Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller was born on June 26, 1898 in West Point, Virginia. His father was a grocer who died when Chesty was 10 years old. He grew up listening to old veterans’ tales of the Civil War and idolizing Stonewall Jackson. He wanted to enlist in the Army to fight in the Border War with Mexico in 1916, but he was too young and his mother wouldn’t give parental consent.
The following year, Chesty attended the Virginia Military Institute but left in August 1918 as World War I was still ongoing. He was inspired by the 5th Marines at Belleau Wood. He enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private and attended boot camp at the MCRD, Parris Island.
He never saw action in World War I, but the Marine Corps was expanding, and after graduating from recruit training he attended non-commissioned officer school and Officer Candidates School (OCS) at Quantico, Virginia. He graduated from OCS on June 16, 1919 and was appointed a second lieutenant in the reserves. With the end of WWI, the Corps experienced a quick reduction in force from 73,000 Marines to 28,500 Marines (only 1,100 officers and 27,400 enlisted). Chesty was put on inactive status and given the rank of corporal.
Soon after, Corporal Puller received orders to serve in Haiti. While the United States was working under a treaty with Haiti, he participated in over forty engagements during the next five years against the Caco rebels and attempted to regain his commission as an officer twice. During his time in Haiti, in 1922, he served as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift.
On March 6, 1924, he returned stateside and was finally recommissioned as a second lieutenant. He was then assigned at Marine Barracks in Norfolk, Virginia, The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, and with the 10th Marine Artillery Regiment in Quantico, Virginia, Marine Barracks in 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 was awarded his first Navy Cross for actions from February 16 to August 19, 1930, when he led “five successive engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces.” He returned stateside in July 1931 and completed the year-long Company Officers Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He then returned to Nicaragua from September 20 to October 1, 1932, and was awarded a second Navy Cross. Chesty led American Marines and Nicaraguan National Guardsmen into battle against Sandinista rebels in the Sandino Rebellion near El Sauce on December 26, 1932.
After his service in Nicaragua, Chesty 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, which was commanded by Captain Chester W. Nimitz. Chesty returned to the States in June 1936 and was assigned to instructor duty at The Basic School in Philadelphia.
In May 1939, he returned to the USS Augusta, as the commander of troops for the Marine detachment. They headed back to China in May of 1940 and he served as the executive officer and commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, until August 1941. Major Puller returned to the U.S. on August 28, 1941. After a short leave period, he was given command of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7) of the 1st Marine Division, stationed at New River, 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 Marine Division at Guadalcanal on September 18, 1942.
Soon after arriving on Guadalcanal, Chesty led his battalion in a fierce action along the Matanikau, in which his quick thinking saved three of his companies from annihilation. The three companies were surrounded and cut off by a larger Japanese force. Chesty ran to the shore, signaled the USS Ballard (DD-267), and then directed the Ballard to provide fire support while landing craft rescued his Marines. U.S. Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro was the Officer-in-Charge of the group of landing craft and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. To date Munro is the only Coast Guardsman to receive the decoration. Chesty was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V”.
Later on Guadalcanal, Chesty was awarded his third Navy Cross, in what was later known as the “Battle for Henderson Field“. He commanded 1st Battalion 7th Marines (1/7), one of two American infantry units defending the airfield against a regiment sized Japanese force. The 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 164th Infantry Regiment (3/164) fought alongside the Marines. In a firefight on the night of October 24–25, 1942, lasting about three hours, 1/7 and 3/164 sustained 70 casualties; the Japanese force suffered over 1,400 killed in action, and the Americans held the airfield. He nominated two of his men (one being Sgt. John Basilone) for Medals of Honor. He was wounded himself on November 9, 1942.
Chesty was then assigned to be the executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment. While serving in this capacity at Cape Gloucester, he was awarded 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 (3/7) and later, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), were under heavy machine gun and mortar fire, he reorganized the battalion and led the successful attack against heavily fortified Japanese defensive positions. He was promoted to Colonel effective February 1, 1944, and by the end of the month had been named commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. In September and October 1944, Puller led the 1st Marine Regiment into the Battle of Peleliu, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history; it was here that he received his first of two Legion of Merit awards. The 1st Marines under his command lost 1,749 out of approximately 3,000 men, but these losses did not stop him from ordering frontal assaults against the well-entrenched enemy. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, (General Alexander Vandegrift) had to order the Commanding General (Major General William H. Rupertus) of 1st Marine Division to pull the 1st Marine Regiment out of the battle.
Chesty returned to the United States in November 1944 and was assigned as the executive officer of the Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune and two weeks later he became the Commanding Officer. After the war, he was made director of the 8th Reserve District at New Orleans, and later commanded the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor.
At the outbreak of the Korean War, Chesty was again assigned as commander of the First Marine Regiment. He participated in the landing at Inchon on September 15, 1950, and was awarded the Silver Star Medal and was awarded his second Legion of Merit for his leadership from September 15 through November 2. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from the U.S. Army for heroism in action from November 29 to December 4, and he was awarded his fifth Navy Cross for heroism during December 5–10, 1950, at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. It was during that battle that he said the famous line, “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, Chesty was promoted to brigadier general and assigned as the assistant division commander of 1st Marine Division. On May 20, 1951, he became the commanding officer of the 3rd Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California until January 1952, and was then assistant commander until June 1952. He then took over Troop Training Unit Pacific at Coronado, California and in September of 1953, he was promoted to major general.
In July 1954, Chesty took command of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina until February 1955 when he became deputy camp commander. He suffered a stroke, and with 37 years of service he was retired from the Marine Corps on November 1, 1955 with a tombstone promotion to lieutenant general.
Chesty is the most decorated Marine in American history. He is one of two U.S. servicemen to be awarded five Navy Crosses and with the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to him by the U.S. Army, his total of six stands only behind Eddie Rickenbacker‘s eight times receiving the nation’s second-highest military award for valor.
Chesty passed away on October 11, 1971 at the age of 73, in Hampton, Virginia. He was an Episcopalian and parishioner of Christ Church Parish and is buried in the historic cemetery next to his wife Virginia Montague Evans, who passed away in 2006, at the age of 97.