Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Legend Begins: LEWIS 'CHESTY' PULLER (1898-1941)

LTG Lewis "Chesty" Puller enlisted in 1918

Lewis "Chesty" Puller is a United States Marine Corps legend. 

Through the course of his storied, 37-year in the Corps, Puller rose from the rank of private to lieutenant-general. He joined the Marines after World War I, but was already a combat-hardened commander by the outbreak of World War II.

During his career, Puller won five Navy Crosses; a Distinguished Service Cross; a Silver Star; the Legion of Merit twice, once with "valor" device; the Bronze Star, with "valor" device; the Purple Heart; and three Air Medals, among other decorations. But, Puller's character wasn't measured in the medals he won, but the men he trained, led and inspired during some of America's darkest chapters.

During the first of this two-part series on the most celebrated United States Marine in our nation's history, Puller's early life and participation in what has come to be called the "Banana Wars" will be examined. With an eye toward looking at how his participation in these campaigns impacted his later, better-publicized career as a Marine combat leader, this segment looks at young Chesty Puller and the people, times and events that shaped him.

Puller was born on June 26, 1898 in little West Point, Virginia. Puller's hometown was incorporated only 37 years before its most famous scion was born. Puller was born to parents Matthew and Martha Puller. During his early life, young Lewis was brought up on stories of the Civil War -- its battles, leaders, sacrifices and causes.

In 1862, Puller's hometown itself was a strategic objective for Major-General George B. McClellan's Union Army of the Potomac. During his failed Peninsula Campaign of 1862, McClellan tried, unsuccessfully, to secure its key railroad intersection that led to the rebel stronghold of Richmond. Richmond became the South's capital city on February 22, 1862 after it was moved from Montgomery, Alabama.

Tragedy struck the Puller household, though, when young Lewis was only 10 years old. That year, Matthew Puller died.
The Mameluke Sword is worn by Marine officers

Few people know that Puller had a famous relation that would, himself, make his mark in American military history. Indeed, Puller and U.S. Army Gen. George Smith Patton were second cousins.

During America's Border War with Mexico (1910-1919), Puller tried to enlist in the United States Army to go fight. However, his mother, Martha, refused to give her permission for her son to enlist. Accordingly, Puller would have to wait to see the action he so eagerly sought.

The Border War was comprised of a number of military engagements that took place along the border of the United States and Mexico between Mexican revolutionaries, led by the infamous Pancho Villa, and the American Expeditionary Force, led by General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing.

A year after Puller's abortive attempt to enter the Army, he did gain entrance to the Virginia Military Institute, which is a state-supported military college in Lexington, Virginia. It had been established in 1839 and its alumni includes three of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson's four commanders during the Civil War: James Lane, Robert Rodes and Raleigh Colston. Meanwhile, Jackson himself had taught at VMI before the outset of hostilities between the North and South.

However, eager to march to the drums of war, and with America still in the thick of World War I (1917-1918) in August, 1918, Puller left VMI. At VMI, Puller and his fellow cadets were training to become officers. By enlisting, Puller began his military career in the far more humble role of private. Impressed by the grit and determination the United States Marines displayed during World War I's Battle of Belleau Woods (June 1-26, 1918), Puller signed on and went through Boot Camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, in South Carolina. 

Nicaraguan Sandinista rebels (circa 1927)

Soon after Puller graduated from Boot Camp, and with the Marine Corps being in flux with its staffing need due to World War I, he received orders to attend the Non-Commissioned Officer School at the island. Surprisingly, after he graduated from NCO School, Puller was selected to attend Marine Corps Officer's Candidate School, in Quanitco, Virginia. It was from OCS that Puller received his commission as a second lieutenant on June 16, 1919 in the Marine Corps Reserve.

However, though the need for the Marine Corps' wartime expansion assisted Puller in getting to OCS, the draw-downs in the force after the war's end left his commission converted to inactive status and him receiving the active rank of corporal.

