Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller (June 26, 1898 – October 11, 1971) was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Puller is the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, and the only Marine to receive five Navy Crosses.
During his career, he fought guerrillas in Haiti and Nicaragua, and participated in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and the Korean War. Puller retired from the Marine Corps in 1955, spending the rest of his life in Virginia.
Puller was born in West Point, Virginia to Matthew and Martha Puller. His father was a grocer who died when Lewis was 10 years old, leaving him the head of the house. Puller grew up listening to old veterans' tales of the Civil War and idolizing Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. He wanted to enlist in the army to fight in Mexico in 1916, but he was too young and could not get parental consent from his mother.
Learn more about Chesty Puller, free from marines.com. The following year, Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute but left at the end of his first year 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 Corps was expanding, and soon after graduating he attended NCO school and OCS (Officer Candidates School) at Quantico, Virginia following that. Upon graduation from OCS on June 16, 1919, Puller was appointed to the grade of second lieutenant in the reserves, but reduction in force following the war led to his being put on inactive status 10 days later and given the rank of corporal.
First Lieutenant Lewis "Chesty" Puller (center left) and Sergeant William "Ironman" Lee (center right) and two Nicaraguan soldiers in 1931
As a 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 General Alexander Vandegrift, a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.
On March 6, 1924, Puller returned stateside and was finally recommissioned as a second lieutenant (service number 03158), afterward 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 earned 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. He returned stateside in July 1931 and completed the year-long Company Officers Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, thereafter returning to Nicaragua from September 20 to October 1, 1932 to earn a second Navy Cross.
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 (CA-31), 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.
In May 1939, he returned to the Augusta as commander of the onboard Marine detachment, and then back to China, disembarking in Shanghai in May 1940 to serve as the executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. He later served as its commanding officer.
World War II
Major Puller returned to the U.S. on August 28, 1941. After a short leave, he was given command of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (known as 1/7) of the 1st Marine Division, stationed at New River, North Carolina, the new Marine amphibious base which would soon be renamed for the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune, MCB Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. 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 Division at Guadalcanal on September 18, 1942.
Soon after arriving on Guadalcanal, 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, and then directed the destroyer to provide fire support while landing craft rescued his Marines from their precarious position, actions that earned him a Bronze Star.
Later on Guadalcanal, Puller earned his third Navy Cross, in what was later known as the "Battle for Henderson Field", in which 1/7 was the only American unit defending the airfield against a regiment-strength Japanese force. In a firefight on the night of October 24–25, 1942, lasting about three hours, 1/7 sustained 70 casualties; the Japanese force suffered over 1,400 killed in action, and the battalion held the airfield. While on Guadalcanal, Puller was shot by a sniper twice and wounded by shrapnel in three different places, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. When the Japanese put another offensive across the Matanikau river, the Japanese force was much stronger, and Puller didn't have enough men. But one man, Staff Sergeant John Basilone saved the entire regiment with his machine gun, and running back and forth bringing much needed ammunition to his battalion. While on leave on Melbourne, Puller put Basilone in for a Medal of Honor, which was approved by the President himself.
Puller was then made executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment. While serving in this capacity at Cape Gloucester, Puller earned his fourth Navy Cross for overall performance of duty between December 26, 1943 and January 19, 1944. During this time, when the battalion commanders of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines and, later, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, while under heavy machine gun and mortar fire, he expertly reorganized the battalion and led the successful attack against heavily fortified Japanese defensive positions. 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. Colonel Puller would lead the 1st Marines into the protracted battle on Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history during September and October 1944, action where he earned his first Legion of Merit. During the summer of 1944, Puller's younger brother, Samuel D. Puller, the Executive Officer of the 4th Marine Regiment, was killed by a 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, with which he made a landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950, earning his Silver Star. For leadership from September 15 to November 2, he was awarded his second Legion of Merit. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from the Army for action from November 29 to December 5 of that same year, and his fifth Navy Cross for action during December 5–10 at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. It was during that battle when he made the famous quote, "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things."
