Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains


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:  “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”  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.

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  1. “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.”

    Unfortunately, the situation seems to be reversed in civilian life today — Protestants (specifically, evangelicals) seem to be making numerous converts among Catholics while Catholics sit back and wring their hands about why so many are leaving the Church.

    However, based on what Puller says here, the solution does NOT lie in better marketing techniques or in “feel good” approaches to the faith… rather it lies in having clergy (and lay people) whom others can look up to, and who aren’t afraid to go “where the bullets are flying”

  2. James Shannon, while a parish priest, recounts having been called to the scene of a midnight fire at a warehouse. There was a threat of a floor collapsing. The fire chief ordered his men out. He then turned to Father Sheehan: “You’re wanted inside”. And inside he went.

  3. There are in fact many men who are leaders that point to Christ from the Catholic parish and parishes across the street. And, there are those who stand out, like “Chesty” who are Catholic witnesses of uncompromising conviction. It is important to know our brothers (and sisters) who are leaders, saints and servants, and to teach about them to our children, and more importantly to reflect them in our respective lives to make them real.

  4. MEMO FROM: God Almighty
    TO: Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines
    RE: Which Service is Best

    I’ve been watching and here’s what I think. All branches of the United States Armed Forces are truly honorable, courageous, well-trained and capable.

    Therefore, there is no superior service.

    God Almighty, USMC (Ret.)

    Best PR dept. in the world . . . the Church ought to hire them.

  5. Sorry, Mac! I read that in a Christmas gift book. It hit me that way, too.

    Catholic Chaplains go at “it” with zeal for the salvation of souls. Not sure what motivates protestant padres.

    PS: I’m boycotting Pepsi products, too. That’d be about $1.50 less in annual sales.

    PPS: I bet dollars to donuts Michelle didn’t give Barrack “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces” as a kwanzaa gift. He might learn something.

  6. I am a Navy reservist and you see it all the time, the Catholic Chaplains are the chaplains that the other chaplains look up to.

  7. This is still true today. When I was in Afghanistan, my battalion was blessed to have a Catholic chaplain who had himself been a Marine infantryman before joining the priesthood. He went everywhere with us, including fire fights, and everyone loved him.

  8. Donald McClarey,

    We would like to republish, to the Catholic Education Resource Center web site, the article “Chesty Puller and Catholic Chaplains”.

    Kindly allow me to explain who we are and how this article would be used by us.

    The Catholic Education Resource Center provides an Internet library of journal articles, essays, book excerpts, and other texts. These have been chosen for their objective, concise, and clear presentation of Catholic teachings, culture, and history, particularly in those areas in which the Church’s role is unknown or misunderstood. Materials have been selected which are scholarly yet accessible and have all been copyright cleared for classroom, parish, or individual use.

    Approximately 160,000 unique visitors drop by our web site every month. Over 220,000 articles a month are accessed on our site.

    We are a non-profit educational organization providing perspective for students, teachers, clergy, ordinary Catholics and enquiring non-Catholics on a broad range of educational and other matters.

    In addition to our web site library, we provide a free email newsletter, the CERC Weekly Update, which lists new articles posted to the site along with abstracts and hot links, as well as links to editorials of interest on matters bearing on Catholic faith and culture from around the world.

    See our most recent online version:

    If permission is granted we will provide a full reference and link to the American Catholic website as well as a short bio on you and links to your books.

    For example, see the article below.

    Sincerely in Christ,

    J. Fraser Field

    J. Fraser Field
    Managing Editor
    Catholic Education Resource Center
    3284 Hernando Avenue
    Powell River, B.C.
    V8A 1B8

    phone: (604) 485-0561

    veritatem quaerendo


  9. Thanks for this wonderful post. I first heard about Chesty Puller from the HBO series “The Pacific”, and am now reading the companion book to that series. So many valiant men served in WWII — never get tired of reading their stories. Also, loved the comment about “God Almighty (USMC, Ret’d.)” God bless the Marines!

