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Happy birthday, Marines! New insights on the legendary Chesty Puller

Remembering the family man behind the legend

Nov. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell 'Chesty' Puller
Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell 'Chesty' Puller (Defense Department)
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Puller is a heroic figure in Marine lore but his legacy to his family went far beyond the Corps, says his son-in-law, Brig. Gen. Mike Downs (ret.). (Courtesy of Brig. Gen. Mike Downs)

The Navy’s newest ship will bear the name of one of the Marine Corps’ most revered, and decorated, heroes.

The sea service held a keel-laying ceremony Nov. 5 in San Diego for the USNS mobile landing platform Lewis B. Puller, named for Lt. Gen. “Chesty” Puller, recipient of five Navy crosses and arguably the most famous Marine of all time.

Virtually every Marine knows about the towering warrior who took on guerrillas in Haiti and Nicaragua and fought valiantly in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II and Korea, but what was he really like? Marine Corps Times spoke with retired Brig. Gen. Mike Downs, Puller’s son-in-law, about the man behind the legend.

A Silver Star recipient and Vietnam veteran who retired in 1992, Downs said he first met Puller in 1965; Chesty had been retired almost a decade and Downs was a fast-rising first lieutenant.

Drill instructors were already teaching Marines to recite “goodnight Chesty Puller, wherever you are” when he joined the Corps, Downs said. He met the Pullers when he was stationed in Yorktown, Va., shortly before he was promoted to captain. During a visit to their home, he was introduced to their daughter, Martha, who was home from school. They took a liking to each other.

Over the next few years, Puller and Downs got to know each other better. When Puller’s son Lewis, Martha’s twin brother, was severely wounded in Vietnam in 1968, Downs, who was nearing the end of his Vietnam deployment, was the first one to his side and the one to report back to the family on his condition. Lewis first ventured out of the hospital to attend Downs and Martha’s wedding.

Downs said he asked Puller for Martha’s hand in the old-fashioned, traditional way, and though he asked that Puller’s favorable response not be printed because it represented a private moment between the two men, he still remembered every word.

Puller died in 1971 at the age of 73.

Though Puller’s family is very proud of his Marine Corps reputation — they attended the dedication of an 8-foot bronze statue of the highly decorated Marine at Semper Fidelis Memorial Park near Quantico, Va., last year — Puller’s legacy to his family extends far beyond his time in the Marine Corps.

“My wife is obviously exceedingly proud of her father, as she is of her mother,” Downs said. “She would always be quick to point out that who she is proud of is Lewis B. Puller, the man, her father. She understands his reputation in the Marine Corps. Her relationship is not with the Marines, her relationship is with her father.”

One day in 1966, after he and Puller had known each other for awhile, Downs asked the legend to autograph a photo of himself from a deployment to Korea. The inscription, he recalled, read “To Capt. Michael P. Downs, 1966. My friend and an excellent Marine who I predict will go far.”

“I was really proud of that picture,” he said. It hung in his office until after he married Martha in 1969.

Puller wasn’t one to talk about himself, Downs said, and they didn’t discuss his growing fame among young Marines.

But he thinks Puller might be surprised at the way his name has come to represent the “old Corps,” as when Marines — young and old — indicate their disapproval of change by saying “Chesty’s rolling over in his grave.”

“He lived through huge change in the Marine Corps himself,” Downs said. “There was a whole lot of difference between the Marine Corps of the ’20s and ’30s and the post-World War II Marine Corps, for sure. He certainly never lost his pride in the Marine Corps and his relationship to it ... he wouldn’t endorse anything that he perceived to be going soft, but he would adjust. He adjusted to his time in the Marine Corps, so he would adjust to it today.”

Of one thing Downs is sure: Puller would be proud of Marines’ performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of today’s Corps.

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