In January 1951, Puller was promoted to brigadier general and was assigned duty as assistant division commander (ADC) of the 1st Marine Division. On February 24, however, his immediate superior, Major General O. P. Smith, was hastily transferred to command X Corps when its army commander, Major General Bryant Moore, died. Smith’s temporary transfer left Puller in command of his beloved 1st Marine Division. Puller would serve as ADC until he completed his tour of duty and returned to the United States on May 20, 1951.
General Puller subsequently received promotions to major general and lieutenant general, and served in various command capacities until his retirement due to health reasons on November 1, 1955.
Puller's son Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr. (generally known as Lewis Puller) became a highly decorated Marine as a lieutenant in Vietnam. 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.
Puller was father-in-law to Colonel William H. Dabney, a VMI graduate, who, as a captain, was the commanding officer of two heavily reinforced rifle companies of the Third Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines from January 21 to April 14, 1968. During the entire period, Colonel Dabney's force stubbornly defended Hill 881S, a regional outpost vital to the defense of the Khe Sanh Combat Base during the 77-day siege. Following Khe Sanh, Dabney was nominated for the Navy Cross for his actions on Hill 881 South. But his battalion executive officer's helicopter carrying the nomination papers crashed—and the papers were lost. On April 15, 2005 Colonel William H. Dabney, USMC (Ret) was awarded the Navy Cross in a ceremony at Virginia Military Institute for actions 37 years earlier in Vietnam.
Puller was a distant cousin to another famous hard-charging and decorated general with roots in rural Virginia, Army General George S. Patton.
Awards and honors
Puller was the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, receiving the Navy Cross, the Navy's and Marines' second highest decoration, five times (the second and only other person to be so honored, after Navy submarine commander Roy Milton Davenport). With five Navy Crosses and a Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest decoration, Puller received the nation's second highest military decoration a total of six times.
First Navy Cross citation
"For distinguished service in the line of his profession while commanding a Nicaraguan National Guard patrol. First Lieutenant Lewis B. Puller, United States Marine Corps, successfully led his forces into five successful engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces; namely, at LaVirgen on 16 February 1930, at Los Cedros on 6 June 1930, at Moncotal on 22 July 1930, at Guapinol on 25 July 1930, and at Malacate on 19 August 1930, with the result that the bandits were in each engagement completely routed with losses of nine killed and many wounded. By his intelligent and forceful leadership without thought of his own personal safety, by great physical exertion and by suffering many hardships, Lieutenant Puller surmounted all obstacles and dealt five successive and severe blows against organized banditry in the Republic of Nicaragua."
Second Navy Cross citation
"First Lieutenant Lewis B. Puller, United States Marine Corps (Captain, Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua) performed exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility while in command of a Guardia Patrol from 20 September to 1 October 1932. Lieutenant Puller and his command of forty Guardia and Gunnery Sergeant William A. Lee, United States Marine Corps, serving as a First Lieutenant in the Guardia, penetrated the isolated mountainous bandit territory for a distance of from eighty to one hundred miles north of Jinotega, his nearest base. This patrol was ambushed on 26 September 1932, at a point northeast of Mount Kilambe by an insurgent force of one hundred fifty in a well-prepared position armed with not less than seven automatic weapons and various classes of small arms and well-supplied with ammunition. Early in the combat, Gunnery Sergeant Lee, the Second in Command was seriously wounded and reported as dead. The Guardia immediately behind Lieutenant Puller in the point was killed by the first burst of fire, Lieutenant Puller, with great courage, coolness and display of military judgment, so directed the fire and movement of his men that the enemy were driven first from the high ground on the right of his position, and then by a flanking movement forced from the high ground to the left and finally were scattered in confusion with a loss of ten killed and many wounded by the persistent and well-directed attack of the patrol. The numerous casualties suffered by the enemy and the Guardia losses of two killed and four wounded are indicative of the severity of the enemy resistance. This signal victory in jungle country, with no lines of communication and a hundred miles from any supporting force, was largely due to the indomitable courage and persistence of the patrol commander. Returning with the wounded to Jinotega, the patrol was ambushed twice by superior forces on 30 September. On both of the occasions the enemy was dispersed with severe losses."
