Marine Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller died in 1971 after a career in the Marine Corps that spanned 37 years and three wars. To this day, “Chesty” is the Corps’ most decorated Marine and a giant every jarhead knows by name. At boot camp, recruits often shout, “Goodnight Chesty! Wherever you are!” in homage to the legendary leatherneck. Fifty years after his death, Chesty Puller is still serving the Marine Corps, most recently by lending his name to the evacuation efforts in Kabul.
When the situation at Hamid Karzai International Airport deteriorated into crowds of desperate Afghans vying for limited seats on departing flights, the difference between success and failure sometimes came down to creativity. Through the coordination of veterans in the United States, Marines on the ground in Kabul, and a former Afghan interpreter, a clever plan was devised to help one man stand out amid the unruly crowds.
Gus Biggio — a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan — told his former interpreter (who has remained anonymous because of safety concerns) to make signs that read “CHESTY PULLER” in block letters. Another US veteran, Ben Owen, then coordinated with the interpreter to get him to the right location at the airport. Marines controlling access into the airport were informed to be on the lookout for the unique signal.
Biggio’s interpreter served alongside the Marines in the volatile Nawa district of Helmand province, leaving him and his family vulnerable to Taliban retaliation.
The former interpreter’s “Chesty” signs also included the Corps’ birthday and the words “Teufel Hunden,” German for “Hell Hound” or “Devil Dog.” Marine Corps lore claims the Germans nicknamed the Marines “Devil Dogs” after fighting against them in the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I.
“Word had gotten passed down from the battalion leadership, down to the point man on the ground, to look out for a guy who’s going to be holding the signs that say ‘Chesty Puller,’” Biggio told NPR.
On their first attempt, the interpreter’s family made it to Abbey Gate with their signs but were not able to make it through the checkpoint. On Aug. 26, they tried again. This time, the three bits of Marine Corps trivia succeeded in grabbing the attention of the Marines in Kabul, and the anonymous family was plucked from the crowd and safely evacuated just before Abbey Gate was targeted by a suicide bomber.
“My understanding is that a team of Marines essentially waded out into the crowd and the best way to describe it is that they went there and they snatched him,” Biggio told NPR.
The clever plan saved the lives of the family of eight; however, most Afghans hoping to flee were not as fortunate. Recent reports are now claiming the Taliban are preventing flights from taking off and are keeping refugees stranded at the airport. It remains unclear what will happen to those Afghans who were not able to board flights out of the country.