“We are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!” —Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC
In the glorious chronicles of the US Marine Corps, no name is more revered than that of Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. The only fighting man to receive the Navy Cross five separate times—a military honor second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor—he was the epitome of a professional warrior. A son of the South, descendant of Robert E. Lee, and cousin to George S. Patton, Puller began his enlisted career during World War I and moved up through the ranks as he proved his battlefield mettle in Haiti and Nicaragua, with the Horse Marines in Peking, in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and in the nightmarish winter engagements of the Korean War.
Fearless and seemingly indestructible, adored by the troops he championed yet forced into early retirement by a high command that resented his “lowly” beginnings and unwillingness to play politics, Puller remains one of most towering figures in American military history. Bestselling military biographer Burke Davis paints the definitive portrait of this extraordinary marine hero.
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The Life of Chesty Puller
By Burke Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Burke Davis
All rights reserved.
Lewis Burwell Puller was born June 26, 1898, into a small boy's paradise, the village of West Point, Virginia, where the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers form the broad York. The waters were full of fish, crab and oysters and the woodlands teemed with game.
West Point was a carnival town in summer. Excursion trains from Richmond bore thousands to Beach Park, a few yards from the Puller home, where they swarmed the barrooms and gambling halls on the piers, rode the carousel and roller coaster, watched trained bears or spent noisy evenings in the skating rink and dance hall.
The village population was under a thousand and the Pullers were among its first families, a matter of some importance to Virginians. Lewis was the oldest son of Matthew M. Puller, a wholesale grocery salesman who spent most of his time on the road, in buggy or train. A grandfather, John W. Puller, had been killed with Jeb Stuart in a cavalry fight at Kellys Ford in the Civil War — a gallant death of which Lewis was often told.
The first Lewis Burwell, born in Bedfordshire in 1621, had come to Virginia as sergeant major of a county military company to establish a notable line which included many members of the colony's House of Burgesses. In contrast, there was also Lewis Burwell Williams of Orange, Virginia, a kinsman who had been expelled from Princeton in 1821 for taking part in a riot. The family preserved one document from this man, an order to a British merchant for one barrel of whisky, twelve decks of playing cards and one English Prayer Book.
There were many other noted relatives: Patrick Henry, Philip Ludwell, Robert Carter, John Grimes of the Governor's Council. One cousin, Page McCarthy, a Confederate captain, had fought the last legal duel in Virginia, killing his man over the reputation of a Richmond belle.
Lewis Puller's great-uncle, Robert Williams, a West Point graduate, deserted the South in the Civil War to command a Federal division at Gettysburg which fought against three of his brothers. The Virginia branch of the family never afterwards spoke to him, though he came to new renown by marrying the widow of Stephen A. Douglas.
Lewis Puller had another cousin who would become a famous soldier: George S. Patton.
When Lewis was less than two years old, he won a Beautiful Baby Contest in his village, and when a Richmond photographer chucked him under the chin in quest of a smile, he got for his pains a belligerent scowl which was to change little in a lifetime.
He was quieter than most boys, with a level, openly curious gaze; he kept his own counsel. At the age of four or five he broke an arm in a fall and when he visited the doctor some weeks later for removal of the cast, the physician shook his head, explained that the bones were crooked — and snapped them anew without warning. The boy grimaced but uttered no sound.
Lewis learned to read early and devoured books on war and warriors that might have been beyond his youthful grasp but for his impassioned interest in military life. He read G. A. Henty's adventure novels with a relish he seemed to lose in the schoolroom.
Matthew Puller died in 1908 after a long battle with cancer, cheerful to the end. He was an erect, gray-eyed and handsome man of medium height, a sporty dresser who liked Prince Alberts and bought custom-made shoes from the city, and carried a cane. He had little formal education; he had been raised on a farm by one of his father's cavalrymen after the Civil War. He drove himself to reading and was celebrated as a conversationalist, as well as a good man in a card game, like certain of his forebears.
Lewis and his younger brother Sam were not allowed to go to the funeral, but when their mother and two sisters returned from the cemetery, the family's life was immediately changed. Mrs. Puller called the household into the parlor, where she dismissed the Negro servants — a groom, a maid and a nurse — explaining that she could no longer afford them. She asked the groom to sell the two horses and buggy and carriage.
Lewis began trapping that winter, without explaining the enterprise to his mother. He left the house before daylight each morning to visit traps he had buried in the half-frozen runways of muskrats in the river marshes. He sold the hides for fifteen cents each, and the carcasses for five cents to poorer families in the town. Much of the money went into the family treasury, but there was also a small fund for ammunition.
He was hardly more than twelve when he killed his first wild turkey, quite by mistake and out of season. Alarmed, he stayed in the woods until nightfall, then took the bird to the home of a Negro woman, who reassured him: "Mr. Lewis, don't you bother your head about it. I'll pick him and dress him up nice and take him to your mama tomorrow, and shell be pleased as punch." But Mrs. Puller was not pleased and the next day gave Lewis a tongue-lashing he long remembered. The small, wiry, reserved woman directed her family with uncompromising discipline, but never whipped the children.
