94-Year-old Gets Medal of Honor 70 Years After Heroism, Making Him One of the Most Decorated Soldiers in US History
Seventy years ago, on a frozen hilltop deep in what is now North Korea, a young First Lieutenant acted with bravery that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor.
On Friday, Ralph Puckett, Jr. was hosted at the White House where he received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. government’s highest and most prestigious military decoration.
Ralph’s first response was to ask, “Why all the fuss? Can’t they just mail it to me?”
But, after his lifetime of service to the nation, President Joe Biden said at the medal ceremony, “Rather than mail it to you, I would’ve walked it to you.”
Ralph’s wife of 68 years, Jeannie Puckett, was in the audience, too, as Biden described how the couple met—while the brave Army Ranger was recovering from his wounds.
They were married two years to the day after the battle in November, 1950, for which he was honored this week with the following citation: “For acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as the commander 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company…”
51 of Puckett’s Rangers and 9 Korean enlisted soldiers set out in a daylight attack to take Hill 205, just 60 miles from the border with China, which drew mortar, machine gun, and small-arms fire against them. First Lieutenant Puckett mounted the closest tank, exposing himself to the deadly enemy fire. Leaping from the tank, he shouted words of encouragement to his men and began to lead the Rangers in their offensive.
To make their charge, they had to cross about half mile of frozen rice paddies under fire.
“Almost immediately, enemy fire threatened the success of the attack by pinning down one platoon. Leaving the safety of his position, with full knowledge of the danger, First Lieutenant Puckett intentionally ran across an open area three times to draw enemy fire, thereby allowing the Rangers to locate and destroy the enemy positions and to seize Hill 205,” continued the citation.
When the Rangers finally reached the top of the hill, they found it abandoned, but Puckett knew the fight wasn’t nearly over.
“During the night, the enemy launched a counterattack that lasted four hours. Over the course of the counterattack, the Rangers were inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by First Lieutenant Puckett.”
Even though Puckett’s Rangers were outnumbered almost ten to one, five attacks by a battalion-strength enemy were repulsed.
During the first wave, First Lieutenant Puckett was wounded by grenade fragments, but refused evacuation and continually directed artillery support. Over the course of the next several hours, four more waves of assaults came.
“He repeatedly abandoned positions of relative safety to make his way from foxhole to foxhole, to check the company’s perimeter and to distribute ammunition amongst the Rangers.”
Extraordinary selflessness above and beyond the call
When the enemy launched a sixth attack, two mortar rounds landed in his foxhole, inflicting “grievous wounds” in both his feet, his backside, his left arm and shoulder.
“Knowing his men were in a precarious situation, First Lieutenant Puckett commanded the Rangers to leave him behind and evacuate the area. Feeling a sense of duty to aid him, the Rangers refused the order and staged an effort to retrieve him from the foxhole while still under fire from the enemy.
Ultimately, the Rangers succeeded in retrieving First Lieutenant Puckett and they moved to the bottom of the hill, where First Lieutenant Puckett called for devastating artillery fire on the top of the enemy-controlled hill.
First Lieutenant Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
First Time a Foreign Leader Attended This Ceremony
Biden said in his remarks, “Korea is sometimes called the “Forgotten War.” But those men who were there under Lieutenant Puckett’s command — they’ll never forget his bravery. They never forget that he was right by their side throughout every minute of it.”
“And the people of the Republic of Korea haven’t forgotten, as evidenced by the fact that the President of Korea is here for this ceremony. I doubt this has ever happened before.”
President Moon said, “I learned that I’m the first foreign leader to ever attend a ceremony of such kind. As President of the Republic of Korea, it is a great honor and pleasure.
“Colonel Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War… Without the sacrifice of veterans, including Colonel Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.”
“From the ashes of the Korean War, we rose, we came back. And that was thanks to the Korean War veterans who fought for Korea’s peace and freedom. And now, thanks to their support and efforts, we are enjoying prosperity. On behalf of the Korean people, I express deep gratitude and respect to them. Through the war veterans, the Korean people saw a great soul of America that marches toward freedom and peace. Their acts of gallantry, sacrifice, and friendship will forever be remembered.”
Puckett’s military service did not end in the Korean War. He also served in the Vietnam War, where he earned a second Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars, adding to his five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat.