WASHINGTON – A retired Army officer became one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. military history on Friday, receiving the Medal of Honor from President Joe Biden at the White House more than 70 years after leading soldiers through a fierce attack during the Korean War.
Col. Ralph Puckett, 94, stood in a dress uniform as Biden draped the medal around his neck. He entered the ceremony in a wheelchair and had a walker nearby, but set both aside to stand and receive the medal, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
Biden, awarding his first Medal of Honor as president, recounted how Puckett braved enemy fire repeatedly as his soldiers took control of Hill 205, high ground about 60 miles from the Chinese border. As Chinese soldiers launched swarming attacks afterward for hours in bitter cold temperatures, then-1st Lt. Puckett checked on his men and redistributed ammunition, even after he was wounded.
“Korea is sometimes called the forgotten war, but those men who were there under Lieutenant Puckett’s command, they will never forget his bravery,” Biden said. “They will never forget that he was right by their side for every minute of it.”
Puckett was long ago awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor in combat, for his actions in the battle on Nov. 25-26, 1950. It came near the outset of the Battle of the Chongchon River, in which senior U.S. commanders were caught by surprise by China’s full-scale entry into the Korean War.
The effort to upgrade Puckett’s award in the battle began in 2003 when John Lock, a retired officer, sent a petition to the Army. Lock, who had studied Puckett’s actions, submitted numerous requests for consideration, ultimately winning on appeal.
Puckett now moves into a rarefied air, even for Medal of Honor recipients recognized for valor. He also has a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars with V device for valor in the Vietnam War, and five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat.
Puckett has for years served as a spiritual leader for the Army Rangers, an elite light infantry force that specializes in raids. He regularly visits Fort Benning, Ga., the home of Ranger School, from his home in nearby Columbus, and as an honorary colonel for the 75th Ranger Regiment, traveling overseas with Army commanders in his 80s.
In North Korea, Puckett led the Eighth Army Ranger Company, a force of about 50 soldiers that he helped select and train. He ordered his men to leave him behind as the Americans were in danger of being overrun. Two privates first class, Billy G. Walls and David L. Pollock, refused and carried him to safety. They were later awarded Silver Stars for their own valor.