A few weeks before I moved back to San Diego -almost a decade ago- I mage a pilgrimage of sorts to pay my respect to a legend. At the time I was living in the busy city of Alexandria, Virginia. Having realized that after living there for a number of years, I had never visited the grave of without a doubt, the most famous Marine to ever live, it was time. I'd been to "Manila John's." I'd been to "Pappy" Boyington's. But, not to this Marine's grave.
Coming off night shift, I was usually late to start my days off. This cold February day was no different. I woke up around 11AM but didn't get around to leaving until mid-afternoon. I jumped in my pickup armed with my Hewlett-Packard point and shoot camera (I didn't have an SLR or a DSLR at that time) and headed south on I-395 past the Mixing Bowl construction leaving behind the relentless traffic and hustle of northern Virginia. Continuing south on I-95 past Fredericksburg, I turned off on I-17, Tidewater Trail, it's here that you can see the transition from city to country. Tidewater Trail skirts the Rappahannock River as it grows larger and larger the further south she flows before emptying out at the Chesapeake Bay. The road is two lane as you meander through small backwater towns that look as if they haven't changed in 60 years. I eventually reached my turn off at General Puller Highway in Saluda late in the afternoon and the light was fading fast.
Not far from here, some hundred plus years prior, a boy was born. He grew up around Veterans of the Civil War and looked forward to one day serving himself. Little did anyone know just who he would become. Lewis Burwell Puller- also known as "Chesty"- to those who revere him in the Marine Corps, is the stuff of legend. He enlisted in the Corps in 1918 and was initially an enlisted Marine until he was commissioned as an officer. He saw action in Haiti, he fought in the Banana Wars in Central America and he fought the Sandinistas. He was a "China Marine," he fought at Guadalcanal and at Peleliu. He landed at Inchon in Korea and then fought at the "Frozen Chosin." He served and fought in almost "every climb and place" that the Marines' Hymn speaks of. Chesty served 37 years in the Marine Corps retiring in 1955. He would probably laugh at my one enlistment. And I'm OK with that. He is the recipient of five Navy Crosses, one Distinguished Service Cross, one Silver Star, one Legion of Merit with Valor device, one Bronze Star with Valor device, a Purple Heart. The decorations go on and on. Even when the conflict in Vietnam broke out- he again, tried to serve.
So, back to that crisp February day in 2008. Chesty is buried at Christ Church Parish cemetery, Saluda, Middlesex County, Virginia. The adjoining church was one he attended every Sunday with his wife- who has been buried next to him since she passed in 2006. He has a modest tombstone. His name, rank and branch of service are etched into it quietly. There is no large monument. No bronze statue of a man that embodied everything a Marine should be. No fan-fare to announce his grave. Just a small wooden marker pointing the way. At some point, Marines from somewhere chipped in and laid an etched granite Eagle, Globe and Anchor on his tombstone. I brought Chesty a bottle of scotch and a cigar. He was known for offering these items to his Marines. I took a nip and poured some out for him. I spent some time as the sun was setting to reflect on how men like Chesty have impacted our Corps. He was a lead from the front officer. Took no shit from any higher-ups, was compassionate and fearless. A Marine's Marine if you will.
Thinking back on the 241st birthday of the Corps, I am proud of our colorful history and folklore. Chesty is just one character in a long line of brethren that make up the legends in our ranks. Legends are still in the making today. One could wager that General James "Mad Dog" Mattis has already reached that level. For further reading on Chesty Puller, I highly recommend Colonel Jon T. Hoffman's book "Chesty: The Story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller, USMC."
"Goodnight, Chesty Puller, wherever you are."