Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller (June 26, 1898-October 11, 1971) was a U.S. Marine who saw battle experience in World War II and in the Korean War conflict. He was one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history.
Fast Facts: Lewis B. 'Chesty' Puller
- Known For: One of the most decorated U.S. Marines in history, serving in World War II and Korea
- Born: June 26, 1898 in West Point, Virginia
- Parents: Martha Richardson Leigh and Matthew M. Puller
- Died: October 11, 1971 at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia
- Education: Virginia Military Institute (1917-1918)
- Spouse: Virginia Montague Evans (m. November 13, 1937)
- Children: Virginia McCandlish (b. 1938), twins Martha Leigh and Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr. (b. 1944)
Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller was born June 26, 1898, at West Point, Virginia, the third of four children born to Matthew M. Puller and Martha Richardson Leigh (known as Pattie). Matthew Puller was a wholesale grocer, and Lewis had two older sisters and a younger brother.
In 1908, Matthew died, and in the family's reduced circumstances, Lewis Puller was forced to aid in supporting his family at the age of 10. He continued on at school, but he hawked crabs at the local waterfront amusement park and then worked as a laborer in a pulp mill.
Interested in military matters from a young age, he attempted to join the U.S. Army in 1916 to take part in the Punitive Expedition to capture Mexican leader Pancho Villa. Underage at the time, Puller was blocked by his mother who refused to consent to his enlistment.
When war was declared with Germany at the start of World War I, Puller was 17 and he accepted an appointment to Virginia Military Institute as a state cadet, receiving financial assistance in return for later service. A mediocre student, he spent the summer at a Reserve Officer Training Corps camp in New York.
Joining the Marines
With the U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917, Puller quickly became restless and tired of his studies. Inspired by the U.S. Marines' performance at Belleau Wood, he departed VMI and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Completing basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Puller received an appointment to officer candidate school. Passing through the course at Quantico, Virginia, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on June 16, 1919. His time as an officer proved brief, as a postwar reduction in the USMC saw him moved to the inactive list 10 days later.
Not willing to forego his military career, Puller rejoined the Marines on June 30 as an enlisted man with the rank of corporal. Assigned to Haiti, he served in the Gendarmerie d'Haiti as a lieutenant and aided in combating Cacos rebels. Formed under a treaty between the U.S. and Haiti, the gendarmerie possessed American officers, largely Marines, and Haitian enlisted personnel. While in Haiti, Puller worked to regain his commission and served as adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift. Returning to the U.S. in March 1924, he was successful in obtaining a commission as a second lieutenant.
Over the next four years, Puller moved through a variety of barracks assignments that took him from the East Coast to Pearl Harbor. In December 1928, he received orders to join a detachment of the Nicaraguan National Guard. Arriving in Central America, Puller spent the next two years battling bandits. For his efforts in mid-1930, he was awarded the Navy Cross. Returning home in 1931, he completed the Company Officers Course before again sailing for Nicaragua. Remaining until October 1932, Puller won a second Navy Cross for his performance against the insurgents.
Overseas & Afloat
In early 1933, Puller sailed to join the Marine Detachment at the American Legation in Beijing, China. While there, he led the famed "Horse Marines" before departing to oversee the detachment aboard the cruiser USS Augusta. While aboard, he came to know the cruiser's skipper, Captain Chester W. Nimitz. In 1936, Puller was made an instructor at the Basic School in Philadelphia. After three years in the classroom, he returned to Augusta. This homecoming proved short as he went ashore in 1940 for service with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines at Shanghai.
On November 13, 1937, he married Virginia Montague Evans, who he had met a decade before. Together they had three children: Virginia McCandlish Puller (born in 1938), and twins Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr. and Martha Leigh Puller, born in 1944.
World War II
In August 1941, Puller, now a major, departed China to take command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines at Camp Lejeune. He was in this role when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II. In the months that followed, Puller prepared his men for war and the battalion sailed to defend Samoa. Arriving in May 1942, his command remained in the islands through the summer until being ordered to join Vandegrift's 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Coming ashore in September, his men quickly went into action along the Matanikau River.
Coming under intense attack, Puller won a Bronze Star when he signaled USS Monssen to aid in rescuing trapped American forces. In late October, Puller's battalion played a key role during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Holding back massive Japanese attacks, Puller won a third Navy Cross for his performance, while one his men, Staff Sergeant John Basilone, received the Medal of Honor. After the division left Guadalcanal, Puller was made the executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment. In this role, he took part in the Battle of Cape Gloucester in late 1943 and early 1944.
Leading From the Front
During the opening weeks of the campaign, Puller won a fourth Navy Cross for his efforts in directing Marine units in attacks against the Japanese. On February 1, 1944, Puller was promoted to colonel and later took command of the 1st Marine Regiment. Finishing the campaign, Puller's men sailed for the Russell Islands in April before preparing for the Battle of Peleliu. Landing on the island in September, Puller fought to overcome a tenacious Japanese defense. For his work during the engagement, he received the Legion of Merit.
The Korean War
With the island secured, Puller returned to the U.S. in November to lead the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune. He was in this role when the war ended in 1945. In the years after World War II, Puller oversaw a variety of commands including the 8th Reserve District and the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Puller again took command of the 1st Marine Regiment. Preparing his men, he took part in General Douglas MacArthur's landings at Inchon in September 1950. For his efforts during the landings, Puller won the Silver Star and a second Legion of Merit.
Taking part in the advance into North Korea, Puller played a key role in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in November and December. Performing brilliantly against overwhelming numbers, Puller earned the Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. Army and fifth Navy Cross for his role in the battle. Promoted to brigadier general in January 1951, he briefly served as assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division before temporarily taking command the following month after the transfer of Major General O.P. Smith. He remained in this role until returning to the United States in May.
Later Career and Death
Briefly leading the 3rd Marine Brigade at Camp Pendleton, Puller remained with the unit when it became the 3rd Marine Division in January 1952. Promoted to major general in September 1953, he was given command of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune the following July. Plagued by decaying health, Puller was forced to retire on November 1, 1955. One of the most decorated Marines in history, Puller won the nation's second-highest decorations six times and received two Legions of Merit, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star.
Puller himself said he was uncertain how he came to be nicknamed "Chesty." It may have been a reference to his big, thrust-out chest; "chesty" in the Marines also means "cocky." Receiving a final promotion to lieutenant general, Puller retired to Virginia, where he died after a series of strokes on October 11, 1971.