Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller, USMC

Article excerpt

Hoffman, Jon T. Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller, USMC. New York: Random House, 2001. 629pp. $35

In the heralded history of the U.S. Marine Corps, Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller occupies a unique position. Long revered as the greatest hero in the Corps, Puller is the only Marine to earn five Navy Crosses. His career spanned thirty-seven years, during which he mastered the entire spectrum of warfare, from chasing the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino in the jungles of Nicaragua to commanding a Marine regiment in the bitter fighting near the Chosin reservoir. Most Marines are familiar with Burke Davis's 1962 account of Puller's life, but fellow leatherneck Jon T. Hoffman has produced what is likely to become the definitive biography of this extraordinary officer.

Hoffman is no stranger to biography. His Once a Legend: "Red Mike" Edson of the Marine Raiders earned rave reviews from a number of distinguished military historians and editors. As he did with Edson, Hoffman uses private papers, personal military records, and recently declassified federal documents in his attempt to discover the "real" Puller, stripped of decades of mythology and near canonization. What makes this current biography so intriguing is Hoffman's willingness to confront the more controversial aspects of Puller's career, such as his performance at Peleliu, where his unit's casualty rate exceeded 54 percent, as well as his alleged indifference toward junior officers and to other services.

Puller was born in the Virginia Tidewater in 1898 and enlisted in the Marine Corps on 25 July 1918, too late to fight in World War I. He first saw combat during the interwar period, when the United States frequently dispatched Marines to quell domestic disturbances throughout the Caribbean. The Puller legend was born in Haiti and Nicaragua, where he earned the sobriquet "El Tigre" and established a reputation as a brilliant small-unit leader. His aggressive leadership won two Navy Crosses. Extended foreign service in China and aboard Captain Chester Nimitz's flagship, USS Augusta (CA 31), added new laurels to Puller's growing reputation.

With the advent of World War II, Puller actively sought combat duty. In September 1942 his battalion deployed to Guadalcanal. One month later, he had earned his third Navy Cross, in the defense of Henderson Field. Following a short interlude, Puller won a fourth Navy Cross in the battle at Cape Gloucester, on New Britain Island. On both occasions, Puller's spirited leadership prevented the desperate and determined enemy from penetrating his defenses. On Guadalcanal particularly, his officers and men were almost universal in their praise of his courage and leadership under fire.

It was on New Britain that Puller first attracted a great deal of criticism for allegedly using his own casualty figures as a measuring stick of how aggressively his men were fighting. This criticism reached new heights after Peleliu in September 1944, where a visibly tired Puller, now a regimental commander, sustained disproportionate casualties in eradicating the Japanese defenders. Hoffman rushes to his defense, noting that Puller's unit did not have as much naval gunfire support available as the other regiments did, and that service doctrine dictated maintaining momentum, which Puller's regiment had gained. …