WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military recognition, to retired Army Colonel Ralph Puckett for acts of “gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” during the Korean War.
The honor was given 70 years after Puckett, 94, repeatedly put his life at risk to protect his men and defeat the enemy while fighting in what is now North Korea.
The ceremony was attended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is meeting with Biden on Friday at the White House and called Puckett “a true hero of the Korean War.” It is the first time that a foreign leader has participated in a Medal of Honor ceremony.
While serving as an Army Ranger, Puckett’s unit began a daylight attack to seize what the military referred to as Hill 205. But his 60 men quickly came under overwhelming fire by hundreds of Chinese soldiers.
At one point, Puckett exposed himself to enemy fire by mounting the closest tank to provide supporting fire to his troops and “shouted words of encouragement to his men and began to lead the Rangers in the attack,” the White House said in a statement.
Puckett again put his life at risk by running across an open area three times to draw enemy fire and allow U.S. troops to locate the enemy positions, and ultimately the Rangers were able to seize Hill 205.
But overnight the enemy launched a counterattack during which Puckett was wounded by a grenade. But he refused evacuation and kept directing artillery support, making his way between foxholes to check on his company’s perimeter and distributed ammunition.
Seriously wounded by grenade and mortar fire, Puckett ordered his men, many who were injured, to retreat and to leave him in the foxhole to save themselves. They refused, dragging him to safety.
One soldier who served under Puckett, Merle Simpson, said he was a fair but tough leader.
“You made a mistake under Ralph Puckett you — you did 50 pushups. But he’d get down and do 50 pushups,” Simpson said.
“If there ever was (a hero), he’s one,” Simpson said. “To me, he’s a hero.”
“I couldn’t understand how a man could be wounded and want to be left, but he did, he wanted his men to get off that hill. I think he understood that they would all be killed if we didn’t get out of there,” said Simpson.
Puckett retired from active duty in 1971 and became the National Programs Coordinator of Outward Bound, Inc. and started a leadership and development program. He is a member of the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
He currently lives in Columbus, Ga., with his wife of 68 years and has two daughters, a son and six grandchildren.