COLUMBUS, GA — A young U.S. Army lieutenant from Georgia intentionally risked his life multiple times seven decades ago by drawing enemy fire, allowing his Rangers to fight off waves of attacks and destroy enemy positions during the Korean War. He suffered grave wounds and nearly lost his right foot.
Seventy-one years later, President Joe Biden on Friday awarded retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., a Columbus resident, with the Medal of Honor for his courageous acts that Biden said went “above and beyond the call of duty.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended — the first time a foreign leader has been present for a White House ceremony such as this.
Puckett, 94, first received a Distinguished Service Cross for his command of the 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company in November 1950, according to the New York Times. However, John Lock, a retired Army officer, led an 18-year effort to get the commendation upgraded to the nation’s highest military honor.
The Korean War claimed the lives of 36,574 American soldiers, along with millions of Korean and Chinese soldiers and civilians, and is often called a “forgotten” war because it was fought between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Times reported.
On the morning of Nov. 25, 1950, Puckett, 51 of his Rangers and nine Korean enlisted soldiers fought to hold an American-controlled hill. Enemy forces directed mortar, machine gun and small-arms fire at his troops, and Puckett mounted the nearest tank for supporting fire — risking his life by exposing himself to opposing gunfire, Biden said during the award ceremony.
Puckett then intentionally ran across the area three times to attract enemy fire and allow his Rangers a chance to close in on enemy troops.
The enemy then launched a counterattack, which lasted four hours and greatly outnumbered Puckett’s men. He was wounded in the attack, but refused medical attention. Instead, he darted in and out of his foxhole, all while encouraging his men to keep fighting and exposing himself to danger.
“He took a grenade fragment in his left thigh. But Puckett refused to be evacuated — he was a Ranger,” Biden said. “Four more waves of assault came, [and] each time Puckett made his rounds, passing out extra ammo and extra encouragement to rally his men.”
Biden said Puckett distributed all the ammo to his men, keeping only eight bullets and a bayonet for himself. During the sixth attack, two enemy mortar rounds landed in Puckett’s foxhole, tearing through both his feet, back and left arm.
“Puckett’s Rangers had been overwhelmed, and he himself was badly wounded. He ordered one of his men, who found him on the ground, to leave him behind. But that’s not the Ranger creed,” Biden said.
Puckett’s men retrieved their commander and took him down the hill, all while he said he could take the pain. “I’m a Ranger,” he said.
“First Lieutenant Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service,” the Biden administration said in a statement.
Puckett recovered from his injuries and went on to serve in the Vietnam War, in which he was also decorated for his valor. He retired in 1971 as one of the most decorated combat veterans in the country’s history, earning the Distinguished Service Cross twice; two Bronze Medals; two Silver Stars for valor; and five Purple Hearts.
Puckett was born in Tifton, Georgia, in 1926, and enlisted as a private in 1943 during World War II. He was discharged in June 1945 to attend the U.S. Military Academy, CNN reported.
Lock, a retired Army officer and assistant professor at the Military Academy, found Puckett’s story during research in the 1990s and thought it met the criteria for the Medal of Honor. Last year, the Medal of Honor for Puckett was approved, but Lock said Puckett never pushed for the honor.