- President Joe Biden presented the first Medal of Honor award of his presidency Friday afternoon.
- The award went to 94-year-old retired Army Ranger Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. for his actions in 1950.
- Puckett bravely led a Ranger company against a battalion-sized force of hundreds during the Korean War.
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President Joe Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency on Friday to a retired US Army Ranger and Korean War hero for “conspicuous gallantry.”
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, received the military’s highest honor for valor for his outstanding actions on “Hill 205” near Unsan, an area about 97km from the Chinese border deep in what is now North Korea, on November 25, 1950 – heroism for which he was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Then a first lieutenant, Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company, a new unit that only had five-and-a-half weeks of training before being sent into combat, into a fierce battle for a position overlooking the Chongchon River.
Puckett commanded his soldiers during a challenging daytime assault across 731.52m of open frozen ground as the enemy poured mortar, machine-gun, and small-arms fire on them, according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.
During the assault, he purposefully and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, allowing his soldiers to find and eliminate enemy machine guns pinning down some of his troops.
Though they captured their objective, the fight for Hill 205 was far from over.
Throughout the night and into the next morning, Puckett’s Rangers faced wave after wave of counterattacks by a superior force of hundreds of Chinese troops. They were outnumbered almost ten to one.
Puckett was injured by a hand grenade during the first wave, but he refused evacuation and continued to lead, directing “danger close” artillery strikes against the assaulting enemy forces in the freezing cold.
Disregarding his own safety, he also moved from foxhole to foxhole, checking the perimeter and distributing ammunition so that he and his men could keep up the fight.
The White House said that “the Rangers were inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by First Lieutenant Puckett.”
The enemy launched a sixth and final assault on Hill 205 early on November 26. Puckett had temporarily lost access to artillery support, and it was clear that his forces could no longer hold their position.
Puckett was severely wounded by mortar rounds that landed in his foxhole and left him unable to move as their position was being overrun, with casualties mounting and the fighting breaking down into hand-to-hand combat.
He ordered his men to withdraw and to leave him behind, so as not to slow their retreat. His Rangers ignored the latter order. Two men fought to get to him and retrieved their commanding officer before retreating to the bottom of the hill, where Puckett called in tremendous and devastating artillery fire on Hill 205.
“They did not hold the hill, but they exacted a high price,” Biden said at the ceremony Friday.
The White House said this week that “Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”
Puckett was offered a medical discharge but chose to continue serving, according to the Army. Puckett later deployed to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
During his 22 years in the Army, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars for valor, two Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts, among other military honors and distinctions. With the addition of the Medal of Honor, Puckett is among the most decorated soldiers in US history.
Puckett joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps as a private in late 1943. He was discharged in 1945 so that he could attend the US Military Academy West Point, from which he graduated in 1949. He commissioned as an infantry officer, a second lieutenant, later that same year.
He retired from the US military as a colonel in 1971, and in 1992, he was inducted in the Ranger Hall of Fame.
“He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy,” retired Gen. Jay Hendrix, who served with Puckett, said in an Army statement. “Clearly a unique, courageous soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, Col. Puckett was an ultimate infantry leader.”