- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

By Lt. Col. Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR
Random House, $35, 629 pages, illus.

No individual soldier in American history has embodied his service's ethos as has the Marine Corps' Chesty Puller. Puller went far beyond; he personally crafted the way the Marine Corps has defined itself since World War II by dint of his own personal example. The Marine tradition of having the officers eat last in common field messes in descending order of rank is a "Pullerism" as is the habit of encouraging officers to lead from the front. Puller was not the only senior Marine of World War II and Korea to put his command post on the front lines, but his stubborn habit of always doing so was unusual even among Marine leaders. Jon Hoffman's biography of Puller is an admiring, but balanced look at one of the Corps' greatest leaders.
Lieut. Gen. Lewis Burwell Puller was the scion of an old and respected, but not wealthy, Virginia family. Like his distant cousin, George Patton he grew up on tales of the martial prowess of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War. He dropped out of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to join the Marines in 1918 and was commissioned a lieutenant as World War I ended. With the postwar draw down, he reverted to enlisted rank, and went on to begin a long career as a small wars expert. In Haiti, as a Marine Corps noncommissioned officer, he was given the rank of lieutenant in the Haitian Gendarmerie. He quickly established a solid reputation as a counterinsurgency expert.
Puller eventually re-earned a commission in the regular Marine Corps and continued to campaign in the Banana Wars in Haiti and Nicaragua. In doing so, he earned numerous recommendations including the first of an unprecedented five Navy Crosses, the second highest award for valor in the naval service. Puller also saw duty as one of the legendary China Marines, where he received a working knowledge of the culture and military operations of his future foes, both Japanese and Chinese.
When World War II broke out, Puller successively commanded battalions and regiments. He led aggressively and tenaciously in all of the major battles of the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to Peleliu. Puller's reputation as a ferocious combat leader grew in each campaign until he became a virtual living legend in the Marine Corps.
When the Korean War broke out, Puller was still a colonel. He was given command of his old regiment and sent to war one last time. He took part in the brilliant Inchon landing, the retaking of Seoul, and the legendary breakout from the Communist Chinese ambush at the Chosin Reservoir. Puller's masterful handling of his regiment's attack on the outskirts of Seoul remains a masterpiece of Marine Corps combined arms tactics, and was still taught as a case study on urban combat when I attended Command and Staff College in the mid-'80s.
Col. Hoffman points out that Puller's combat record, while stellar, was not unblemished. Puller's attack on the Umurbrogol pocket in the Peleliu campaign has been criticized by many as an uncoordinated and unnecessarily costly exercise. During the final stage of the breakout from the Chosin, Puller attempted an ad hoc relief operation for a trapped unit that turned into a fiasco. The author confronts each of these shortcomings unblinkingly, but he also presents mitigating evidence in Puller's defense. The overall Peleliu operation was poorly conceived and executed by Puller's division commander, whose reputation in the Corps as a combat leader remains marred to this day. At Chosin, Puller was not in the best of health, and the biting cold combined with mind numbing fatigue caused lesser men to crack completely.
Puller could be controversial. His well know admonition that the Marines needed more whiskey and beer and less ice cream and women was taken correctly as criticism of the Army's performance in that conflict. These remarks offended the Army, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the National Dairy Council; not bad for a single sound bite. Puller also became critical of the military conduct of the Korean and Vietnam Wars although he remained a staunch anti-communist.
Jon Hoffman has done an excellent job of putting together a balanced and thoroughly researched account of the life of this American hero. The author is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves. He is a well published writer whose biography of Gen. "Red Mike" Edson remains the defining account of the life of yet another legendary Marine.
Chesty Puller's real value to the Marine Corps lies not in his unsurpassed record in combat. Rather it resides in the legacy of leadership by example that he set every day of his military life. His uncompromising approach to tough, realistic training and his dedication to taking care of his Marines without coddling them made him a beloved figure among the enlisted personnel of the Corps. That tradition still defines the Marine Corps approach to leadership.
To this day, many Marine Corps drill instructors have their troops wish Chesty good night wherever he may be. Wherever he is, if Chesty reads this book, he will probably wince at some passages, but I think he'll be pleased that his story has been well told.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer.

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