Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains

Donald McClarey - Lewis Burwell Puller



Some men become legends after their deaths and others become legends while they are alive.  Lewis Burwell Puller, forever known as \”Chesty\”, was in the latter category.  Enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1918 he would serve until 1955, rising in rank from private to lieutenant-general.  Throughout his career he led from the front, never asking his men to go where he would not go.  For his courage he was five times awarded the Navy Cross,  a Silver Star,  a Distinguished Service Cross, and a Bronze Star with a v for valor, along with numerous other decorations.  In World War II and Korea he became a symbol of the heroism that Marines amply displayed in  both conflicts.

His fourth Navy Cross citation details why the Marines under his command would have followed him in an attack on Hades if he had decided to lead them there:

\”For extraordinary heroism as Executive Officer of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, serving with the Sixth United States Army, in combat against enemy Japanese forces at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, from 26 December 1943 to 19 January 1944. Assigned temporary command of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, from 4 to 9 January, Lieutenant Colonel Puller quickly reorganized and advanced his unit, effecting the seizure of the objective without delay. Assuming additional duty in command of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, from 7 to 8 January, after the commanding officer and executive officer had been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Puller unhesitatingly exposed himself to rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire from strongly entrenched Japanese positions to move from company to company in his front lines, reorganizing and maintaining a critical position along a fire-swept ridge. His forceful leadership and gallant fighting spirit under the most hazardous conditions were contributing factors in the defeat of the enemy during this campaign and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.\”

Stories began to cluster about him.  When he was first shown a flame thrower he supposedly asked, \”Where do you mount the bayonet?\”    Advised that his unit was surrounded he replied:  \”All right, they\’re on our left, they\’re on our right, they\’re in front of us, they\’re behind us…they can\’t get away this time.\”  On an inspection tour of a Marine unit he became exasperated at the lack of spirit he saw and finally said,\”Take me to the Brig. I want to see the real Marines!\” 

During the Chosin campaign in Korea, when the Marines were fighting their way to the coast through several Communist Chinese corps, he captured the tactical situation succinctly:  \”Retreat! Hell, we\’re just attacking in a different direction.\”    In rallying his heavily outnumbered Marines at Koto-ri to hold that strategic pass he used blunt language that would cause the pc police to be on his back today:   \”There aren’t enough Chinese laundrymen in the world to stop a Marine regiment  going where it wants to go! Christ in His mercy will see us through.” 

At Koto-ri Puller earned his Fifth Navy.  Here is the citation:

\”For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against aggressor forces in the vicinity of Koto-ri, Korea, from 5 to 10 December 1950. Fighting continuously in sub-zero weather against a vastly outnumbering hostile force, Colonel Puller drove off repeated and fanatical enemy attacks upon his Regimental defense sector and supply points. Although the area was frequently covered by grazing machine-gun fire and intense artillery and mortar fire, he coolly moved along his troops to insure their correct tactical employment, reinforced the lines as the situation demanded, and successfully defended the perimeter, keeping open the main supply routes for the movement of the Division. During the attack from Koto-ri to Hungnam, he expertly utilized his Regiment as the Division rear guard, repelling two fierce enemy assaults which severely threatened the security of the unit, and personally supervised the care and prompt evacuation of all casualties. By his unflagging determination, he served to inspire his men to heroic efforts in defense of their positions and assured the safety of much valuable equipment which would otherwise have been lost to the enemy. His skilled leadership, superb courage and valiant devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds reflect the highest credit upon Colonel Puller and the United States Naval Service.\”

Little surprise that Marine Drill Instructors at Parris Island still have their boots sing good night to Chesty Puller some four decades after his death.

Puller was an Episcopalian.  However he made no secret that he greatly admired Navy Catholic chaplains who served with the Marines, and had little use, with certain honorable exceptions, for the Navy Protestant chaplains sent to the Corps.  His reasons were simple.  The Catholic chaplains were without fear, always wanted to be with the troops in combat, and the men idolized them for their courage and their willingness, even eagerness, to stand with them during their hour of trial.\"\"

On New Guinea one Protestant chaplain complained to Puller that the Catholic chaplains were making converts among the Protestants.  Puller told the chaplain that he should work harder and not come whining to him.  Later, Puller encountered the Protestant chaplain again and Puller read him the riot act.  Instead of being with his men while they were fighting the chaplain had remained behind at the battalion aid station.  \”They\’ve got a chaplain of their own. Your place was with the fighting men — your own battalion. You remember our little talk about Protestant boys joining the Catholics? Well, conduct like yours is one reason for it. They see those priests doing their duty and see you evading it. I can\’t work up much sympathy for you.\”

Puller told his officers on another occasion that he had known only a few Protestant chaplains that were worth their ration cards.