  10. How interesting! I had always heard that the presence of Catholic chaplains on the front line also led to the conversion of numerous British nobles during World War I. In fact, it was thought that the discipline of celibacy enabled the Church to send her priests into the worst of it, precisely because they would not be encumbered by families.

  11. That is true. Robert Graves, in his memoir, Goodbye to All That, of his service in the Royal Army in World War I, although he was an agnostic, attested to the fact that the bravest men he ever encountered in combat on the Western Front were the Catholic chaplains of the British Army. This is striking since in his memoir he also made it clear that he had absolutely no use for organized religion.

  12. Donald,

    Great article. A few niggles though from a retired Marine. First, Puller’s decorations need to be capitalized: Navy Cross, Silver Star, etc. The Navy Cross is our nation’s second highest award for gallantry and the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross is the same award (which Chesty also won).

    Secondly the quote ” “Retreat! Hell, we’re just attacking in a different direction” does not belong to Puller but to his Commanding General at the time, Major General Oliver P. Smith. During the Chosin Reservoir campaign, O.P. Smith led the 1st Marine Division, supported by the 1st Marine Air Wing, from Chosin to Hungnam destroying 12 Chinese divisions in the process.

    Semper Fidelis,


  13. Thank you for the corrections Frank. In regard to the Retreat, Hell comment I have seen it attributed to both men. The relatively, for a Marine, soft-spoken Smith, a truly great commander, was nick-named “the Professor”, and normally did not use profanity. During the Chosin campaign he responded to a question from a reporter asking whether this was the first time that Marines had ever retreated by noting that the Chinese were behind the Marines and that the Marines were attacking them. I assume it is possible that the more bluntly spoken Puller shortened the statement and added the Hell reference. Puller did say the following to a reporter: “Remember when you write, this was no retreat. All that happened was we found more Chinese behind us than in front of us. So we about-faced and attacked.”

    Before his men reached the aptly named “Hellfire Valley” during the Chosin campaign, Puller, the original unPc character, stood on a ration box and told his men: “I don’t give a good goddamn how many Chinese laundrymen there are between us and Hungnam. There aren’t enough in the world to stop a Marine regiment going where it wants to go! Christ in His mercy will see us through.”

  14. Donald, you’re welcome. As the article is being seen by a wide audience, I think it’s important that General O.P. Smith’s quote be attributed correctly. The Wikipedia citation saying this quote belongs to Puller is simply wrong. A simple Google search of “Retreat Hell. We’re just attacking in a different direction.” will verify with ample evidence the true origin of these words.

    Marines are sticklers for their history, and rightly so. That’s why Leatherneck Magazine, published by the Marine Corps Association in Quantico VA, and the official magazine of the Marine Corps, gets the quote attributed correctly.

    “Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because Marines come in two varieties, big and mean, or skinny and mean. They’re aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They’ve got really short hair and they
    always…Go for the throat.”
    -RAdm. Stark, US Navy; 10 November 1995

    Semper Fidelis,

  15. Thanks for the follow-up Frank. From the article you link to:

    “The hero’s hero of the campaign has to be Major General Oliver P. Smith, commander of the First Division. He advanced cautiously, probing the strength of the new enemy, establishing rearguard strongholds of supply and defense, all despite the Army command’s exhortations to race blindly into the unknown. And, of course, he led us out under the banner of his immortal battle cry, “Retreat, Hell! We’re just attacking in a different direction!” Eyewitnesses confirm he said exactly that, but some Stateside skeptics, never close to the battleground, let alone the general, claim he would never utter such language.”

  16. Donald, absolutely his reply was subjected to a reporters spin. This is how Eric Hammel describes the circumstances in his book Chosin:Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War,

    Later in the day, while explaining the breakout plan to several news reporters, Smith agreed to field some questions.

    “General,” one of the newsmen soon ventured, “all this adds up to a retreat.”

