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Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains

Donald R. McClarey

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 courage 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.” Little surprise that Marine Drill Instructors at Parris Island will 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 is a small town lawyer in Central Illinois. He received both his BA and JD from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He is happily married with three kids. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973, he is currently President of the board of directors of the crisis pregnancy center in his county. Catholic from birth he has served as a lector and a catechism teacher at his parish.


(Article used with permission)



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved