Former and active Rangers are celebrating news that a legendary figure in Ranger lore has been approved for the Medal of Honor. Col. Ralph Puckett was approved Friday for the medal after a years-long campaign of supporters in and out of the Army who believed Puckett was due the nation’s highest combat award.
Puckett’s Medal of Honor, which is an upgrade to a Distinguished Service Cross, is for leading a desperate defense of a position dubbed Hill 205, early in the Korean War — against a force of Chinese soldiers several times larger than his 51-man Ranger unit.
Puckett has long been a legend in the Ranger world both for that fight and for an eerily similar defensive stand he led as a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, for which he was awarded a second DSC.
Many in and around the Ranger community have lobbied for years to see Puckett’s award upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
“He is an icon of the Army Ranger,” Jeff Mellinger, a retired command sergeant major who spent much of his 40-year career in the 75th Ranger Regiment, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “Those who have met, listened to, or talked with Col. Ralph Puckett are left not only in awe of him and his extensive and undaunted courage, but also of his humility and genuine warmth. He regularly speaks to and motivates Rangers, from Ranger School students to the senior-most Ranger leaders of our Army.”
Puckett’s influence and legacy is visible all over the 75th Ranger Regiment. The top graduating officer at Ranger School earns the Ralph Puckett Award, which Puckett, now 94, has presented himself at Ranger graduation ceremonies. The 75th’s internal annual leadership award for junior officers also bears his name. Puckett served for 12 years as the honorary colonel of the regiment, a ceremonial post in which he regularly spoke to new Rangers at other gatherings and represented the regiment during public events.
In November of 1950, Puckett was a first lieutenant commanding the 8th Ranger Company of the 8th Army Rangers. Unlike modern Ranger units, which belong to the 75th Ranger Regiment, Rangers in the Korean conflict were attached to larger conventional fighting units and were often used in reconnaissance or assaults. Also unlike today’s Rangers, Puckett and all of his soldiers had arrived in Korea as conventional infantry soldiers and were put through Ranger training near Kijang, South Korea; the current Ranger school in Fort Benning welcomed its inaugural class that same month.
Though the war was less than six months old, November 1950 was a turning point in the conflict, as Chinese forces entered the war in large numbers, turning back early US and United Nations gains. It was against this first Chinese offensive that Puckett was ordered to take and hold Hill 205, near Unsan.
After first taking the hill, Puckett was injured three times in an overnight defense of the position, as he moved between Ranger positions, repositioning and resupplying his men as they fought. The Rangers fought off five waves of Chinese attacks through the night, Puckett calling in pre-planned artillery to repel each wave. Then came a sixth wave.
“At about 0230, we heard the Chinese blowing their whistles and bugles, always the same thing,” Puckett told an interviewer at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. “I ran back to my foxhole, got on the radio again to call for artillery.”
This time, artillery wasn’t available, already firing another mission.
Puckett made one last radio call. “We’re crumbling, we’re being overrun,” he said. “I gave my unit the word to withdraw.”
Wounded three times in the fighting, Puckett collapsed in a foxhole as Chinese soldiers overran Hill 205. Two of his men found him, one asking, “Sir, are you hurt?”
“I thought that was the dumbest question I ever heard in my life,” Puckett recalled. “But I didn’t say that.”
He ordered his men to leave him behind so they could retreat. Instead, the two Rangers first carried, then dragged their commander by his wrists, bouncing Puckett down sheer rock faces and steep slopes to safety as the Chinese fired on them.
At the bottom, Puckett used a tank radio to call in a “Willie Pete” artillery strike — or white phosphorus shells — on the overrun position.
For the Hill 205 fight, Puckett was awarded the Army’s second-highest combat award, the Distinguished Service Cross, the first of two he’d collect in his career. His second DSC came in the early years of Vietnam, again, for rallying an overmatched force in defense of a position.
The charge to get Puckett’s DSC upgraded was led by retired Army Lt. Col. J.D. Lock, a former West Point professor and researcher, who started lobbying for the award in 2003 after learning about Hill 205 as part of a research project.
Below: Retired Col. Ralph Puckett hands out awards to distinguished Ranger School graduates during a graduation ceremony in 2019.
According to the citation for his second award, Puckett, by then a lieutenant colonel, was a commander in the 101st Airborne, overseeing operations near Duc Pho. As a large Viet Cong force massed against his position, the citation says, “Puckett landed in the battle zone to coordinate defenses and to assess the battlefield situation. Disregarding his own safety, he moved across a heavily mined area to the point of the most ferocious fighting to direct and inspire his men against the hostile force.”
Puckett dispersed his command element to avoid artillery fire, taking up a position in a foxhole. From there — as he’d done on Hill 205 — he bounced between foxholes, checking on his men, bringing ammunition and encouragement.
“When rescue helicopters came in,” the citation reads, “he repeatedly refused extraction for himself and directed that the casualties be evacuated. With bullets striking all around him, he remained in the open to rally his fatigued men through the long night by sharing every phase of the battle with them.”
Brandon Young, a former 2nd Battalion Ranger and Best Ranger Competitor, told Coffee or Die that even with the Medal of Honor, Puckett’s real legacy will be the inspiration he has left for generations of Rangers.
“Awarding of the Medal of Honor pales in comparison to [the] legacy he has left within the generations of Rangers he has impacted over the years,” said Young. “Col. Puckett consistently showed us all the very heart of the US Army Ranger — grit, intelligence, selfless service, leadership, heart, determination, excellence, and perseverance.”