Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller wasn’t just a great warfighter, he was an icon of Marine military prowess and culture, embodying and helping shape what it would mean to be a 20th-Century Marine.
Here are five times that Puller proved himself to be one of the greatest Marines.
His legendary breakout from Chosin Reservoir
It was possibly Puller’s most heroic feat. Puller was temporarily in command of the 1st Marine Division when Chinese forces overwhelmed American and UN troops at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The entire X Corps was vulnerable to annihilation at the hands of the Chinese, but the top commanders had a workable plan to save the tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines. That plan relied on 1st Marine Division.
The Marines, under Chesty, served at times as both vanguard and rearguard for the “advance in a different direction” that was, effectively, a withdrawal. Puller kept his men’s morale up as they knocked three Chinese divisions out of the fight despite constant supply shortages and the necessity of leapfrogging their artillery. This saved thousands of American lives and helped ensure that the Chinese advance could be halted before South Korea was lost.
Guadalcanal, from smoking under bombardment to directing naval artillery
Then-Lt. Col. Puller landed on Guadalcanal in September, 1942, as the proud commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Unfortunately, he was the only member of the unit with combat experience, and he had to keep his men on the straight and narrow. On their first night, the Marines came under naval bombardment and many had failed to dig their assigned foxholes.
Puller spent the bombardment yelling at the men to keep their heads down and remain behind available cover. When it was over, he walked the lines with a pipe, calmly smoking it and reassuring the Marines while giving them practical advice. As the fight ground on, Puller tried to get his men past the Japanese defenses.
When an amphibious landing failed and Marines were trapped under fire, Coast Guard Signalman Douglas Munro led a fleet of landing craft in to rescue them, and Puller rushed to ships off the coast to personally direct the naval artillery fire to ensure the Marines got off safely.
After missing out on World War I, he deployed to Nicaragua and Haiti
Puller grew up listening to his relatives talk about their experiences in the Civil War, and he was eager for combat when World War I rolled around. He volunteered late in the war in order to get to France, but was sent to officer training and missed out on the actual fighting. Instead, the Corps offered him a billet helping allied governments stand up or bolster national guards in South America.
The jungle fighting was fierce, and Puller was in charge of leading jungle raids and patrols against rebels in Haiti and then Nicaragua. It was in Nicaragua that he earned his first two Navy Crosses, both awarded for valor under fire. One was for leading five successful raids on an extensive mission, and the other was for leading his platoon back safely after defeating multiple well-prepared ambushes that left Gunnery Sgt. William “Ironman” Lee wounded.
A dedication to close combat that included mounting bayonets on flamethrowers
Puller was known, at least in part, for his bomb quotes. You know, things like, “don’t forget that you’re First Marines! Not all the Communists in hell can overrun you!” and “hit hard, hit fast, hit often.” But one of his most iconic quotes came when he first saw a flamethrower demonstration.
“Where the Hell do you put the bayonet?” he asked. And like all three of those quotes show, Puller believed in violence of action, in closing with the enemy and killing them before they could kill you. That mentality was part of what made him such an icon in a Marine Corps on the rise, transforming itself from a largely reserve force of the Civil War to one of the dominant fighting forces of World War II, Korea, and today.
A tendency to accrue legends, some based in fact and others in fiction
And, like the Marine Corps itself, Puller had a tendency to accrue legends — some completely true, some plausible, and some over-the-top. The true ones included things like when he led an overnight defense against a mile-long assault by Japanese forces on Guadalcanal and the aforementioned victories at Chosin and in Nicaragua.
But his prowess was so great that he also become the subject of all sorts of hyperbole, like a rumor that his nickname was Chesty because so much of his chest had been hacked off in the jungle wars that his rib cage had been remade of literal iron.
It’s no surprise, really. When you’re arguably the most decorated Marine is history, it’s hard for people to keep the details straight.