One of Lewis's hunting companions was Dick Broaddus, a year or so older, the son of the president of the local telephone company. Lewis often tossed pebbles against the third-floor bedroom window of young Broaddus, and before daylight they rode with a Negro companion, one George, in the telephone company's buggy to the woods. George taught Lewis: "When a rabbit runs away from you, don't try to shoot down on him, or you'll sight too high or too low and miss him. Go right down with him. Kneel down and you'll get him every time."
Before leaves fell, Lewis and Dick hunted squirrels alone, but after the frosts, when trees were bare, they used dogs and learned to approach the blind sides of the trees where the squirrels hid. Lewis learned both accuracy and frugality, for he bought his own ammunition. He seldom spoke on these trips until noon, when they sat on a log for a sandwich; he often talked of his dream of going to Virginia Military Institute and becoming a soldier. From his reading, his family's traditions, his love of hunting, fishing, and horseback riding, he was drawn to a military life and V.M.I.
Fifty years later, at the end of a fighting career, he would look back to these days in the open: "I learned more in the woods, hunting and stalking, about the actual art of war than I ever learned in any school of any kind. Those days in the woods as a kid saved my life many a time in combat."
The Confederacy was still very much alive in the Tidewater Virginia of Puller's boyhood. Once every week a buggy halted before the Puller home and a stout, graying man with an imperial bearing climbed out and moved up the walk with a basket on either arm. He was Captain Robert E. Lee, Jr., son of the revered Confederate general, now reduced to selling eggs and vegetables to support his family. Mrs. Puller unfailingly bought food from him.
Lewis's favorite Confederate was the mayor of West Point, Sergeant Willis Eastwood, who had ridden with his grandfather and the gray cavalry. Eastwood often told the boys of the death of their grandfather:
"You know your granddaddy was elected colonel of infantry in the county, but he wouldn't have it — be gave it up to be captain in the horse troop. Everybody wanted to ride in that war. We carried shotguns and squirrel rifles and any kind of pistol we had. They had spears, some of 'em — lances, we called 'em, but they were just bayonets stuck on poles. I remember riding into Richmond with the troop, going to join Jeb Stuart, and we were so proud that it killed us to hear the little boys on the sidewalks yell at us: 'Dog catchers!'
"The place they killed your granddaddy was Kellys Ford, up on the Rappahannock, and it was on the thirteenth of March in eighteen sixty-three. Just the night before he told me no Minié ball had been made that could kill him. But the Yankees came pouring across the river when we weren't looking and caught us with our britches down. Jeb Stuart was late getting out there and we lost plenty of fine boys. One of them was Major John Pelham, the gunner. You know all about him.
"Well, your granddaddy, the Major, was riding for the Yankee cannon, just behind General Rosser, when the General yelled without turning around. He said, 'For God's sake, Puller, help me rally the men!' And your granddaddy could hardly speak, but he said: 'General, I think I'm killed.'
"The General turned and saw that it was true. Your granddaddy fell off his horse, dead, and nobody knows to this day how he stayed in the saddle with that wound so long. Cannon fire. It just tore his middle right out of him, all his lights and everything. What kind of a man do you think it took to ride, hurt as bad as that? I'm proud to remember that I was his sergeant major."
The rest of the story was often told at home:
Lewis's grandmother had hung on her parlor wall the sword and spurs of her husband, but a few months after his death a raiding party of Federal soldiers, glimpsing these mementos, burned her house under an order to destroy Confederate munitions. The widow walked the ten miles to Gloucester Courthouse in a sleet storm, dragging four-year-old Matthew Puller with one hand and carrying his two-year-old brother. Within a few days she was dead of pneumonia.
Lewis's mother invariably ended the story with a moral: "Boys, you must be proud of the Confederacy, but it's a mighty good thing that the United States won that war, as terrible as it was. We couldn't live, except as one people."
There were pictures of great Confederates in the Puller home — Lee and Jackson in particular. But there were older heroes, too, from Caesar to Gustavus Adolphus. When his mother first read to him of Genghis Khan, Lewis was so smitten that on his next trip to Richmond he bought a book about the Mongol conqueror from his ammunition hoard. There too he saw his first parade of Confederate veterans, with the still erect figure of General John B. Gordon at the head of shuffling thousands of aging men in gray. The city had been turned over to them and many were so far gone in drink that they toppled from windows or lay in the streets while their compatriots marched before cheering crowds.
Young Lewis had an almost clinical interest in these war veterans, and once asked Sergeant Eastwood: "But how did we lose the war, when there were so many of them left alive? Why didn't we fight until everybody was dead? I wouldn't have given up."
Eastwood gave him a long look. "Boy, you're John Puller's grandson, I can see that. Flesh and blood. It's neck or nothing with you Pullers."
Lewis got into few fist fights, for he demonstrated that he would fight to the finish, whatever the odds. One day when Sam Puller picked a fight with an older friend, Dave Feild, Lewis stood by and watched Feild pound his brother into submission, but when larger boys waylaid friends, Lewis organized a neighborhood gang and took revenge. After Mr. Puller's death Lewis built a boxing ring in the empty stables of the barn and a dozen or more boys fought there in afternoons after school.