    O.P. gave that a moment’s thought, for it was a fair surmise. The general, a man entirely bereft of any sense of personal aggrandizement, was about to utter what would become a legendary response, but he had no sense of that either. Ever the patient teacher, Smith said gently to the reporter,

    “No, not a retreat. It will be an attack in another direction.”

    Within twenty-four hours, newspapers throughout the United States were emblazoned with this headline: “Retreat Hell! We’re attacking in another direction.”

    And now you know the rest of the story, and a little more about one of my favorite Marines. Smith, a product of U.C. Berkeley and the first Marine officer to also graduate from the French Ecole Supérieure de Guerre.

    Thanks again,


  17. Fantastic and inspiring tribute to a great man. May we also have permission to post this on our website, crediting you with link, at I really enjoy your articles, especially those about heroic chaplains.

  18. Although not a Chaplin but a Navy Medic, my son-in-law served with “his” Marines in Afghanistan. Time and again they have told us how brave and selfless his actions were…along with the fact that he carried the same equipment they did as well as all his medical supplies. Can you tell we are proud of his “leadership”? “Doc” went with them into each patrol and firefight, and earned the respect of his entire group.

    My family learned of Chesty Puller several years ago and have read all we can about this amazing fighting man. He deserves a “Good Night” if anyone does!

  19. “Fantastic and inspiring tribute to a great man. May we also have permission to post this on our website, crediting you with link, at I really enjoy your articles, especially those about heroic chaplains.”

    Be my guest Brian.

  20. “Although not a Chaplin but a Navy Medic, my son-in-law served with “his” Marines in Afghanistan. Time and again they have told us how brave and selfless his actions were…along with the fact that he carried the same equipment they did as well as all his medical supplies. Can you tell we are proud of his “leadership”? “Doc” went with them into each patrol and firefight, and earned the respect of his entire group.”

    I salute “Doc”. Two of my close friends were Navy Medics who served with the Marines: one in World War II on Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and the other in I Corp in Vietnam.

  21. I once worked for a retired Marine officer, Mike, who had landed at Inchon in Chesty’s landing boat. I asked him whether the stories about Chesty were true. He said that the most amazing stories haven’t been told because no one would possibly believe them. He said that at Inchon, the Marines were all taking shelter from enemy fire behind the high seawall, the top of which was being continually swept with enemy rifle and machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. No one was exactly jumping to climb up the ladders to get to the top! Mike said they looked up and there was Chesty, atop the wall, strolling “like it was a June day along the Boardwalk.” Enemy fire was striking all around him, but all Chesty did was direct the troops how to get up top and move forward.

  22. As a Marine veteran of Vietnam, the only real regret I have about that time in Vietnam is that I wasn’t a Catholic then. I became one about twenty years later and one of the things that moved me was, you guessed it, the character that the Catholic chaplains showed us Marines in Vietnam. I didn’t see it covered in any post above, but one of the three Catholic chaplains who won the Medal of Honor, Fr. Robert Capadanno, a Navy chaplain, was killed giving Last Rites and aid and comfort to wounded Marines and their Navy Corpsmen while under fire, has, I understand, had his cause for Sainthood opened by the Vatican. He is now referred to as Servant of God. When I see the fawning nonsense lavished on the “catholic” John Kerry for his “service” in Vietnam by “Kennedy catholics,” I remember Fr. Capadanno, and thank him yet again for showing us real service, real heroism and real Faith. I try to make his Priestly example known to every Catholic I know, especially my sons, but Protestants as well. I am sure that 50 years from now, John Kerry will be a obscure, pathetic footnote in history, but everyone will know of St. Robert Vincent Capadanno. And, oh yeah, good night, Chesty Puller, wherever you are.

  23. Thank you for your service to our country Denton. My personal mission is to blog about as many Catholic Chaplains as I can. Servant of God Capadanno, the Grunt Padre, will be one of them, when I think I am ready to do justice to his inspiring life.

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