The Bravest Man in the Marine Corps
Like so many others of his generation, my father served his country bravely and well during World War II. While he saw action at Guadalcanal and in the Northern Mariana and Marshall Islands campaigns, if my father is remembered at all by his fellow Marines, it is for a peacetime bit of daredevilry. Dad is alleged to be the only man alive to have ever called Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller a wild ass to his face and to have gotten away with it.
Lewis Puller, who ended his career as a Lieutenant General, is a legend in the Marine Corps. He was the most decorated Marine in history and arguably the most famous. In addition to serving in five wars and being awarded a host of other medals, he earned an unprecedented five Navy Crosses for his bravery, valor, and coolness under fire. Puller’s extraordinary life was memorialized in the best selling book Marine! by Burke Davis. Dad was interviewed by Mr. Davis for two days while he researched Puller’s biography.
Lewis Puller was a fine southern gentleman who came from an old Virginia family. True to his heritage, he loved to play cards and bridge was his game. During the years before World War II, my father was a junior officer in Colonel Puller’s battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, “the Old Breed.” It didn’t take Puller long to discover that Dad was the most adept bridge player among his officers, or at least the one with the most patience. Often was the night when Dad was sitting in the mess hall and felt a slap on his back accompanied by Puller’s booming voice, “Let’s go play some bridge, old man!”
Dad said Lewis Puller’s bridge playing ability was best described by saying what he lacked in skill and finesse, he made up for in brashness and audacity. On one evening, Puller was dealt some particularly good cards. Flushed with the prospect of success, Puller managed to overplay his seemingly pat hand. Afterwards, Puller sighed, “Well, I guess I played that hand rather poorly.” My father, in a moment of frankness, instantly regretted, shot back, “I think a wild ass could have played it better!”
Lewis Puller took his bridge seriously and my father’s comment made him mad. He remained cool to Dad for the rest of the evening. And the next couple of nights Puller did not select my father to be his bridge partner. However, after Puller had played bridge a few nights with partners of lesser skill, my father felt a slap on his back accompanied by a booming voice, “Let’s go play some bridge, old man!” It was Puller, and all was forgiven.
When Dad is asked about the “wild ass” story, he is quick to correct the questioner and clarify that he never called Lewis Puller a wild ass. He merely unfavorably compared Puller’s bridge playing skills to those possessed by one.