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Chesty Puller: The Marine's Marine

One of the things that has always set the Marine Corps apart from its sister services is its esprit d’corps – an all-pervading camaraderie that every Marine leaves boot camp imbued with. Civilians can’t understand it (especially the Hollywood liberals) and even while soldiers, sailors and airmen leave their own respective basic training with a certain sense of that spirit, it is nowhere near as strong as that taught by the Marines.

No one better exemplified that spirit – nor contributed more to it – than Lewis B. Puller … “Chesty” Puller, as he is still known by any Marine. It was his bulldog spirit that rubbed off on Marines between the first two world wars and eventually became enshrined in Marine lore and legend to inspire today’s young warriors. Puller served in the Marines for 37 years and remains the most highly-decorated Marine in history – including five Navy Crosses (that service’s highest decoration), the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit with "V" device, the Bronze Star with "V" device, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

Born in 1898 at West Point, Va., and a distant relative of a man of similar disposition who would eventually earn fame in the European theater during World War II – George S. Patton – Puller enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in 1917 with an aim toward earning an officer’s commission. When the war broke out, however, he dropped out of school an enlisted in the Marines, saying simply: “I want to go where the guns are!”

The war ended before Puller saw action, but he was appointed a reserve second lieutenant in 1919. Because of force reductions after the war, however, he was placed on inactive duty 10 days later. He rejoined the Marines as an enlisted man and served with the Gendarmerie d’Haiti for five years before returning to the U.S. in 1924 and earning a commission (again) as a second lieutenant.

Over the course of the next several years he served twice in Nicaragua – each time earning a Navy Cross for gallantry – and in January, 1933, went to China to command the famous “Horse Marines” of the American Legation in Pieping. He eventually joined the 4th Marine Regiment in China in 1940, then was transferred back to the U.S. in August, 1941, to take charge of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

World War II began and Puller’s legend grew. He won his third Navy Cross at Guadalcanal as a result of his actions on Oct. 24-25, 1942. For three desperate hours his battalion, stretched over a mile-long front, was the only defense between vital Henderson Airfield and a regiment of seasoned Japanese troops. In pouring jungle rain the Japanese smashed repeatedly at his thin line, as General Puller moved up and down its length to encourage his men and direct the defense. After reinforcements arrived, he commanded the augmented force until late the next afternoon. The defending Marines suffered less than 70 casualties in the engagement while 1400 of the enemy were killed and 17 truckloads of Japanese equipment were recovered by the Americans.

After Guadalcanal, Puller became executive officer of the 7th Marines, and won his fourth Navy Cross at Cape Gloucester in January 1944. There, when the commanders of the two battalions were wounded, he took over their units and moved through heavy machine-gun and mortar fire to reorganize them for attack, then led them in taking a strongly fortified enemy position.

In February 1944, Puller took command of the 1st Marines at Cape Gloucester. After leading that regiment for the remainder of the campaign, he sailed with it for the Russell Islands in April 1944. He went on to command it at Peleliu in September and October 1944. He returned to the United States in November 1944, 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, Puller became Director of the 8th Marine Corps Reserve District, with headquarters at New Orleans, La. After that assignment, he commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor until August 1950, when he arrived at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to re-establish and take command of the 1st Marines, the same regiment he had led at Cape Gloucester and Peleliu.

Landing with the 1st Marines at Inchon, Korea, in September 1950, Puller won immortality during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir – now referred to in Marine lore simply as “The Frozen Chosin.”

Undetected by American intelligence, more than 120,000 Chinese troops had crossed the border into North Korea during the late months in 1950 as American and South Korean forces drove their battered North Korean enemy north in what Gen. Douglas MacArthur called an offensive designed to have his troops “home by Christmas.” The Chinese attacked on Oct. 25, wiping out four South Korean regiments and stunning the Americans, and by Nov. 27 a rag-tag, 8,000-man force of Americans led by Puller and the 1st Marine Division found themselves holding a tenuous bubble of territory around the strategic Chosin Reservoir, cut off from supplies save for a tiny path leading over a steep mountain.

Surrounded by 22 enemy divisions in the worst winter weather to hit Korea in a century, Puller is said to have rallied his troops by telling them: "They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29 to 1. They can't get away from us now!"

Their situation was seemingly hopeless, and the Communist forces attacking them had one purpose in mind: the complete annihilation of the First Marines would be a huge propaganda blow to the U.S. Puller remained undaunted, however, telling his men: "Don't forget that you're First Marines! Not all the Communists in hell can overrun you!"

The Army commanders in the theater, in fact, were willing to concede the First Marines were lost. Asked by a journalist about his enemy, Puller quipped: "They are a damn site better than the U.S. Army, at least we know that they will be there in the morning."

The Marine regiment and its attached Army stragglers fought its way out of the trap, inflicting the highest casualty ratio on an enemy in history and destroying seven of the 22 enemy divisions in the process.

"There are not enough Chinamen in the world to stop a fully armed Marine regiment from going where ever they wont to go," Puller said.

He continued to head that regiment until January 1951, when he was promoted to brigadier general and named Assistant Commander of the 1st Marine Division. That May he returned to Camp Pendleton to command the newly reactivated 3rd Marine Division in January 1952. After that, he was assistant division commander until he took over the Troop Training Unit, Pacific, at Coronado, Calif., that June.

He was promoted to major general in September 1953, and in July 1954, assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. Despite his illness, he retained that 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.

In 1966, General Puller requested to return to active duty to serve in Vietnam, but was turned down because of his age. He died 11 October 1971 in Hampton, Va., after a long illness. He was 73.

Submitted by:

Dave Mundy

Dave Mundy is the editor and publisher of Vixen Magazine (http://www.vixenemagazine.com) and Bayou Bikini Magazine (http://www.bayoubikinimagazine.com). He has more than 25 years' experience as an investigative journalist and editor.




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