Third Navy Cross citation
"For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, during the action against enemy Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on the night of 24 to 25 October 1942. While Lieutenant Colonel Puller’s battalion was holding a mile-long front in a heavy downpour of rain, a Japanese force, superior in number, launched a vigorous assault against that position of the line which passed through a dense jungle. Courageously withstanding the enemy’s desperate and determined attacks, Lieutenant Colonel Puller not only held his battalion to its position until reinforcements arrived three hours later, but also effectively commanded the augmented force until late in the afternoon of the next day. By his tireless devotion to duty and cool judgment under fire, he prevented a hostile penetration of our lines and was largely responsible for the successful defense of the sector assigned to his troops."
Fourth Navy Cross citation
"For extraordinary heroism as Executive Officer of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, serving with the Sixth United States Army, in combat against enemy Japanese forces at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, from 26 December 1943 to 19 January 1944. Assigned temporary command of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, from 4 to 9 January, Lieutenant Colonel Puller quickly reorganized and advanced his unit, effecting the seizure of the objective without delay. Assuming additional duty in command of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, from 7 to 8 January, after the commanding officer and executive officer had been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Puller unhesitatingly exposed himself to rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire from strongly entrenched Japanese positions to move from company to company in his front lines, reorganizing and maintaining a critical position along a fire-swept ridge. His forceful leadership and gallant fighting spirit under the most hazardous conditions were contributing factors in the defeat of the enemy during this campaign and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Fifth Navy Cross citation
"For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against aggressor forces in the vicinity of Koto-ri, Korea, from 5 to 10 December 1950. Fighting continuously in sub-zero weather against a vastly outnumbering hostile force, Colonel Puller drove off repeated and fanatical enemy attacks upon his Regimental defense sector and supply points. Although the area was frequently covered by grazing machine-gun fire and intense artillery and mortar fire, he coolly moved along his troops to insure their correct tactical employment, reinforced the lines as the situation demanded, and successfully defended the perimeter, keeping open the main supply routes for the movement of the Division. During the attack from Koto-ri to Hungnam, he expertly utilized his Regiment as the Division rear guard, repelling two fierce enemy assaults which severely threatened the security of the unit, and personally supervised the care and prompt evacuation of all casualties. By his unflagging determination, he served to inspire his men to heroic efforts in defense of their positions and assured the safety of much valuable equipment which would otherwise have been lost to the enemy. His skilled leadership, superb courage and valiant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds reflect the highest credit upon Colonel Puller and the United States Naval Service."
Distinguished Service Cross citation
"The President of the United States of America, under the provisions of the Act of Congress approved July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller (MCSN: 0-3158), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Commanding Officer, First Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir, Korea, during the period 29 November to 4 December 1950. Colonel Puller's actions contributed materially to the breakthrough of the First Marine Regiment in the Chosin Reservoir area and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service."
Namesakes and honors
The frigate Lewis B. Puller (FFG-23) was named after him.
The headquarters building for 2nd Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team on Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in Yorktown, Virginia is named Puller Hall in his honor.
Rt 33 In Middlesex County VA. The county in which Puller is buried.
On November 10, 2005, the United States Postal Service issued its Distinguished Marines stamps in which Puller was honored.
The Marine Corps' mascot is perpetually named "Chesty Pullerton." (e.g. Chesty Pullerton XIII). He is always an English Bulldog.
Chesty Puller in Marine Corps culture
Chesty Puller remains a well known figure in Marine Corps folklore, with both true and exaggerated tales of his experiences being constantly recounted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
A common incantation in Marine Corps boot camp is to end one's day with the declaration, "Good night, Chesty Puller, wherever you are!" Another common encouragement is "Chesty Puller never quit!"
In Marine recruit training and OCS cadences, Marines chant "It was good for Chesty Puller/And it's good enough for me"—Chesty 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."
Marines, while doing pull-ups, will tell each other to "do one for Chesty!"
Chesty is loved by enlisted men for his constant actions to improve their lot. 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. Chesty 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."
While on duty in Hawaii and inspecting the armory, Puller fined himself $100 for discharging a .45 caliber pistol, although the charge for his men was only $20.