Meet The Most Decorated Marine In History: Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller

Ask any Leatherneck today which Marines they look up to and you can guarantee that Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller is on the top of that list. Becoming a Marine requires bravery, courage, and sacrifice—Chesty was built with those traits.

Over a 37-year career, three wars, and eleven battles, Chesty consistently earned respect and honor. The wars left him covered in scars but Chesty also had a soft spot: his fierce loyalty and care for his fellow Marines. Read on to find out how one man became the most decorated Marine of all-time.

Determined To Join The Military From The Start

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Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller was born in 1898. His birth city was West Point, Virginia. If you’re sharp on your military knowledge, then you’re aware that the one of the most notable academies goes by the name West Point as well.

Ever since Puller was young, he had a desire to join the military. Similar to how young athletes aspire to turn professional. The young lad wasn’t going to let any obstacles get in his way from reaching this goal.

Puller Looked Up To Military Men

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Puller’s father was a grocer, but sadly, he would pass away before Puller became a teenager. With his dad gone, Puller still had ample masculine influences while in his youth. He would listen to stories and happenings shared by heroes from the American Civil War.

He placed those men on high pedestals. In only a few years, Puller would be in the same position as some of them. His journey to the top of the ladder was a struggle, but he kept his head high…

He Tried To Enlist In The The Military At A Young Age

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By the time 1916 rolled around, Puller entered his teenage years. Since most of his inspiration came from war heroes who risked their lives, he wished to make these memories as well. The young man wanted to achieve his goals quickly.

He attempted to enroll in the U.S. Army so he could aid them in the Border War with Mexico. It was a little too early in his life for him to do that, and his mother wouldn’t sign the permission slip. What could he do to enter the military?

Don’t Stop After Failure

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Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

If at first, you don’t succeed, try again. That’s how Puller modeled his actions after not getting into the military on his first try. He was disappointed after getting rejected, thinking his dreams were going down the drain.

There were many young men who were declined by the military for being too young, so his case wasn’t rare. But that’s when Puller’s determination showed face, and he didn’t quit. There was more he needed to do, or at least try, in order to get the ball rolling…

Puller Finally Enlisted in 1917

Chesty Puller in full uniform looking tough as nails
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Dorothy Cummings/Pinterest

After many attempts at joining the military, his work finally paid off when he enlisted to the Virginia Military Institute in 1917. Puller did everything that he could to prepare for the first World War. Their training took place inside of the U.S. borders, which was not enough for Puller.

All he wanted to do was serve his country and fight the enemies. Unfortunately, it looked as though he might not be able to participate in the big war, and that was highly disappointing for him.

Waiting For His Chance To See Battle

Marine  in tropical dwelling, Guadalcanal, Solomon Island
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images Marine

If trying to catch a chicken in the cold is what it took to fight in the war, then consider Puller a hen catcher. He would have done anything if it meant being able to go to war. Some men around Puller said that his main aim was to “go where the guns are.”

Puller was eager to go and fight for his country, but he would get his chance to shine sooner than expected. But first, there was something he needed to do.

Puller Joined the Marine Corps In 1918

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Nothing was going to stop Puller on his path to achieving his dream of preparing for battle and fighting for the country. That’s why he decided to leave the Virginian institution. Instead, he opted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps privately.

He did that in 1918, a few years after finally getting admitted into the military. Now, he was one step closer to doing what his heart really desired. Would there be any more challenges ahead?

Joining The Elite

American infantry soldiers on the march towards the Rhine
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Puller joined the elite branch’s boot camp on Parris Island in South Carolina as his next move. He became inspired by the Marines who were doing their best alongside the British and French army at the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood in France.

Things didn’t go Puller’s way more times than he anticipated at the start of his journey. Still, he carried on waiting for his time to carry out the duties of a Marine.

A Little Too Late For WWI

Soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during World War I
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sadly, it was too late for Puller to join in on the action going on during World War I. The war ended before he had a shot to prove himself or even fire a single bullet. Things weren’t going his way at all.

The desire of going overseas to fight for his country burned mightily in Puller’s brain. There’s no way he was going to let his military career end this way, but there was only so much he could do at this point.

He Graduated as a Second Lieutenant

Chesty Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 1942
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Training for Puller wouldn’t last much longer. He finally graduated as a second lieutenant by 1919. Graduating as a lieutenant showed Puller’s potential for greatness. Many Marines don’t rank that high so soon in the military.

The war had already ended, however, and more troops, including Puller, weren’t needed because of the peace cutback. This might’ve been the case, but Puller kept his spirits high and welcomed any further challenges that were undoubtedly coming his way.

Heading To Haiti

Marines play cards and clean their rifles on a ship bound for Iwo Jima
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Joseph Schwartz/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

It would be best if you kept in mind that Marines have a reputation for never giving up. Puller, whose name is still in the Marines chant at boot camp, epitomized the “Devil Dog” Marine Corps spirit.

Puller decided to reenlist as a corporal, even with the war done. He joined the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, which was the paramilitary police located in Haiti. Being stationed in the Caribbean was just a small step he needed to take for his career path.

