air Medals. He is also the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals.
Chesty Puller’s other medals and decorations include the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon with four bronze stars; the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal with one bronze star; the World War I Victory Medal with West Indies clasp; the Haitian Campaign Medal; the Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal; the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal with one bronze star; the China Service Medal; the American Defense Service Medal with Base clasp; the American Area Campaign Medal; the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with four bronze stars; the World War II Victory Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; the Korean Service Medal with one silver star in lieu of five bronze stars; the United Nations Service Medal; the Haitian Medaille Militaire; the Nicaraguan Presidential Medal of Merit with Diploma; the Nicaraguan Cross of Valor with Diploma; the Republic of Korea's Ulchi Medal with Gold Star; and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster.