COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — More than 70 years removed from a brutal battle on a North Korean hilltop, a Columbus man will be the recipient of the nation’s highest military honor for his bravery.
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, will be awarded the Medal of Honor, Retired Lt. Col. JD Lock confirmed to WRBL News 3 late Friday.
Puckett received a phone call after 5 pm. from President Joe Biden informing him of the honor. A ceremony has not yet been scheduled.
In anticipation of him receiving this recognition, WRBL News 3 sat down with Puckett in his home in late February. He knew it was coming because Congress had approved a time waiver for the award. The law was tucked away in a military spending bill that passed earlier this year.
“Most soldiers will know I didn’t do that by myself,” Puckett told News 3. “And I say that I hardly did it at all.”
Puckett, a legendary U.S. Army Ranger within the U.S. Special Operations community, was a 23-year-old second lieutenant in Korea. Fresh out of the U.S. Military Academy, the Tifton, Ga., native volunteered for an extremely dangerous mission behind enemy lines that seemed impossible at the time. He had to form and train a company of non-infantry soldiers into a fighting unit that would soon be confronted by the Chinese Army on November 25 and 26, 1950.
Lock has pressed the Army for 18 years to upgrade the Distinguished Service Cross Puckett was awarded for his actions that night. Lock is a Ranger qualified former assistant professor at West Point who came across this story while researching Ranger history.
“The story of the Battle of Hill 205 was written in blood by Lt. Puckett and his Rangers,” Lock said. “The least I could do was transcribe in writing that story of personal sacrifice to secure for them, through Col. Puckett, the recognition they had earned that night. The Rangers of the Eighth Army Ranger Company will no longer be a forgotten part of the ‘Forgotten War.’”
Hill 205 was foreign ground in a hostile land.
“It’s just another hill. 205 means its 205 meters above sea level,” Puckett said. “… It’s 205. It could have been 210 or something else. It just means the height of the hill. I knew it was defended by a Chinese force. That’s all I knew.”
But it was a place where Puckett’s military actions and valor became legendary.
Here is a piece of Lock’s account of what Puckett and his Rangers did:
“As the Rangers commenced the daylight attack of Hill 205, the enemy directed mortar, machinegun, and small arms fire against the advancing force.
“To obtain supporting fire, Lt. Puckett mounted the closest tank exposing himself to the deadly enemy fire.
“Leaping from the tank, he yelled, ‘Let’s go!’ and began to lead his Rangers in the attack. Almost immediately, enemy machinegun fire threatened the success of the attack by pinning down one platoon.
“Leaving the safety of his position with full knowledge of the danger, Lt. Puckett intentionally ran across an open area three times to draw enemy fire thereby allowing his Rangers to locate and destroy the enemy machinegun and enabling the company to seize Hill 205.
Later that night, the enemy counter-attacked in the near zero weather.
During the next four hours the 57-man company, inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by Lieutenant Puckett, repulsed five human wave attacks by a 500-man battalion assaulting behind intense mortar barrages. …
“Although wounded in the thigh by a grenade fragment during the first assault, Lt. Puckett refused evacuation. During the course of battle, Lt. Puckett once again intentionally exposed himself three more times to an enemy sniper before the sniper was killed. …
“Two mortar rounds detonated in Lt. Puckett’s foxhole inflicting severe wounds to his feet, buttocks, and left arm.
“Though the wounds to his right foot were so severe doctors considered amputation for several months, Lt. Puckett maintained the presence of mind to report that his command was being overrun by the enemy.
“Grievously wounded and unable to move on his own, Lt. Puckett ordered his men to leave him behind. Later two of his Rangers fought their way to his position killing three enemy who were only 10 yards from where LT Puckett lay defenseless. …
“Although Lt. Puckett ordered his Rangers to leave him behind, they refused. Later as the enemy fired at the rescuers LT Puckett again ordered his men to leave him to ensure their safety.”
Puckett doesn’t believe he did anything extraordinary.
“It was an honor for me to be with the Rangers and have an opportunity to train with and fight with them,” Puckett said. “I was surprised that I was selected to be awarded the Medal. But I certainly felt that my Rangers deserved recognition and that kind of award for what they have done.”
And that comment comes as no surprise to Lock.
“Col. Puckett will be the first to tell you this medal, this recognition that he never sought for himself — and literally requested on multiple occasions that I ‘cease work’ — is not his alone,” Lock said. “As with any team, there is no one individual who can do it all, by himself. By his own admission, Col. Puckett is just a token representative of those great Americans of the Eighth Army Ranger Company he was honored and privileged as a function of command to lead that fateful night.”
One of those men is Ranger Merle Simpson, who fought alongside Puckett on Hill 205. There were about 50 men there and just four are still alive.
None of them would have gotten out of North Korea alive had it not been for Puckett’s leadership and decisions that day, Simpson told News 3.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he deserves that,” said the 92-year-old Simpson, a sergeant at the time, who now lives in Indiana. “It has been 70 years since then. But he is deserving if anybody was.”
The memory of that battle and wave after wave of Chinese soldiers attacking is still vivid for Simpson.
“When they overran us, I had sent my squad back to get ammo,” he said. “I had five foxholes that I covered. They never made it back. They got cut off. So, they were overrunning us and Puckett called in the artillery on us – on all of us. And it’s what saved us. … We’d have got wiped out.”
After being seriously wounded, Puckett’s men would not leave him for dead on the hill.
