Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller was an officer in the United States Marine Corps and is the most decorated Marine in history. Puller is the only United States Marine to receive five Navy Crosses, the United States Navy's second highest decoration after the Medal of Honor. 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.
Lewis Burwell Puller, whose nickname "Chesty" was inspired by his barrel chest as a result of his asthma, only later symbolizing the intimidating plate of medals and ribbons he bore, was born on June 26, 1898 in West Point, Virginia. He was a second cousin of United States Army General George S. Patton. His grandfather had died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and his childhood heroes were Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. He grew up regularly hunting, fishing and horseback riding and would later remark that, "Those days in the woods saved my life many a time in combat."
He graduated from high school with a mediocre record before enrolling in the Virginia Military Institute in 1917. He dropped out after a year and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Because of a rapid increase in the size of the Marine Corps, Puller was commissioned as an officer. He was then sent to fight in Haiti, but the war ended before he could make it to France.
During the interwar period, Puller was appointed to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the reserves on June 16, 1919, but reduction in force following the war led to his being put on inactive status on the 26th of that month.
Puller re-enlisted in the Marine Corps the same year. As an enlisted man, he saw action in Haiti with the Gendarmerie d'Haiti, which was working under a treaty with the United States, and participated in over forty engagements during the ensuing five years against the Caco rebels. In March 1924, he returned stateside and was again commissioned as a Second Lieutenant (service number O3158), afterward completing assignments at the Marine Barracks in Norfolk, Virginia, Basic School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 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. He returned stateside in July 1931 and completed the year-long Company Officers Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, thereafter returning to Nicaragua to earn a second Navy Cross for leading "five successive engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces, also known as the cacos bandits, which in turn caused a lot of problems for Chesty".
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, 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 thence 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.
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, 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, three of Puller's companies were surrounded and cut-off by a larger Japanese force. Puller ran to the shore, signaled a United States Navy destroyer, and then directed the destroyer to provide gunfire support while landing craft rescued his Marines from their precarious position. Later on Guadalcanal, Puller earned his third Navy Cross for action that was later known as the "Battle for Henderson Field", in which the 1/7 battalion 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 Guadacanal Puller was shot by a sniper twice and wounded by shrapnel in three different places; he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Following this action Puller was 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 were taken out of the fight, he assumed temporary command of both units. In each instance, 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 1 February 44 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. Also during the summer 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, Louisiana, and later commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor.
Colonel Puller cutting the Marine Corps birthday cake on November 10, 1950, during a brief reprieve from battle during the Korean WarAt the outbreak of the Korean conflict, Puller was once again assigned as commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, with which he made a landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950. In November of that year, Puller earned his fifth Navy Cross for action during 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 24th, however, his immediate superior, Major General O. P. Smith, was hastily transferred to command IX Corps when its army commander, Major General Moore, was killed. Smith’s temporary transfer left Puller in command of his beloved 1st Marine Division. Instinctively, Puller knew the army hierarchy would not allow General Smith, a Marine, to command a unit that included army troops. So, when ordered to begin the last phase of Operation Killer, Puller made the best of the opportunity by skillfully leading the 1st Marine Division and achieving its objectives. General Smith returned from IX Corps on March 5th. 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.
In 1965, Puller requested he be reinstated into the Marine Corps in order to see action in the Vietnam War, but the request was denied on the basis of his age.
General Puller was father-in-law to Colonel William H. Dabney, a VMI graduate, who, as a Captain, received the Navy Cross for his leadership as Commanding Officer of two heavily reinforced rifle companies of the Third Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines from 21 January to 14 April 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.
Lewis Burwell Puller died on October 11, 1971 in Saluda, Virginia at age 73.