President Joe Biden on Friday presented retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. of Columbus with the Medal of Honor. During a moving ceremony at the White House, Biden cited Puckett’s heroic actions during the Battle of Hill 205 in the Korean War more than 70 years ago.
Biden recounted how Puckett led about 50 fellow Army Rangers in capturing the hill near Unsan, Korea before holding it against relentless waves of Chinese counterattacks. Wounded in the thigh by an enemy grenade, Puckett continued calling in “danger close” artillery support until Chinese mortar rounds grievously injured him. He told his fellow Rangers to leave him behind and withdraw, but they dragged him down the hill to safety.
Puckett, then a first lieutenant, refused a medical discharge from the military. He went on to serve in combat with the 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War. After retiring from the Army in 1971, he created a leadership and teamwork development program called Discovery Inc. and served as the first Honorary Colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Puckett previously earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Star Medals with V device and five Purple Hearts. The Medal of Honor, tirst authorized in 1861, is the highest medal for valor in combat.
“He leads from the front. He leads by example. He leads with his heart,” Biden said before draping the Medal of Honor around Puckett’s neck. “He is a Ranger.”
In Washington for a meeting with Biden, South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended the ceremony, calling Puckett a “true hero of the Korean War.”
“With extraordinary valor and leadership, he completed missions until the very end, defending Hill 205 and fighting many more battles,” Moon said. “Without the sacrifice of veterans, including Col. Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, the freedom and democracy we enjoy today could not have blossomed in Korea.”
Moon joined the president and First Lady Jill Biden in posing for photos with Puckett, his wife of 68 years, Jean, and their extended family. Moments later, Vice President Kamala Harris congratulated Puckett with a hug. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, a fellow veteran with Georgia roots, also warmly greeted Puckett.
Born in Tifton, Puckett graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1949. He was assigned to Japan when he volunteered for the Eighth Army Ranger Company, a unit formed shortly after the Korean War began.
Puckett, 94, did not deliver a speech at the ceremony in Washington. When he spoke to reporters on Thursday, he sought to shift attention to the troops with whom he served, saying: “They are the ones who deserve the credit. And I hope that they could get that.”
He also recalled how they prepared for the Korean War, sometimes known as “the Forgotten War” because news coverage about it was censored in the 1950s and it has been overshadowed at times by World War II and the Vietnam War.
“We knew we had tough battles ahead of us,” Puckett said. “We knew success or failure would depend on how well we trained and how well fought. We were determined we would do the best we could.”
“Without the sacrifice of veterans, including Col. Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, the freedom and democracy we enjoy today could not have blossomed in Korea.” — South Korean President Moon Jae-in