“Puckett was wounded so bad he wanted them to leave him,” Simpson said. “And Billy Walls said, ‘No way, I’ll carry you.’ So, he carried him for few yards and he finally said, ‘You’re just too heavy.’ They started dragging him.”
Men that had been under Puckett’s leadership for less than two months made a decision to defy their commander’s order and get him off the hill. Why?
“The boys thought so much of him, they wouldn’t leave him,” Simpson said.
Puckett volunteered for the company command and had six weeks to train his soldiers to be Rangers after the unit moved from Japan into Korea. It is a standard still used today by the U.S. Army Ranger School, headquartered at Fort Benning, to train and evaluate elite Infantry leaders.
He remembers his first thought when a colonel told him not only was he in the Ranger company, but he was going to be the commander.
“And I said, ‘Dear, God. Don’t let me get a bunch of good guys killed.’”
A champion boxer at West Point, he knew he was in a different kind of fight.
“I knew I was in way over my head,” he said. “I had no experience in a troop unit. I had been in schools and everything. I knew it was a great risk for the Army to put that faith in me.”
There were risks for everyone involved.
“I knew it was a great risk for my soldiers who were going to be Rangers,” he said. ” …They were not Infantrymen. Good soldiers, but not Infantrymen. We could not take any Infantrymen into our company because the Divisions were so short of Infantrymen. So, I had to take service troops.”
And he demanded excellence in the abbreviated training, Simpson said.
“If you made a mistake, you had to do 50 pushups,” Simpson said. “But he would get down and do them with you. And the next guy who made the mistake, 50 pushups. He would get down with him. There’s no telling how many pushups he did in a day. But he was fair to his people. And everybody respected him.”
That example is at the core of Puckett’s leadership style.
“The fundamental principle that I have come up with is ‘BE THERE!’” Puckett said, putting extra emphasis on the last two words. “When the going gets tough, whether it’s cold weather, raining weather, somebody is shooting at you, hot, going without food, whatever it is, ‘BE THERE!’
“The company commander has to be there with the soldiers. He doesn’t have to do much. Doesn’t have to say much. Just has to be there. I am with you. BE THERE. That is the most important leadership principle I know.”
The account of Puckett’s actions deep behind enemy lines in North Korea, is just a reflection of the man many people at Fort Benning and in Columbus have come to know since he and his wife of 68 years, Jeannie, retired here more than three decades ago.
“None of this citation surprises any of us that know him today,” said retired Col. Greg Camp of Columbus. “It wasn’t a moment of courage. It wasn’t something he did in the heat of the battle. It’s who he is.”
Jean Martin, a Columbus native and high school senior at the time, met Puckett at Fort Benning, where he was hospitalized and recovering from his war injuries. They were married two years to the day after the Battle of Hill 205.
“You know you don’t live with somebody 68 years and not know who they are,” she told News 3. “This man has more integrity. He doesn’t have a middle name. And we argue about that. It ought to be Ralph Integrity Puckett. He doesn’t waiver on that. He’s very honest, direct with people.”
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal told News 3 that Puckett has lived his life for other people. Puckett has been the Honorary Colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment and has spent thousands of hours in retirement at the regimental headquarters and in the field with this generation of Rangers.
“If we measure Ralph Puckett’s accomplishments and we only include the Medal of Honor, we are almost missing the point,” McChrystal said. “Ralph Puckett’s awards are thousands of young Rangers, many of whom were still fairly young, that he’s touched by his example and his actions. That’s the real monument to him.”
When it comes to the Army, Puckett has always been ahead of the times. In 2015, he weighed in as three women were in Ranger School, on the way to becoming the first females to earn the coveted tab. He publicly said if they met the standards, they would be Rangers. It helped quell some of the backlash in the Ranger community.
When Capt. Kristen Griest, one of the first two women to pass the course, became the first female Infantry officer, Puckett presented her with the symbolic Infantry chord.
“The fact that he was supportive of that, just meant so much to me,” Griest said. “I can’t think of anybody who bears the standard of the Infantry or Rangers more than Col. Puckett.”
Puckett has a knack for weighing in when his influence and opinion mattered most, McChrystal said.
“It is the power of example and of values,” McChrystal said. “I remember there was equivalent chirping about the Ranger tab, then there was other controversy about the color of the beret. And every case, Ralph Puckett could sort of quietly and confidently say, ‘Don’t lose track of what’s important here.’ It is what Rangers really are. It’s not what we wear. It’s not whether a female can or can’t be a Ranger. If a Ranger embodies the values and standards, we hold dear, they are a Ranger.”
Now, he wears the Medal of Honor. And with it, Puckett becomes one of the most decorated soldiers in the history of the United States Army.
In addition to the Medal of Honor for his actions in Korea. Puckett has also received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor; two Silver Stars, the nation’s third highest decoration for valor; two Bronze Stars with ‘V’ for valor, all for combat in Vietnam; as well as five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat.
“First of all, I am going to try and measure up to that,” Puckett said. “I can’t do it. I’m not that good. There are a lot of soldiers who are just as good and a lot who are a lot better than I ever was. A lot of soldiers who go unrecognized who have done stuff better than anything I have done.”
The fact that it took seven decades is not lost on the generations of Army leaders who have come to know Puckett well.
“I think it highlights the fact that heroism and bravery and courage on the nation’s behalf has no end date, it has no milestone that it ends,” said retired Gen. Joseph Votel. “It goes forever. And while it took a while to get to this recognition, the important part is we are here. And Ralph is being recognized for his extraordinary, distinguished service to the nation.”