Breathing life into a sculpture of ‘Chesty' Puller

Newtown Square sculptor Terry Jones works on his depiction of Marine Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller. Jones called Puller, who received five Navy Crosses, "a Marine's Marine." MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Newtown Square sculptor Terry Jones works on his depiction of Marine Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller. Jones called Puller, who received five Navy Crosses, "a Marine's Marine." MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 18, 2012

Every detail of the eight-foot sculpture has been meticulously researched — from the characteristic smoking pipe and .45-caliber sidearm to the pair of 1942 naval binoculars and "USMC" lettering on the uniform.

Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in history and the only one to receive five Navy Crosses, stands tall again, larger than life, in an airy studio in Newtown Square.

The molded face of clay is scowling, and the right arm is extended as if Puller is directing fire at the enemy. "We're surrounded," he once said during battle. "That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them."

Puller's legendary fearlessness through the bloodiest clashes of World War II and the Korean War has been captured by sculptor Terry Jones, who remembers his own grueling boot camp experience at Parris Island, S.C., in 1966 — and Puller's enduring lore.

Just before "lights out" every night, he and fellow "jarhead" recruits laid in their racks and called out in unison: "Good night, Chesty, wherever you are."

On Monday, the Puller statue will be transported to the Laran Foundry in Chester to be cast in bronze and given a French brown patina.

It will then head to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., where it will be mounted on a base of Vermont granite and dedicated on Veterans Day, Nov. 11 — the day after the anniversary of the corps' beginning in Philadelphia.

"Chesty Puller was a Marine's Marine, so this is a great honor for me," said Jones, 65, who has sculpted scores of pieces across the country. "He's part of who I am. I studied every image of him that I could find" before starting.

"When you're doing military or history themes, you have to be completely accurate," he said. "People are knowledgeable and will nitpick you about a button or holster, every nuance."

Jones' works include the Scottish Immigration Monument at Front and Chestnut and Streets; the Union Gen. John Gibbon statue at Gettysburg; the Ernest Hemingway bronze at Key West, Fla.; a John Philip Sousa statue at the Marine barracks in Washington; and the Angel of Marye's Heights monument at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.

But his latest piece — breathing life into an iconic Marine — holds a special place for him and other leatherneck veterans. "If you were in the Air Force or Army, you might not know about him," Jones said. "But if you were in the Navy or Marines, you knew about Chesty Puller."

Passing motorists and dog-walking neighbors gaze at the statue, lit by spotlights at night, and a couple of dozen Marines have made pilgrimages to Jones' studio for an audience.

"When they walk in, they say, ‘That's him; that's Chesty,'" said the sculptor. "They didn't know him personally, but knew his history and had seen his photos."

A lieutenant general who served from 1918 to 1955, Puller was colorful — and quotable. His words have become Marine scripture, showing up on T-shirts and memorabilia: "You don't hurt 'em if you don't hit 'em"; "Pain is weakness leaving the body"; and "Take me to the brig; I want to see the real Marines."

Born in 1898, Puller grew up in Virginia listening to tales of the Civil War from aging veterans. He idolized Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and was the grandson of John W. Puller, who rode with Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and was killed at the Battle of Kelly's Ford in Virginia.

Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute, but left at the end of the first year to enlist in the Marines and passed through boot camp at Parris Island. He was known to often carry a tattered copy of a Stonewall Jackson biography.

In the 1920s, Puller fought guerrillas in Haiti and armed bandits in Nicaragua, where he earned his first Navy Cross. He received his second during service in Nicaragua in 1932.

During World War II, he led a battalion during ferocious fighting against the Japanese at Guadalcanal and helped rescue trapped Marines. He also defended an airfield, later receiving the Bronze Star and a third Navy Cross.

His appearance — during that time — is what Jones has re-created in his studio, with an audience looking on: Hemingway, Napoleon, and Gen. George Armstrong Custer, staring from nearby busts and statues.

More than any other part of the Puller figure, the face "had to be nailed," Jones said. "People have an impression of him. They know his scowl; they know the sneer.

“I can't imagine being a recruit in the ranks, standing for inspection when Chesty Puller finds a speck of dirt in your M-1" rifle, he said.

Puller received his fourth Navy Cross for his service during the Battle of Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain, part of the territory of New Guinea. He later fought in the Battle of Peleliu.

"He led from the front," Jones said. "He was a combat Marine."

Five years after the war ended, Puller was called back to combat, this time for the landing at Inchon, Korea, earning a Silver Star for his leadership. Months later, he fought at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross from the Army and his fifth Navy Cross.

The general reluctantly retired in 1955 after a stroke and died in 1971.

The work on his statue began more than a year ago with a one-foot maquette, or model. That was enlarged with the help of a computer program, which directed the cutting of foam into an eight-foot figure. Clay was applied to the foam base and modeled with sculptor's rakes.

"I'll come into the studio, put on some classical music, and start sculpting," Jones said. "You have to think of the forest before you think of the trees, limbs, and leaves. Over time, you introduce more detail."

Foundry workers will coat pieces of the clay figure with silicone rubber to make molds and cover them with plaster to provide support. They then will paint wax into the molds and invest them on both sides in a ceramic shell.

The product of this so-called lost-wax process, perfected by the Greeks 2,500 years ago, is a series of molds that can withstand molten bronze, with a temperature of 2,200 degrees. The bronze pieces are eventually assembled into the statue and given a patina.

Throughout the creative process, Jones has been always inspired by a quote from sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He displays it his studio: "A sculptor's work endures so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not disgrace."

"My legacy is my work," said Jones, a former Franklin Mint artist who has been sculpting for 45 years. "There's a thread between the artist and the subject that will endure through the ages.

“When civilization is over, the bronze and granite live on."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or

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