80 Years Ago: Chesty Puller, Pirate

Lt. Col. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history, fulfills his solemn duties as Davy Jones during a Neptunus Rex Shellback ceremony in April 1942 aboard the Heywood-class attack transport USS Fuller (AP-14/APA-7). Aboard Fuller on the way to Wellington, New Zealand, (and then to Guadalcanal a few months later) Chesty and his men of the 7th Marines had departed Norfolk on 10 April and, transiting “The Ditch” at the Panama Canal, “Crossed the Line” into the South Pacific shortly after.

Note his lifebelt and M1917 Navy cutlass, an item that some Marines would continue to carry ashore for use in clearing brush during jungle fighting in 1942. (Collections OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH)

Formerly the steamer SS City of Newport News of the Baltimore Steamship Company, Fuller was laid down for the British as War Wave as a “444 class” vessel during the Great War but never made it to wear a red duster. Completed too late to carry goods to fight the Kaiser, she spent her interbellum service working for a series of American shippers.

Once things started looking bad in late 1940, the Navy acquired all five of the class then sailing under a U.S. flag and converted them into troop transports, a process that took three to five months. Ready to fight with four 3″/50s and 20 assorted 40mm/20mm AAA guns, they could carry as many as 1,200 troops and deploy them ashore via their own embarked landing craft.

USS Fuller (AP-14) Fine-screen halftone reproduction of a photograph taken in 1941. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 86975

Named after former Marine Corps Commandants (Heywood, George F. Elliott, Fuller, William F. Biddle, Neville) they earned almost 30 battle stars between them in fighting across the Pacific (Biddle also took part in the Torch landings while both Biddle and Neville were in the Husky landings as well). One of the class, Elliot, was lost off Guadalcanal to Japanese aircraft during the August 1942 landings. The remaining vessels were quietly scrapped in the 1950s.

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