The Breakout Of The 1st Marines From The Chosin Reservoir: An American Epic Of Courage – Part 5

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Lt. General Lewis “Chesty” Puller. Poor health forced him to retire. Had he remained in better health there is no question he would have received his fourth star and become Commandant of the Marine Corps but it was not to be.

Lewis “Chesty” Puller is the only Marine ever to be awarded the Navy Cross for heroism on five separate occasions. This is the second highest award for valor in the USMC and US Navy. Only the Congressional Medal of Honor ranks higher.

When it was first instituted by the Congress in February of 1919, the Navy Cross became the US Navy’s 3rd highest award for conspicuous gallantry under fire as well as other duties performed with the highest diligence and distinction. In August 1942, the Congress made the Navy Cross a decoration which could only be awarded for heroism in combat and moved it up one level giving it precedence over the Distinguished Service Medal.

This action by the Congress made the Navy Cross the 2nd highest medal the Navy could award. It shares its position with the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross which the Army gave Puller for courage under fire during the Inchon Landings. Given the rivalry between the Army and the Marines, even more pronounced in those days, this was very unusual. For his courage under enemy fire,

    Puller held six of the nation’s second highest decorations for valor.

In the Marine Corps, bravery under fire is expected of every Marine so getting a medal for it isn’t easy. Being brave is a given, like keeping your weapons clean and in working order. To get a medal for bravery, a Marine has to exhibit extraordinary valor and this has to be confirmed by an investigation which includes interviews with Marines who were on the spot.

The obverse of the Navy Cross.
The reverse of the Navy Cross.

Reading through Puller’s Navy Cross citations one reads this phrase over and over: for extraordinary heroism. You will note this in the following citations for the third, forth and fifth Navy Crosses awarded to Puller.

From the citation of his third Navy Cross:

…for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service as Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, during the action against enemy Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on the night of 24 – 25 October 1942.

From the citation of his fourth Navy Cross:

…for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service while serving as Executive Officer of the Seventh Marines (Reinforced), 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.

From the citation of his fifth Navy Cross:

…for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Commanding Officer of the First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against aggressor forces in the vicinity of Koto-ri, Korea, from 5 to 10 December 1950.

[Sources: Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ and the Military Times. Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikipedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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