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Retired Col. Ralph Puckett as an Army captain in 1952, a few months after he was wounded in a hellacious battle against Chinese soldiers in North Korea.
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett as an Army captain in 1952, a few months after he was wounded in a hellacious battle against Chinese soldiers in North Korea. (Family photo)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will award the Medal of Honor on Friday to Ralph Puckett Jr., a 94-year-old retired Army colonel who led the capture and defense of a hill during the Korean War against an overwhelming Chinese attack.

The White House announced the award Wednesday, saying Puckett distinguished himself with “acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in will join the ceremony Friday.

Puckett will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for bravery, for actions he took more than 70 years ago. As a young first lieutenant in November of 1950, Puckett commanded the Eighth Army Ranger Company during a mission to seize “Hill 205” and defend it against a series of chaotic assaults.

Puckett led 51 Army Rangers and nine Korean soldiers to capture Hill 205. He intentionally ran across an exposed area multiple times to draw enemy fire away from his soldiers, allowing them to destroy enemy positions, the White House said.

During the first of several Chinese attacks on the American-controlled hill, Puckett was wounded by a hand grenade but refused evacuation. He directed artillery support, moved between foxholes to check the company’s perimeter and distributed ammunition to the other Rangers.

The soldiers were “inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example” exhibited by Puckett, the White House said.

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, 2021.
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, 2021. (Henry Villarama/U.S. Army)

As the Chinese continued to attack, Puckett was told over his radio that supporting artillery fire was unavailable. His company continued to fight, and Puckett was wounded two more times by enemy mortar rounds.

“The pressure increased, so I ran back to the foxhole,” Puckett said in an interview for an oral history project. “I got on the radio, called force artillery and said, ‘We’re under great pressure. We’re crumbling. We’re being overrun. I just gave my unit the word to withdraw.’ ”

As the Chinese overran them, Puckett ordered his company to evacuate the area and told the soldiers to leave him behind. Two of his Rangers disregarded the order and carried Puckett off the hill to safety.

Puckett earned two Distinguished Service Crosses for his actions on Hill 205. He had a 22-year career in the Army, during which he also served in combat during the Vietnam War.

When he retired from active duty in 1971, Puckett became the National Programs Coordinator of Outward Bound Inc., and established Discovery Inc., a leadership and teamwork development program. He was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992 and served as the first honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment from 1996 to 2006.

He’s been described as “omnipresent” within the Ranger community, often volunteering as a speaker and adviser. In 2004, Puckett was selected as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. In the description of Puckett’s service, the academy wrote that he could still be found “walking the swamps and hiking the hills at the Ranger School, encouraging and instructing the rising generation of American soldiers.”

Puckett lives in Columbus, Ga., with his wife, Jean Martin. Together, the couple have a daughter, one son and six grandchildren. One daughter is deceased.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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