Before he was known as “Chesty,” Lewis Burwell Puller was so good as a trainee at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island that, during his training, he was assigned a special task.
In 1918, when Puller was on Parris Island, drill instructors sometimes identified sharp recruits and made them DIs, according to Dr. Stephen Wise of the Parris Island Museum. The trainees-turned-trainers were called “Acting Jacks.”
Puller — who would retire as a lieutenant general and the Corps’ most famous Marine in 1955 after 37 years of service — was one of those Jacks.
As early as his third training day Puller was leading a platoon, according to Wise.
And that’s not surprising: Puller attended Virginia Military Institute for a year before coming to Parris Island. He’d hoped to fight in World War I but was instead assigned to train recruits, according to the Corps.
In subsequent years, Puller became the Corps’ most decorated Marine. He was awarded five Navy Crosses, two Legions of Merit, a Silver Star and a Distinguished Service Cross.
He fought in Korea and four World War II campaigns, and in expeditionary service in China, Nicaragua and Haita, according to the Corps’ history division.
Even after health concerns prompted his retirement, he requested permission to deploy to Vietnam, according to the Corps.
He famously testified in defense of Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon at the man’s court-martial following the Ribbon Creek incident, during which six recruits drowned in a marsh during a march designed to instill discipline on April 8, 1956, a moonless night. McKeon was convicted only of simple negligence and drinking in the barracks.
Before the verdict was announced, a party was organized in Puller’s honor. The “one-story drinking and dining club” was “jammed as it never has been before,” according to an article in The State on Aug. 3, 1956. The newspaper quoted one Marine in attendance as saying, “I’ve heard of guys coming out to rubberneck at Marilyn Monroe — me, I’d just as soon sit here and look at Chesty Puller.”
Puller’s testimony “that the tough training march was not oppression” was a “strong factor in the verdict,” according to the New York Times.
He was born June 26, 1898, in West Point, Va., according to his obituary in the Times.
He died 46 years ago today, on Oct. 11, 1971.
Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston
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