Army Col. Ralph Puckett, Medal of Honor Recipient and Ranger Legend, Dies at 97

Army Col. Ralph Puckett, Medal of Honor Recipient and Ranger Legend, Dies at 97
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett, USA, stands alongside troops as they prepare for a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), Ga. (Photo by Sgt. Henry Villarama/Army)

This article by Corey Dickstein originally appeared on Stars and Stripes serves the U.S. military community by providing editorially independent news and information around the world.


ATLANTA — Retired Army Col. Ralph Puckett, an Army Ranger who received the Medal of Honor for lifesaving heroics in the Korean War and the Distinguished Service Cross fighting in Vietnam, died Monday. He was 97.


Puckett died in his sleep with his wife, Jeannie, by his side at their Columbus, Ga., home, according to the National Infantry Museum at nearby Fort Moore, where Puckett had mentored soldiers for decades. The museum will hold a public service in his honor on April 20 at 11 a.m., officials there said.


A native of Tifton, Ga., Puckett enlisted in the Army in 1943, and two years later was selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he earned his commission as an infantry officer, according to the Army. Shortly after his 1949 graduation from West Point, Puckett volunteered for service with the Army’s 8th Ranger Company. He was selected to command the company as a first lieutenant, and after 5½ weeks of training on Okinawa, Japan, his unit was sent to Korea in late 1950 and charged with assaulting and securing a piece of land known as Hill 205 near Unsan.


It was during this first combat mission in November 1950 that Puckett established his heroic credentials.



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Outnumbered 10 to one, Puckett and his Rangers secured the key hill before facing repeated counterassaults by Chinese forces. Puckett repeatedly risked his life to draw enemy fire away from his fellow Rangers, called in artillery strikes, helped secure a perimeter and delivered ammunition to other soldiers as the Chinese troops assaulted six times in four hours, according to his Medal of Honor citation.


He suffered at least three serious wounds during the assaults, rendering him “unable to move” by its end, according to the citation. Despite ordering his troops to leave him, “fellow Rangers fought their way to his side and evacuated him to safety,” according to the Army.


Initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest medal of battlefield valor, Puckett would ultimately receive the Medal of Honor in 2021 after a yearslong effort to upgrade the medal. President Joe Biden, who awarded the nation’s top military honor to Puckett, said it was important to Puckett’s men that he received the award that he deserved.


“Korea is sometimes called the forgotten war, but those men who were there under then-lieutenant Puckett’s command never forgot his bravery,” Biden said. “They never forgot he was right by their side every minute of it.”



Puckett served with the Army's 8th Ranger Company during the Korean War. (Army photo)


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After he returned from Korea, the Army offered him a medical retirement, but Puckett refused. Instead, he continued his service, working at the Ranger School and West Point before completing Special Forces training. In 1967, Puckett deployed to Vietnam as a 101st Airborne Division battalion commander, where he would earn more valor awards for battlefield heroics.


Before his 1971 retirement, Puckett would hold two Distinguished Service Crosses — including the one that was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor — two Silver Stars, two Bronze Star Medals with combat “V” device for valor, and five Purple Hearts, according to his Army biography.


“Col. Ralph Puckett was the last of a generation of extraordinary heroes,” Chris Cassidy, the president and CEO of the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, said in a statement Monday. “His actions on Hill 205 reverberated far beyond the Korean peninsula as his courage, sacrifice, commitment and patriotism have inspired Americans for over 70 years.”


Well into his 90s, Puckett remained active at Fort Moore, where often attended events, including Ranger School graduations and the annual Best Ranger Competition. When Congress mandated the Army change the name of its installations associated with Confederate generals, Puckett’s name was among the finalists to replace Fort Benning, which last year became Fort Moore, for another Korea and Vietnam veteran, Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and his wife, Julia.


“While his accolades and awards are many, he is most often remembered as a man who was always ready to shake a soldier’s hand and offer some kind words,” National Infantry Museum officials said of Puckett in a statement announcing his death. “Over the years, Ralph and Jeannie Puckett have been steadfast champions of the military community.”


Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson said Monday that his community and others around Fort Moore would long mourn Puckett’s loss.


“He was one of our country’s most decorated veterans but was known for his humility and selfless service,” Henderson said. “He was a mentor to generations of soldiers passing through Fort Benning/Moore … Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Jeannie and the entire Puckett family.”


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