Working In The Caribbean

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United States Marine Corps Public Domain
United States Marine Corps Public Domain

The Gendarmerie d’Haiti force had to maintain peace and harmony in the Caribbean country at all times while Americans were stationed in the country under the directions of President Woodrow Wilson. It was at this point that Puller saw this as his chance.

He spent five years in Haiti, taking part in 40 operations fighting insurgents. That sounds like a lot, but this was only the beginning for young Puller. There was so much more he wanted to accomplish. Not everyone could have pulled off what he did…

Would He Finally See Action?

soldiers advance through a banana grove
Sgt. A Stubbs/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Sgt. A Stubbs/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

There’s always the calm before the storm. Puller spent a few years in Haiti and was stationed at several bases in Virginia, working hard as a trainer.

He was still operating as a second lieutenant during this time, in 1942. This had to be the calmest point in Puller’s military career as a Marine. Certainly, he would see action soon, right? Would he finally get what he had hoped for after all these years?

Traveling To Nicaragua

Chesty Puller, USMC, in the field
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The year that Puller reached the age of 30, he traveled to the South American country of Nicaragua. He lent his hand in the battle against insurgents that opposed the U.S. occupation. It was a task that he was already familiar with doing, but this time it was a little different.

At last, Puller was in the midst of something he looked for his whole life. He was in the presence of a brutal fight, and he was going to be able to use all of his training.

Time For Recognition

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Light Yagami/Pinterest

During his time in Nicaragua, Puller managed to secure his first Navy Cross. If you don’t know what that is, it’s the second-highest military award for bravery if you’ve taken part in a battle. That’s a great achievement!

He earned this reward by helping fend off the Sandinista rebels who went against the U.S. occupation. It was his first time putting his skills to the test, and he didn’t disappoint. He helped tremendously in leading the Nicaraguan National Guard troop to victory.

Many Believed He Deserved Another Medal

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Contributor/Getty Images

That wouldn’t be the last Navy Cross Puller would receive. He went on to secure five in total during his time serving. Some even feel that Puller deserved a Medal of Honor for his contribution.

They might’ve felt that way, but folks still speak about “Chesty” Puller to this day without having that medal of recognition. What made him become the transcendent military man that we know today? The answer to that might surprise you…

Displaying Courage When Outnumbered By The Enemy

Chesty Puller (second from left) with the senior staff of the 7th marines
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World War II Database/Pinterest

Something Puller did exceptionally well was lead his men to victory, no matter the circumstances. That means even if the opposition outnumbered his men– which was the case while in Nicaragua– he would fight through it. Some see being outnumbered by enemies and think defeat, but not Puller.

He earned the Navy Cross for “five successful engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces,” reads an excerpt from the One Mind Any Weapon book. The man was a tank, bulldozing any obstacles in his way.

“We’re Surrounded, That Simplifies The Problem”

Chesty Puller posing proudly in full uniform
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World War II Database/Pinterest

The intangibles Puller possessed like his efficiency and bravery were crucial. These traits helped lead the American Marines and Nicaraguan National Guardsmen in combat against the insurgents. He has a famous quote that says: “we’re surrounded, that simplifies the problem.”

This feat took place towards the end of his great Central American tenure in the military. There is no question that he made a big impression and would do even greater things while he served.

His Second Prolific Medal

Marine life Puller shaking hands with a friendly with his chest out
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Light Yagami/Pinterest

It wouldn’t take long for Puller to claim his second Navy Cross. It was only a week and a few days before he led another group of Marines against the rebel Sandinistas. He won that scuffle as well with the team and his time in Central America had ended.

He would leave with two medals, a feat that most military men only dream about accomplishing. This was the moment he had waited for his entire life, and things worked out just how he hoped they would.

How “Chesty” Earned His Nickname

Major General Lewis B 'Chesty' Puller, USMC,
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

How does one earn the nickname of “Chesty?” That’s a fair question considering that we’ve never heard of anyone else having a name like that. Puller received this name because he was always stern, and his posture stayed disciplined.

The men Puller led in action say that supposedly he replaced his chest after bandits slashed it off during battle. It allegedly happened in the Banana Wars, and he received a steel chest as the replacement. That is one way you can get that nickname.

Rumors On How He Earned His Nickname

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Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Some men have different ideas on how he earned his nickname “Chesty.” As you’re well aware, he was a fierce man with a ton of energy. Some say “We don’t need no frontline communications, Chesty yells commands up and down the line. You can hear him for miles.”

That sounds very Chesty of him. By the time the Banana Wars ended, his rank was very high up. Many respected the man Chest was and knew he meant well.

The China Marines

American tough-guy actor James Cagney (1899-1986) plays sailor Chesty-3351516
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After Puller’s time in Central America ended, he had to do something. He wasn’t going to sit around and let life pass him by when there was ample opportunity for him to do what he loves doing so much.

