Chesty Puller has received the most medals of any Marine. He earned every one of them.
Ask any member of the U.S. Marine Corps about the toughest Marine in history, and 10 out of 10 of them will say “Chesty Puller.”
Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller served in the Marines for 30 years, beginning as an enlisted man and rising to one of the top ranks in the military. Along the way, Puller became the most decorated Marine in the history of the corp. He earned five Navy Crosses for valor in combat, the nation’s second-highest military honor. No one else has earned that many Navy Crosses.
Puller never shied away from a fight, and his quotes are just as gutsy as the legend himself. When his unit was surrounded by the enemy in Korea, Puller told his men, “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us… they can’t get away this time.”
Chesty Puller’s Early Years
Puller’s military pedigree was apparent from the day he was born in West Point, Virginia in 1898. His grandfather was a veteran who fought for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. Gen. George S. Patton was his second cousin. Puller idolized Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, two military leaders who won battle after battle despite the odds against them.
Puller began his military career at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1917, but he dropped out because he wanted to see action in World War I. Instead of going to front lines, Puller ended up training recruits. He graduated from Officer Training School in 1919 and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. That wasn’t good enough for Puller, either, because the troop drawdown after World War I meant he saw no combat action.
Chesty Puller then did something remarkable. He dropped out of the Corps and re-enlisted as a corporal. He received his assignment in Haiti to train a force of men guarding American interests there. After five years, Puller again earned his rank of second lieutenant.
The Marine legend started in 1926 when he finally saw combat in Nicaragua, where Puller’s unit fought rebels trying to overthrow the government. He earned his first two Navy Crosses in Central America in support of American forces. His second Navy Cross occurred after Puller’s unit, numbering 40 men, were ambushed by pro-rebel forces in the jungles of Nicaragua in 1932. Help was 100 miles away, and the men were in the middle of a 10-day patrol of outlying areas.
The rebels numbered 150 and they held the high ground to the right and left. Undeterred, Chesty Puller knew his forces were better equipped. He ordered his men to charge the high ground to the right. Once taking that higher position, Puller then used his leverage to overtake the high ground to the left before scattering the remnants of the broken rebels. Only two men in Puller’s unit died during that action.
Puller’s men were ambushed twice more during that same 10-day patrol. All three times, Puller’s aggressive posture saved his unit from certain death.
Action During World War II And The Korean War
After stints in China, Chesty Puller returned to the United States to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. His unit reinforced American positions at Guadalcanal in 1942 in the Pacific Theater. It was there that Puller earned a third Navy Cross, in what was perhaps his most heroic effort.
A lieutenant colonel at the time, Puller’s forces held a line about a mile long while coming under withering fire from Japanese forces. Puller remained calm under fire while coordinating the attack.
At one point, a superior officer ordered Puller’s men to retreat. He disobeyed a direct order because that would leave another unit of men completely defenseless. Instead, Puller regrouped with a unit of Navy ships offshore at Guadalcanal to coordinate artillery strikes in order to protect the Marines on the ground.
Puller’s line withstood six assaults by Japanese forces overnight on Oct. 24, 1942. His men were in unfamiliar territory and in dense, thick jungle. At one juncture, Puller commanded 600 men against a Japanese force of 4,000. His forces held until reinforcements finally landed the next morning. Even though another unit came in to relieve Puller’s regimen at dawn, he stayed in command until noon to help coordinate the next wave of Marines.
The fourth Navy Cross occurred in 1943 in Papua New Guinea. There, Puller not only delivered orders to keep up the attack on Japanese positions, but he took command of the assault because his superiors felt Marine commanders were not being aggressive enough. Puller regrouped the troops, braved machine gun fire as he personally led several companies on the front lines, and the Marines held their positions thanks to Puller’s command.
The official citation for Papua New Guinea reads, “His forceful leadership and gallant fighting spirit under the most hazardous conditions were contributing factors in the defeat of the enemy during this campaign.”
The fifth and final Navy Cross came after the legendary Marine defended supply routes in Korea in 1950. In sub-zero temperatures, Puller commanded his men to against much larger enemy forces on three separate occasions. Chesty Puller’s no-nonsense attitude shone through.
Puller said, “We are the most fortunate of men. There was a time when a professional soldier had to wait twenty-five years or so before he ever got into a war. We only had to wait five years for this one. For all that time we have been sitting on our fat behinds drawing our pay. Now we are going to earn it.”
His unit most certainly earned it in Korea. Again, Puller and his unit came under heavy machine gun fire. Despite the long odds, the Marines held out and kept the supply lines open.
Chesty Puller’s Legacy
Puller’s legendary tactics earned him the respect of Marines everywhere. Perhaps his most famous quote embodies what it means to be victorious on the battlefield: “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often.”
Puller died in 1971 at the age of 73. His widow, Virginia, outlived him by more than 20 years, but his spirit lives on in every member of the Corps who goes through basic training.
Marines try to live up Chesty Puller’s reputation as a Marine’s Marine. Puller’s no-nonsense leadership style made sure every member of his unit was taken care of, no matter what. He talked the talk, but he also walked the walk when it came to the best chances of survival for men under his command.
Twice, senior officers of the Marine Corps tried to have the Congressional Medal of Honor bestowed upon Puller. Unfortunately, both attempts failed.
Perhaps someday, Chesty Puller’s family will get to see the day where he receives the nation’s highest military honor.
After learning about Chesty Puller, check out the story of John Rabe and the Nazis who defended China from the Japanese. Then, read about how Calvin Graham became World War II’s youngest decorated veteran.