Lewis was not quite fifteen when, as the head of the family, he gave away his elder sister Emily in marriage. In the next summer he worked in the new pulp mill in town, an average of twelve hours a day at fifteen cents an hour. He became a merchant on his own initiative. He bought steamed crabs from a nearby packing house and stood among Negro hucksters at the gates of Beach Park, selling crabs for twenty-five cents a dozen. The money went to his mother.
Mrs. Puller managed well on a limited income; she insisted upon the best education within her means for the four children, occasionally with vehemence. Once when the West Point school proposed the dropping of Latin from the curriculum, she organized a parental posse and had the subject retained. Lewis was grateful, but not for considerations of pure scholarship. His efforts at translating Caesar made him impatient for the true message of the soldier-author, and when he bought a "pony" in Richmond, he was so fascinated by the narrative of war that he devoured it in one night. It opened a new world for him and began a lifelong career of serious military reading.
When Lewis was a junior in high school, West Point formed its first football team, though only two of the players had so much as seen a game. The 140-pound Lewis became fullback and manager. The team was equipped in spite of handicaps. The local harness maker split horse collars to make shoulder and knee pads; shoes were Boy Scout models on which the cobbler fixed leather cleats. They played three games in 1916.
Thomas G. Pullen, a college senior in Williamsburg, saw the first game, played against William and Mary Academy. Pullen organized a cheering section for the bedraggled and outmanned West Point team. It was a game he never forgot: "There was only one West Point player who could do anything at all. He was the fullback, with a chest like a pouter pigeon and a sort of bullet-shaped head. He was a little taller than most of his team and seemed to be about sixteen. The amazing thing was that he fought on and on, despite the hopelessness of the contest. It was possibly the most one-sided football game I ever saw.
"The West Point fullback ran up and down the line patting his mates on the back, kicking them, hollering and encouraging, and on the few times that his team got the ball, he made some gains."
In the next meeting of these teams three weeks later, West Point fought its way to a tie. In the final game, played against Gloucester, West Point won 48-0 and Lewis scored five touchdowns.
He was captain of the track team that spring, its champion high jumper, and ran well in the 100, 220, and 440-yard dashes — but once had to be helped off the field when he tried to run the half-mile as well. He won a number of blue ribbons in meets at county fairs in the region.
Lewis became catcher on the school baseball team, and though he was a good one, he had a longing to pitch. His coach finally put him on the mound against Gloucester one afternoon, and he gave up twelve runs before he was retired.
Once, when Lewis hit safely and dashed for second base, he was painfully spiked by the opposing player, but made the bag and stood there. The second baseman stepped a few feet away, the ball in his glove. "You son of a bitch," he said.
Lewis lunged toward him angrily — and when he did, the infielder tagged him out and the inning was over.
Puller was also captain of the school basketball team.
The young athlete was not a star student and had little interest in English or mathematics, but never neglected his own reading. One day when he misbehaved in school his teacher, Rose Althizer, challenged Lewis: "Young man, get your books and go home. I can stand no more of you today."
"You mean all of 'em?"
"I certainly do." She was astonished to see him pull more than two dozen books from his small desk and stagger out with a double armful — none of them textbooks.
During the 1916 troubles on the Mexican border, when U.S. troops were ordered out, Lewis went to Richmond with older boys and, after an unsuccessful effort to enlist in the Richmond Blues, came home hopefully with a form for his mother to sign which would permit him to join the Army, though under age. She refused.
In the last week of high school in 1917, the senior class played hooky one day on the theory (which proved to be correct) that the principal would not dare expel them all. Lewis was the leader of this prank, and when they returned from a swim and a six-mile hike to the river, he helped to bring back a dozen or more bullfrogs in paper bags. Lewis and Dave Feild tossed the frogs into a schoolroom window, and were rewarded by screams and other sounds of pandemonium.
Lewis worked in the pulp mill that summer as an electrician's helper for twenty cents an hour. Time dragged for him, for he had been enrolled at Virginia Military Institute and his mind was full of it. By careful management his mother was able to afford the tuition, and Lewis's dream came true.
In early September, 1917, Lewis left his mother and Sam in West Point and boarded the train for Lexington. He was impressed by the first assembly of cadets on the day of his arrival, when the Superintendent said: "This is the last time I will ever speak to all of you young men."
Excerpted from Marine! by Burke Davis. Copyright © 1962 Burke Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Author’s Note
- I. First Lessons
- II. The Fledgling
- III. Baptism of Blood
- IV. New Skills
- V. The Jungles Again
- VI. The Student Who Spoke His Mind
- VII. Return of the Tiger
- VIII. A Changed Man
- IX. Dress Rehearsal
- X. A War Within a War
- XI. Winning the War at Home
- XII. Cape Gloucester
- XIII. Written in Blood
- XIV. Years of Peace
- XV. War on a Shoestring
- XVI. MacArthur’s Triumph
- XVII. The Hordes of China
- XVIII. End of a Nightmare
- XIX. Are These Americans?
- About the Author