That’s when he moved all the way to China after receiving a posting. His new unit’s name was the China Marines and their duty was to guard the American diplomatic service in Beijing. Who better than Chesty to do that?

The Shanghai Life

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Veronica Violet/Pinterest

After heading to Shanghai, Chesty became a very busy man. He joined the USS Augusta and also went to Philadelphia so he could train a few troops. That all sounds nice, but he had to get back to China.

They appointed him the executive officer there. While in the Chinese coastal city, the unit Puller led would find themselves involved in a pretty chaotic battle. Even Chesty experienced some struggles during this insane battle that happened…

No Fear For Puller

Chesty's famous quote
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Pbol Tera Williams/Pinterest

In the summer of 1941, Puller was the then-acting battalion commander and he went into a non-commissioned officers meeting. Tension filled the room as people wondered if the United States would have to enter a second World War.

A sergeant asked Puller how he would respond if Japan started something and he said, “I don’t know what the United States Government will do; I don’t know what Marine Headquarters will do, and I don’t know what the regiment will do. But – no orders to the contrary – I’ll take my battalion and fight my way the hell back to Frisco.”

The Wounded Legend

Puller was not a man who would quit
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Dorothy Cummings/Pinterest

Puller and his men headed to the island of Guadalcanal after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It was there he earned his third Navy Cross after a grueling battle. He saved three lives, even with the Japanese forces being larger than his.

He also had to fend off the attackers for three long hours in the night, and that’s when Puller became wounded. His leg was hit seven times by shrapnel in one single engagement, and that’s when he gave the world this famous quote after that came from a conversation with doctors. “Evacuate me! Take that tag and label a bottle with it. I will remain in command!”

Bravery Is His Middle Name

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Pbol Tera Williams/Pinterest

After the epic battle, Puller became an executive officer of the 7th Marine Regiment. A few years later, he had the chance to show his courage once more in the Pacific. He led his team to an unbelievable feat once more.

He and his men went up against the Japanese machine guns and mortar fire during the Battle of Cape Gloucester. Puller figured that doing a counteroffensive was the best way to go and that ended up earning him his fourth Navy Cross!

Losing A Loved One

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Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Yet again Puller commanded more troops but this time it was the 1st Marine Regiment at the battle in Peleliu. It turned out to be one of the craziest battles ever recorded in Marine Corps history. There, he would earn his first of the two Legion of Merit awards he received in his career.

That’s all fine and swell, but he also lost his brother Samuel D. Puller during this fight. A sniper caught him while they were in Guam and Puller had to travel back home right after.

Puller Served With The Future Marine Corps Commandant

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Keystone/Getty Images

The Commandant of the Marine Corps is the highest-ranking officer, who also holds a position in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s a big job, which includes advising the President of the United States and the Department of Defense.

In 1992, while stationed in Haiti, Puller worked adjunct to Alexander Vandegrift. A Major at the time, Vandegrift went on to become a four-star general and the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

He Trained Other Top Marines

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Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

In June 1936, Puller went to Philadelphia to become an instructor at The Basic School, teaching new officers the basics on how to be an “Officer of Marines”. Several of the Marines he instructed went on to have highly successful careers.

Puller instructed Louis Robertshaw, who became a Lieutenant General and led combat missions as a Commanding General in the Vietnam War. He also instructed Combat Pilot Pappy Boyington, and Lew Walt, who would go on to become a four-star general in the United States Marine Corps.

Puller Earned a Bronze Star Medal

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© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Puller left Samoa and arrived at Guadalcanal, an island in the South-Western Pacific, on September 18, 1942. Soon after his arrival, a battle broke out. Puller jumped into action, leading his battalion against oncoming fire. He led three of his companies to safety, then ran to the shore. Nearby was the USS Ballard United States Navy Destroyer. Puller signaled to U.S. Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro on the landing craft that they needed backup.

The USS Ballard exchanged fire with the enemy Japanese force, saving the battalion from annihilation. Munro lost his life in the process and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Puller was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” for his actions that day.

“Lead By Example”

soldiers marching
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Puller lived by the motto, “lead by example.” To him, it meant not only setting the tone for his men, but living with his men. He may have been the leader, but he fell in line with the privates in his outfit and carried his own mess gear.

He may have marched at the head of his battalion, but he didn’t ask anyone to do any dirty work for him.

He Did His Own Dirty Work

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Blogspot

One story about Puller in New Britain really shows how he went about his business. While patrolling the area, he didn’t let natives carry his gear, eat special food, or enjoy a comfortable bed.

Instead, Puller stuck to the “K” rations diet his Marines had to eat, he slept on the floor, and carried his bag (which only carried the essentials). This story, among many others, has helped to grow the legend of Chesty Puller.

The Marines Came First

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Throughout his years of service, Chesty lived by one rule; that the Marines came first. When a young Marine asked him for permission to get married once, Puller responded, “Son, when the Marine Corps wants you to have a wife, you will be issued one.”

It takes a lot of dedication and love for ones country to put defending it above all else. To Chesty Puller, however, that kind of patriotism was just another day at the office.