Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller – Battle of Peleliu (1944)
Chesty Puller’s reputation in the United States Marine Corps is unrivaled. Ask any leatherneck who Chesty Puller was and you’ll be transfixed with a thousand-yard stare that promises an explanation only if you’re polite. No one influenced the US Marine Corps more than Puller, whether by conduct, leadership, combat prowess. Puller’s resume includes fighting Haitian guerillas in the 1920s, the Imperial Japanese Army throughout World War II, and the North Korean and Chinese armies during the Korean War. He developed a towering reputation through a depth of combat experience that few contemporary commanders could match, habitually destroyed his opponents, and led from the front.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the enemy’s numerical superiority, Puller uncharacteristically wasted the lives of Marines in a series of assaults against the exceptionally well-fortified Japanese Army during the Battle of Peleliu. Puller compounded his error by refusing to ask for reinforcement from the nearby Army 81st Infantry Division.
Battle of Peleliu
In September of 1944, the United States Marines invaded the isle of Peleliu, furthering America’s strategy in the Pacific theater by seizing control of an airbase that belonged to Imperial Japan. The Marines captured the airport on the second day of the battle, but securing the main objective is not the same thing as conquering an island. Particularly when American intelligence vastly underestimated the number of enemy soldiers defending Peleliu. Nearly 11,000 Japanese soldiers had heavily fortified the island’s interior coral promontories, and surrender was not on their minds.
Commanding the 3,000 men of the 1st United States Marine Regiment, Puller unexpectedly attacked the entrenched enemy forces in the face of their overwhelming numerical superiority for six days straight. American casualties skyrocketed, for little or no gain, yet Puller sent wave after wave of Marines into this fiasco. He ignored his battalion commander’s descriptions of the enemy’s well-developed defenses, their reports of the terrain’s ruggedness, and rejected their pleas for reinforcements. The Army’s 81st Infantry Division was literally sitting in a nearby ship waiting to deploy, but Puller refused to ask for assistance.
On the sixth day of the battle, General Roy Geiger decided enough was enough. Geiger pulled Puller and his regiment out of combat and decided the better part of valor involved leaving the Japanese in their bunkers forever. That sort of thing happens when you use bulldozers as weapon of war, and end the threat of soldiers by sealing them in their defenses alive.
Chesty Puller’s Marines suffered 70% casualties. He ignored the advice of subordinates, underestimated the enemy, and refused to ask for help from the Army, cause, you know, Semper Fi.