Puller did not have a common experience as a junior non-commissioned officer. Perhaps because of his inactive commission, Corporal Puller received orders from the Marine Corps to serve in the Gendarmerie d'Haiti as a lieutenant. At the time, Haiti had a treaty with the United States that allowed for military personnel from the U.S. working closely with local military and law enforcement. So, Corporal Puller became Lieutenant Puller in Haiti and participated in more than 40 engagements as such for the next five years against Caco rebels on the island nation.

Lieutenant Lewis Puller (center) in Nicaragua with the National Guard detachment he led

During his time in Haiti Corporal/Lieutenant Puller attempted to regain an active commission as a second lieutenant in the Active Duty Marines. In 1922, Puller was assigned as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandergrift in Haiti. Later in his career, Vandergrift would go on to become a future commandant of the Marine Corps.

It was not until Puller returned from the war in Haiti that, on March 6, 1924, he was officially recommissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines. Subsequently, he was assigned to the Marine Barracks in Norfolk, Virginia and then at The Basic School, in Quantico, Virginia. His assignment at Quantico changed midway through and he was assigned to the 10th Marine Artillery Regiment.

By the time Puller was assigned to the 10th Artillery, he was already an expert at unconventional warfare, in modern language. Due to the nature of low-intensity conflict against a rebel adversary, artillery probably did not play as large a role as it might in other kinds of conflict. So, in a manner of speaking, his assignment to the 10th Artillery allowed Puller to gain some necessary doctrinal uses of artillery that he was not as clear about before that assignment. However, after about two years after being recommissioned, Puller came up on orders for Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, and then, in 1928, he was ordered to San Diego, California.
Crest for the 10th Marine Arty Regt.

Puller's service in Haiti, though, was not forgotten by the Marine Corps. And, in December, 1928, the Corps wanted to use the skills he had honed there and sent him to another Third World nation, this time Nicaragua, to fight yet another low-intensity conflict. In Nicaragua, Puller led a Nicaraguan National Guard Detachment against Sandino rebels in that country. Again, he led his soldiers against an unconventional opponent. He was effective at this as he won his first Navy Cross for his actions between February 16 to August 19, 1930. Puller led the Nicaraguan Guardsmen, and some U.S. Marines, in a major action that included five successive engagements against the enemy, which outnumbered Puller's troops.

At this point, Puller received orders to return to the U.S. and attend the year-long Company Officers Course, at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Afterward, he returned to Nicaragua. Once there, for his combat leadership in actions between September 20 to October 1, 1932, Puller won his second Navy Cross.

Finally, the battlefield for his last engagement in Nicaragua turned out to be the last of the Sandinista rebellion (of that era) and occurred near El Sauce, on December 26, 1932. Following this decisive fight, the back of the Sandinista rebellion was broken.

Puller won two Navy Crosses before World War II

The Marines did not allow Puller to rest on his laurels for very long following his second "Banana War." Rather, soon after the conclusion of hostilities, Puller was send to the Marine Detachment at the American Legation in Beijing, China. Once there, he commanded a unit of the 4th Marine Regiment until he received orders to command the Marine Detachment aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, commanded by then-Captain Chester W. Nimitz.

While he was the Marine Detachment commander aboard the Augusta, he was sent back to the States in June, 1936 to serve as an instructor at The Basic School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Of note, some of Puller's students included Ben Robertshaw, Greg "Pappy" Boyington and Lew Walt.

However, in 1939, Puller received orders to return to the Augusta. After serving several months in this position, during May, 1940, Puller disembarked at the Port of Shanghai, where he would command the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment until August, 1941. After his command in Shanghai, Puller was finally ordered back to the United States, where he was given command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division at New River, North Carolina (later to be re-christened as "Camp Lejeune").

It is from there, with war clouds mounting in Asia and Europe, that then-Major Puller would wait for the inevitable conflict. He trained his Marines for a war he knew was coming, which was unlike the rebellions he had helped put down in the past. This war would not span a small country, but oceans and continents as it raged between vast land and sea-going forces.

1 comment:

  1. you do not win medals [Puller won two Navy Crosses before World War II]


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