In the United States, Veterans Day pays homage to service men and women of the nation’s military, those who currently wear the uniform and those who came before.
The day, which first garnered national prominence in 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson signed Armistice Day into effect, was created to recognize those whose acts of courage, selflessness, and heroism have kept this country safe.
If most Marines were asked to name a high-profile Marine of the past or someone to emulate, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a common answer. The name would be Chesty Puller: an enlisted man, a commissioned officer, a recipient of five Navy Crosses and an overall hero in the Corps.
All recruits going through Marine Corps boot camp learn about those who’ve served before them. Marines are taught to emulate traits of those who have proven themselves to be heroes and exceptional, fearless leaders. Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller was the embodiment of these traits. As a Marine for more than 30 years, from World War II to the Vietnam War, Puller became one of the most decorated and recognizable figures in military history.
“He was cut from a different bolt of cloth. He exemplified so many traits we want to follow,” said Danny Strand, director of Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow’s Safety and Emergency Services. “He was one of the most decorated Marines in history. His troops loved him, too.”
Many attribute Puller’s exemplary leadership qualities to his ability to relate to the troops he led. Once an enlisted man himself, Puller made sure his Marines were well taken care of.
“Chesty showed everyone you didn’t need a college education to lead Marines. He was one of them at one point so he understood what they would go through,” Strand explained. “I think this is why most people liked him as much as they did.”
Puller was recognized for many dauntless tasks while serving in the Marine Corps. He was awarded his first Navy Cross for leading his forces into engagements against superior numbers. Throughout 1930, Puller led forces in the Nicaraguan National Guard in several battles against bandits in which the outnumbered national guard forces routed the enemy each time. In the entirety of 1930, Puller lost nine men. Subsequently, he was awarded four more Navy Crosses for equal feats of extraordinary heroism. Tales of valor such as these have made it easy for Marines to remember why he’s become the legend he is today.
With these many counts of bravery under his belt, it was only a matter of time before tall tales of Puller’s deeds began to spread. There are Marines today who have a hard time separating fact from fiction.
“There’s a lot of myth and legends that follow Puller now,” said Sgt. Michael Pressler, an artillery mechanic with Fleet Support Division aboard MCLB Barstow. “A lot of it has gotten blown way out of proportion but, with him, I could see how. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s been fabricated.”
Puller has become known for more than his acts of valor during his time serving. His words and actions out of battle have garnered him fans within the ranks as well.
“He held himself to a higher standard than anyone else he knew,” said Strand, a fellow mustang and retired lieutenant colonel. “During his time, an accidental discharge of your weapon was twenty dollars. He once fined himself one hundred dollars for one.”
Although it’s hard to say whether the sayings are true, many people attribute some of their favorite quotes to Puller, as well.
“My favorite quotes from Chesty are ones that have to do with common sense. Now, I know we’re not supposed to put our hands in our pockets but Chesty once said ‘a Marine with cold hands and warm pockets is a fool,” said Sgt. Jacey Marks, assistant training chief with Headquarters Battalion, MCLB Barstow.
Puller’s approach to situations with common sense and understanding play a large role in the reasons Marines and others hold him in high regard.
Puller earned the respect of those he served with through the lessons he taught by word or action. And this respect has stood the test of time. It’s good men and women like Chesty Puller we honor on Veterans Day each year.