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Ralph Puckett Jr., army colonel awarded Medal of Honor for heroism during Korean War, dies at 97

Korean war veteran receives Medal of Honor
Korean war veteran receives Medal of Honor 01:51

Ralph Puckett Jr., a retired Army colonel awarded the Medal of Honor seven decades after he was wounded leading a company of outnumbered Army Rangers in battle during the Korean War, has died at age 97.

Puckett died peacefully Monday at his home in Columbus, Georgia, according to the Striffler-Hamby Mortuary, which is handling funeral arrangements.

President Biden in May 2021 awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency to Puckett for his "conspicuous gallantry" during the war. Mr. Biden presented the medal, which is the nation's highest military honor, alongside then South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

"President Moon, it's a real honor to have you here participating in this ceremony today," Mr. Biden said at the ceremony. "The strength of the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea was born out of the courage, determination and sacrifice of the Korean troops fighting shoulder to shoulder with American troops. And having you here today is an important recognition of all that our nation has achieved together, both of them, in the decades since."

President Biden awards the Medal of Honor to retired Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr.
President Biden awards the Medal of Honor to retired Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr. for his "conspicuous gallantry" in the Korean War, at the White House on May 21, 2021. Pool/CBS News

Mr. Biden called Puckett's honor "70 years overdue" and said he was "incredibly proud" to give Puckett the full recognition he deserves. 

He also recounted the story of Puckett's heroism. 

"He's always believed that all that mattered to be a Ranger was if you had the guts and the brains," Mr. Biden said.

Puckett, a first lieutenant during the war, received the Medal of Honor for "acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, while serving as Commander, 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company during the period of November 25, and 26, 1950, in Korea," the White House said in a statement at the time.

In a daylight attack on an enemy hill, Puckett "intentionally ran across an open area three times to draw enemy fire," allowing the Army Rangers to locate and destroy the enemy positions and seize the hill, the White House said.

Puckett was a newly commissioned Army officer when he volunteered for the 8th Army Ranger Company that was formed soon after the Korean War began in 1950. Despite his inexperience, Puckett ended up being chosen as the unit's commander. He had less than six weeks to train his soldiers before they joined the fight.

"I said to myself: 'Dear God, please don't let me get a bunch of good guys killed,'" Puckett told the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus in a 2014 interview.

Over two days in November 1950, Puckett led his roughly 50 Rangers in securing a strategically important hill near Unsan. Puckett sprinted across the open area to draw fire so that Rangers could find and destroy enemy machine-gunners. Though badly outnumbered, Puckett's troops repelled multiple counterattacks from a Chinese battalion of an estimated 500 soldiers before being overrun.

Puckett suffered serious wounds to his feet, backside and left arm after two mortar rounds landed in his foxhole. He ordered his men to leave him behind, but they refused.

Puckett was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military honor, in 1951. It was upgraded to the Medal of Honor decades later following a policy change that lifted a requirement that such awards be made within five years of valorous acts.

File photo of Colonel Ralph Puckett, Jr. U.S. Army

During the White House medal presentation, Biden said that Puckett's first reaction to receiving the honor had been: "Why all the fuss? Can't they just mail it to me?"

Despite his injuries in Korea, Puckett refused a medical discharge from the Army and spent another 20 years in uniform before retiring in 1971. He was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross in 1967 for dashing through a hail of shrapnel to rescue two wounded soldiers in Vietnam, where Puckett led an airborne infantry battalion.

Puckett's military honors also included two Silver Stars, three Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts.

"He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy," retired Gen. Jay Hendrick, who served as the top general of U.S. Army Forces Command from 1999 to 2001, said in the Army's online biography of Puckett.

Born in Tifton, Georgia, on Dec. 8, 1926, Puckett graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and received his commission as an infantry officer in 1949.

After retiring from the Army, Puckett served as national programs coordinator of Outward Bound, Inc., and later started a leadership and teamwork development program called Discovery, Inc. He remained an active supporter of the 75th Ranger Regiment stationed at Fort Moore near his Columbus home.

Puckett told the Columbus newspaper he learned one of his most important life lessons on his first day at West Point, when a senior cadet told him that one of the few acceptable answers he could give to any question would be: "No excuse, sir."

"It was ingrained on my thinking that I have no excuse at any time I do not meet the standards that I'm supposed to meet," Puckett said.

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