He would receive letters from Protestant mothers concerned that their Marine sons had joined the Catholic Church.  He would write back that if the Protestant chaplains had the guts to go where the Catholic chaplains did, where the bullets were flying, maybe their sons wouldn\’t be converting.

After he had retired, Puller complained to his Episcopal bishop:  \”I can\’t understand why our Church sends such poorly prepared men as chaplains when fighting breaks out — they look to me like men who can\’t get churches, for the most part. The Catholics pick the very best, young, virile, active and patriotic. The troops look up to them.\”

Small wonder that Puller sent his own kids to Catholic parochial school.  Good night Chesty, wherever you might be.

© Donald R. McClarey. All Rights Reserved.

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21 thoughts on “Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains”

  1. I’m a Lutheran, but that parable (I call it a parable because it teaches a lesson) has guided me as a member of my congregation whenever we seek new leaders. It has also helped me answer questions about the leadership at my previous church (a Methodist Church) when I had questions about its leadership from the clergy and others.

  2. Thanks so much, Don! We didn’t hear Chesty’s name so much at MCRD San Diego in ’82 … although I did end up doing some bends-and-thrusts in his honor. I’m happy to learn more about him.

    @ Tammy: God bless and comfort you in your sorrow, and thanks to you for all he gave to his nation and the Corps. Semper Fi, indeed.

  3. Thank you for the history lesson on the spiritual side of some of the battles fought by brave Marines. Please indulge me for a second to let you know something of the practical side.

    My late husband grew up in Montana and learned how to negotiate challenging settings and temperatures and was forever interested in the suffering that the Marines of the past endured because their gear was not up to the challenge. Twice he did tours through the Command that researched, developed and chose the gear that Marines would wear.

    He became an expert in every textile fiber, cloth, pattern and stitch needed to create the best possible gear a Marine could have. He was on the team that originally developed the Body Armor that eventually evolved into what is used today.

    I get aggravated reading early criticisms of the body armor…people forget that it couldn’t be improved until it existed in the first place and I remember many days (long before we were at war) when he toiled with his nose to the grindstone to get it from idea to reality.

    Marines for many years will benefit form the time, commitment and expertise that my late husband devoted to his vocation as Officer in the Marine Corps. I imagine that he and Chesty have tossed down a few cold frosty ones in Heaven. Semper Fi, gentlemen.

  4. Fr. Vincent R. Capadanno, of Staten Island, N. Y., was a chaplain for 5th Marine Regiment in Vietnam. He was always in the field with the men, especially during the most dangerous times. He voluntarily extended his combat tour of duty and, shortly thereafter,literally sacrificed his life while ministering to the wounded and dying during a most bloody fire fight in September, 1967. Though already severely wounded, he purposely placed his body between a Navy Corpsman tending the wounded and the muzzle of an enemy machine gun, deliberately taking the full force of the enemy’s deadly, close range fire. For this action he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. For his entire life of heroic virtue, his cause for sainthood has been initiated. He is one more outstanding example of what we Marines mean when we say, “Semper Fidelis” and of what Christ meant when he said, “Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”

  5. In my playlist of jogging tunes I have a number of Jody calls. For those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular, “Jody calls” are military cadence calls that are the perfect background for keeping in tempo, especially when running with a group. For a good primer, see this:

    Anyway, in one of the Jodies the soldiers sing, “It was good for Chesty Puller, it was good enough for me.” I never knew who Chesty Puller was until now. Thank you for the inspiring story.

  6. Now as I recollect, While only being a Cavalry trooper,most of us who knew about Chesty were Catholic. They (we) knew about him because he was an icon among all fighting men because he had guts and he did his duty before God.He recognized his Commander and follwed His orders. Most of the firemen who went into the 2 towers were Catholic, and their chaplain was the first one to die, and they knew they were next. If it is true that Our Lord “hates” a coward and loves those who lay down their lives for others, then I have no worries about Chesty and the rest.

  7. Great story on Chesty, you should also do one on Catholic Navy Chaplain Father Catapano, Medal of Honor recipient in the Korean War. Chesty is now commanding Marines guarding the streets of Heaven. God night Chesty, we know where you are. Semper Fi & Pax Christi.

    1. “Catholic Navy Chaplain Father Catapano”

      I have been working my way up to him for the past four years Sarge in telling the stories of other Catholic chaplains. The Grunt Padre deserves my very best and I am not quite there yet.

  8. My son brought back from Marine OCS the story that when Chesty went on an inspection tour to some Marine camp, he said “Take me to the brig, I want to see some real Marines.” Nevertheless, I well remember spending a couple of nights with the 1st Mar Div back in the day, the EMs were all 19 years old and just itching to go out on ambush to get Charlie. God bless all Marines.

  9. Pingback: Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains | CATHOLIC FEAST

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