Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., Belated Medal of Honor Winner, Dies at 97

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Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., who was awarded the Medal of Honor in May 2021 for his exploits commanding vastly outnumbered Army Rangers in a battle with Communist Chinese troops during the Korean War seven decades earlier, died on Monday at his home in Columbus, Ga. One of the most highly decorated servicemen in the history of the Army, he was 97.

His death was announced by the National Infantry Museum in Columbus.

John D. Lock, a retired Army officer and military historian, undertook a campaign dating back to 2003 to have Colonel Puckett’s Distinguished Service Cross, earned in November 1950, upgraded to the Medal of Honor. His efforts succeeded when President Biden presented the medal to Colonel Puckett at a White House ceremony attended by the South Korean president at the time, Moon Jae-in.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration for valor, Colonel Puckett held a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the Vietnam War, along with two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts in his 22 years of military service.

In February 1992, he was inducted into the newly established Ranger Hall of Fame. Located at Fort Benning, Ga., it honors members of a unit that continues to carry out some of the Army’s most dangerous missions.

In April 2023, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea awarded his country’s highest decoration for bravery, the Taegeuk Order of Military Merit, to Colonel Puckett and two other veterans of the Korean War (one honored posthumously) on a state visit to Washington marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea bilateral alliance.

“If it had not been for the sacrifice of Korean War veterans, the Republic of Korea of today would not exist,” he said.

Soon after the Korean War began in June 1950, when North Korean troops invaded South Korea, then-Lieutenant Puckett was assigned to create and train the Eighth Army Ranger Company, comprising 51 Rangers and several South Korean soldiers.

That year, on Nov. 25, his unit was ordered to capture Hill 205, a strategic point some 60 miles south of North Korea’s border with China.

The offensive began with a daylight assault in which Lieutenant Puckett moved ahead of his men and ran through a frozen rice paddy in an effort to flush out a Chinese gunner.

“I volunteered to run across open space to draw fire from a machine gun,” he recalled in his memoir, “Ranger: A Soldier’s Life” (2017), a collaboration with D.K.R. Crosswell. He carried out three forays, unscathed, before his Rangers finally spotted and wiped out the machine-gunner’s position.

When night came, some 500 Chinese counterattacked in six waves. Lieutenant Puckett moved among his men from foxhole to foxhole, organizing their resistance. But at 2:30 a.m., he was crouched with a radio in his foxhole when it “churned with an explosion,” as he told it in his memoir. He had already incurred a thigh wound. This time mortar or grenade fragments slammed into his feet, buttocks and an arm, leaving him immobile.

Colonel Puckett recalled his military life in a 2017 memoir. Credit…‎ University Press of Kentucky

“Thinking it meant sure death if I remained in my hole, I struggled my way out,” he wrote in his memoir. “Now on my hands and knees, I saw carnage all around.”

Two Rangers, Billy Walls and David Pollock, shot three Chinese soldiers who were yards from Lieutenant Puckett’s foxhole. As he related it to the Witness to War website long afterward, he told the Rangers, “I can’t move, leave me behind.” But they evacuated him to the Rangers’ rear command post on a trek in which he was carried and sometimes dragged. Despite his desperate condition, Lieutenant Puckett directed massive artillery fire at the Chinese from that post.

He remembered how the Rangers who rescued him had “disobeyed my order” but had “saved my neck.” Both received the Silver Star for gallantry.

The Chinese retained control of the hill. Only 10 of the 51 Rangers who attacked it remained unharmed. The rest were wounded or missing.

Colonel Puckett was hospitalized for 11 months but turned down a medical discharge and returned to combat in Vietnam.

In August 1967, serving as a battalion commander in the 101st Airborne Division, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for having “exposed himself to withering fire” in rallying his undermanned unit to vanquish Viet Cong forces in a firefight near Duc Pho, South Vietnam.

Ralph Puckett was born on Dec. 8, 1926, in southern Georgia, in the small city of Tifton. He was one of three children of Ralph and Clara (Stedman) Puckett. His father was an executive with an insurance company, a wholesale grocery and a corn-shucking business. Ralph Puckett graduated from West Point in 1949 and was assigned to occupation duty on Okinawa. But he volunteered instead for the Eighth Army Ranger outfit.

He retired from the military in 1971. His endeavors afterward include service as national programs coordinator of Outward Bound, a nonprofit educational organization that exposes students, especially those from urban areas, to wilderness settings.

He is survived by his wife, Jean (Martin) Puckett; a daughter, Martha Puckett; a son, Thomas; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, WRBL, a local Columbus TV station, reported.

“Korea is sometimes called the Forgotten War,” President Biden remarked at the Medal of Honor ceremony. “But those men who were there under Lieutenant Puckett’s command — they’ll never forget his bravery. They will never forget that he was right by their side throughout every minute of it.”

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