In my younger years, conventional parents and teachers encouraged boys and girls to read stories written about famous Americans. I recall reading about William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, George Custer, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee. They weren’t academically vetted manuscripts, of course —they were intended for elementary aged children, after all. It is also true that some of these stories contained as much myth as fact, but it was the reading of these stories that gave children heroes —people who were, according to pre-communist educators, worthy of emulation.
I am not alone, apparently. Another young man was exposed to these kinds of stories. His name was Lewis Burwell Puller. He was born in West Point, Virginia on 26 June 1898 —making him a little more than 8 years younger than my grandfather. He grew up reading the same kinds of stories as I did more than 50 years later, but he also grew up listening to the tales of civil war veterans as they recalled the great confederate generals: Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart. Puller attempted to join the Army in 1916 to fight in the border war with Mexico, but he was too young and his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.
In 1917, Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute, but left at the end of his first year because World War I was still going on; he said he wanted to go to the sound of the guns. By this time, the tales of the 5th Marine Regiment at Belleau Wood had inspired Puller to enlist in the U. S. Marine Corps, which he did in 1918. Private Puller was shipped off to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.
Puller never saw combat during World War I, but the Marine Corps was expanding; not long after graduating from boot camp, Puller was sent to NCO School and subsequently, Officers Candidate School (OCS). On 16 June 1919, Puller received a commission to Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve. A year later, large-scale military deactivations led to his release from active duty. Puller was placed on inactive status and assigned the rank of corporal.
During the years progressives refer to as the banana wars, Marine Corps Noncommissioned Officers were often commissioned as officers in the military of public safety services of foreign countries. It was thus that Corporal Puller received orders to serve in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti in the rank of lieutenant. US occupation of Haiti began in 1915 and lasted until 1934. Woodrow Wilson first sent the Marines to Haiti resulting from a series of political assassinations carried out by peasant brigands called Cacos. For more than five years, Puller participated in 40 operations against the Cacos and in 1922, served as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift. Major General Vandegrift would later command the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, win the Medal of Honor, and accept appointment as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Puller was re-commissioned a second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1924. After attending service schools and two assignments at Marine security barracks, Puller was assigned in 1928 to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment. During his service in Nicaragua, Puller was awarded two Navy Cross medals, representing the nations second highest award for valor.
By the time Puller was promoted to major, he had additionally served with the American Legation in China on two occasions, two sea duty tours aboard USS Augusta, and instructor duty at the Marine Corps basic school for officers. In August 1941, Puller was assigned to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which was at the time stationed at New River, North Carolina. The base was later renamed Camp Lejeune.
During World War II, Puller commanded Marines on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Pelélieu, and various elements of the 7th Marines, 5th Marines, and 1st Marines. During the Pacific Campaign, Puller received a Bronze Star Medal, his third and fourth award of the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to Colonel.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Puller was again assigned to command the 1st Marine Regiment. He participated in the landing at Inchon, the 1st Marine Division’s advance to the Chosin Reservoir, and its retrograde below the 38th parallel. During this period, Puller was awarded the Silver Star medal, a second Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and an unprecedented fifth award of the Navy Cross. It was during this time that Puller is quoted as saying, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
Puller was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1951 and was assigned as Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Marine Division. Although promoted successively to Lieutenant General, Puller’s health forced him to retire in 1955 with 37 years of service. In addition to the awards already mentioned, Puller received the Purple Heart Medal, and three awards of the Air Medal. It is believed that General Puller remains the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps.
General Puller passed away in 1971.