The Marine Corps is known for its heroes, and Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller has long been considered the greatest of them all. His assignments and activities covered an extraordinary spectrum of warfare. Puller mastered small unit guerrilla warfare as a lieutenant in Haiti in the 1920s, and at the end of his career commanded a division in Korea. In between, he chased Sandino in Nicaragua and fought at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu.
With his bulldog face, barrel chest (which earned him the nickname Chesty), gruff voice, and common touch, Puller became--and has remained--the epitome of the Marine combat officer. At times Puller's actions have been called into question--at Peleliu, for instance, where, against a heavily fortified position, he lost more than half of his regiment. And then there is the saga of his son, who followed in Chesty's footsteps as a Marine officer only to suffer horrible wounds in Vietnam (his book, Fortunate Son, won the Pulitzer Prize).
Jon Hoffman has been given special access to Puller's personal papers as well as his personnel record. The result will unquestionably stand as the last word about Chesty Puller.
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August 12, 2002
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Excerpt from Chesty by Jon T. Hoffman
"Making a Man and a Soldier"
Genesis of a Marine
The 231 handpicked enlisted men marched into the gymnasium at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, for their last muster as a unit. It was June 16, 1919, graduation day for the 3d Officers' Training Camp (OTC). After five months of strenuous effort, each man had earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve. The post band opened the ceremonies with a medley of martial tunes capped by John Philip Sousa's march "Semper Fidelis." The music turned out to be the most stirring portion of the program, which otherwise consisted of short speeches and the presentation of commissions. A reporter noted that the "striking feature of the proceedings" was their solemnity and simplicity in comparison with graduations at West Point and Annapolis. Although the writer ascribed this difference to "that precision and lack of fuss so characteristic of the doings of Marines," in truth there was little to celebrate at the moment. Seven months earlier there had been rejoicing when an armistice ended the "war to end all wars." Now the United States was rapidly demobilizing its forces. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General George Barnett, pointedly noted in his speech that this placed the class "in a peculiar position." This commissioning ceremony would not launch the lieutenants on a grand and glorious new career; rather, for most of them it marked the end of their service as Marines.
With the exception of a few prewar NCOs, the vast majority of the men had joined the Corps with patriotic fervor to fight the Germans. Few of these wartime volunteers had seen action and they now had to return to civilian pursuits with the exhortations of the speakers as their only reward. Barnett told them: "Whatever after this you do in life your service will have left its traces in your hearts . . . once a Marine, always a Marine." Major General Littleton W. T. Waller echoed that theme: "You have come in and absorbed our traditions and beliefs and I tell you you can't go wrong if you live up to their principles."
One of those men faced with an imminent return to the civilian world was Lewis Burwell Puller, a Marine private with less than a year in the Corps. At five feet, eight inches and 144 pounds, he was not a physically impressive figure, except for his pronounced barrel chest, serious square-blocked face, and outthrust jaw. His voice was his most distinctive trademark. One listener described it as a "Virginia drawl combined with an individual Brooklynese." Young Puller spoke slowly, with more than a touch of Southern accent, underpinning his own unique pronunciations with a deep-throated, gravelly intonation. He was not normally loud, but when the situation warranted it, he could "bark like a howitzer" or "shout commands with all the vigor and carrying power of an angry bull." He did not possess any special athletic ability or a superior intellect. His final standing in OTC, just below the middle of his class, did not indicate any outstanding military aptitude. He might have accepted his fate and gone quietly into the military obscurity that awaited all of his companions, but his reaction demonstrated what may have been his greatest strength. He had his mind set on a military career and would persevere with relentless resolution in pursuit of his dream. He would not only find a way to remain in the Corps, but would excel as a combat leader. Decades later, he would be the most legendary Marine of all and his deeds and words would do much to establish the traditions, beliefs, and principles that continue to mold succeeding generations of Marines.
. . .
Lewis Puller was the product of a distinguished line of Virginia gentry on his maternal side. His mother could trace her roots back to Lewis Burwell, who had come over from England in the mid-1600s as a leader in a company of military settlers. Four generations later, another Lewis Burwell fought as a colonel in command of Virginia militia during the American Revolution, owned a 3,400-acre plantation, and served in the state House of Delegates. His daughter, Alice Grymes Burwell, married William Clayton Williams, a lawyer and also a delegate in the Virginia legislature. Their son, Lewis Burwell Williams, became an attorney and followed in the political footsteps of his father and grandfather. His daughter, Mary Blair Williams, gave birth to Martha Richardson Leigh, Lewis Puller's mother.
Lewis Puller's distant paternal ancestors apparently were not so illustrious. Samuel and Mary W. Puller were the first to leave a permanent record, but little survives about them beyond the fact that they had five children and lived in Gloucester County, Virginia. This small district occupied part of the peninsula formed by the Rappahannock and York rivers, in the eastern region of the state known as the Tidewater. Mary gave birth in 1833 to John William, her second child and first boy. Apparently Samuel died before 1850. By that time, seventeen-year-old John already was working as a blacksmith to help the family. At the age of twenty-two, now a farmer, he married Emily Simcoe. Their first child, born in 1858, was Matthew Miller, Lewis Puller's father.