He mentored decades of Army Rangers. At 94, hell receive the Medal of Honor.
WASHINGTON - Shivering in freezing temperatures, about 50 U.S. soldiers braced for the worst. Hundreds of Chinese soldiers were about to launch a series of bloody attacks on the hill the Americans had just taken under fire, and no reinforcements were within a mile.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett stands alongside troops as they prepare to start a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition at Fort Benning, Ga., on April 16.
CREDIT: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Henry Villarama
The clash that then-1st Lt. Ralph Puckett and his soldiers experienced that night on "Hill 205" came at the outset of the Battle of the Chongchon River, a pivotal moment in which senior U.S. commanders were surprised by China's full-scale entry into the Korean War.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers died in following days as they withdrew hundreds of miles back into South Korea in what the Army now describes as the longest retreat in U.S. military history.
Puckett, who commanded the Eighth Army Ranger Company, was wounded by a hand grenade in the first attack on the hill on Nov. 25, 1950, but stayed in command. American and South Korean soldiers absorbed five more chaotic, armed assaults through the night before Puckett ordered his soldiers to withdraw the following morning as the Chinese threatened to overrun them.
"I had been wounded three times by then, and I was lying there in my foxhole unable to do anything," Puckett would later recall for an oral history project. "I could see three Chinese about 15 yards away from me, and they were bayoneting or shooting some of my wounded Rangers who were in the foxholes."
More than 70 years later, Puckett, 94, will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in combat, for his actions. President Joe Biden called Puckett at home in Columbus, Ga., on Friday to inform him of his decision to approve the award, said John Lock, a retired Army officer who began petitioning the Army for reconsideration of Puckett's actions in 2003.
The Army credits Puckett with leading his soldiers across an open field to take the hill under intense fire, braving enemy fire repeatedly to check on his soldiers after he was wounded the first time, and directing "danger close" artillery strikes near his own position to ward off advancing Chinese soldiers.
Puckett has said he told his soldiers to leave him behind after he was incapacitated, but two privates first class, Billy Walls and David Pollock, carried him to safety.
Puckett would go on to earn the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor in combat, for his actions in the battle. The recognition came near the outset of a 22-year career that also included a second Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars for valor in Vietnam. Puckett was awarded five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat and two Bronze Star Medals with the V device for valor.
With an upgrade to the Medal of Honor, Puckett will be one of the most highly decorated service members for valor in U.S. military history, Lock said.
Among those who assisted in Puckett's case were Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who contacted the Army on Puckett's behalf a few months before dying of cancer in 2018, and retired Gens. Joseph Votel and Stanley McChrystal, who know Puckett through their mutual service as Rangers, according to documents that Lock provided to The Washington Post.
"Then First Lieutenant Puckett's actions on Hill 205 in 1950 exemplified personal bravery beyond the call of duty, risking his own life as he drew enemy fire so his men could locate, engage, and destroy an enemy machine-gun nest and kill a sniper," Votel wrote in a 2018 letter to Army officials in support of Puckett's nomination.
Puckett's wife, Jean, said in a phone interview that the family hopes to visit the White House for a ceremony. Considering her husband's advancing age and some health problems, she expressed concern about how long it was taking.
"He is not the one who has been pushing it. It has been John and our immediate family, who want him to be able to receive it personally if he is going to be awarded that medal," she said, referring to Lock. "He felt the Distinguished Service Cross was honor enough."
For years, Puckett has been a spiritual and cultural leader of sorts for the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite fighting force that specializes in raids, airfield seizures and other difficult missions in combat. As an "honorary colonel" for the regiment, he traveled overseas in his 80s with U.S. commanders, including to Iraq and Afghanistan, and regularly met with soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., the home of both the Ranger Regiment and much of Ranger School.
Votel, who retired as chief of U.S. Central Command in 2019, was commander of 1st Ranger Battalion when he got to know Puckett during an exercise in South Korea. Puckett shared details about his experiences fighting in the Korean War, connecting to the soldiers with his "down-to-earthiness," he said.
"He's a very noble individual He adds a level of dignity, a level of stalwartness, to everything that he is a part of," Votel said in an interview. "He's just really a revered figure in the Ranger Regiment."
Puckett, who was born in Tifton, Ga., retired from the Army in 1971 and settled near Fort Benning after retiring as a civilian in the 1990s. His wife said they met there in a hospital decades earlier as Puckett was healing from the wounds he suffered in North Korea.
More recently, Puckett said he supported women serving in combat units. He said during an interview with The Washington Post in 2015 that he believed some could meet the standards and wanted to see them do it. His granddaughter, an Army captain, is now preparing to become an artillery officer, Jean Puckett said.
Puckett recently made an appearance this month at the Best Ranger Competition, in which two-person teams of soldiers compete in an event stretching over 2.5 days.
"Thank you for being what you are and doing what you're doing," Puckett said in remarks captured and posted online by the Army. "You set the standard for the Army. You set the standard for the Rangers. You set the standard for all of us."