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April 30, 2024

Profiles of Valor: Farewell, COL Ralph Puckett (USA)

“He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy.”

Last July, I flew to Columbus, Georgia, with a few members of our National Medal of Honor Heritage Center leadership team, to pick up an extraordinary soldier, COL Ralph Puckett, and his wife Jeannie. It was a privilege to escort them back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Birthplace of the Medal of Honor.

COL Puckett was the last living Korean War Medal of Honor recipient, and he and Jeannie were the guests of honor at the Heritage Center’s event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice (July 27, 1953).

In 1943, then 17-year old Ralph Puckett joined the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve hoping to become a pilot. But after completing his pre-aviation cadet training at Georgia Tech a year later, the abundance of pilots already serving diminished his chance for an aviation appointment.

In 1945, he enrolled as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, graduating in 1949. A year later, he volunteered to serve with the Eighth Army Ranger Company, formed shortly after the Korean War began. He was selected to serve as the company’s commander, and quickly proved his leadership ability and courage in that role.

He was originally awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (our nation’s second-highest award for valor) for his actions in Korea in November 1950, but 71 years after his DSC was issued, it was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

Some award upgrades are delayed for decades because nominees are universally humble warriors who are disinclined to promote their own nomination and, thus, require the advocacy of others. Likewise, the Medal of Honor upgrades of two other Army recipients I profiled recently, CPT Larry Taylor and COL Paris Davis, came more than 50 years after their heroic actions.

According to COL Puckett’s Medal of Honor citation: On November 25-26, 1950, leading his 8th Army Ranger Company to take the enemy position on Hill 205 a mere 60 miles from the Red Chinese border, then-1LT Puckett willfully subjected himself to enemy machine gun fields of fire, using himself as a target so his Army Rangers could spot the enemy machine-gunner locations in order to direct artillery fire. Many of those artillery attacks were “danger close,” meaning they were calling fire coordinates that were very close to Puckett’s position. He was wounded several times, and after two mortars landed in his foxhole, he was unable to move, but he ordered his men to fall back and not risk retrieving him. However, PFC Billy Walls and PFC David Pollock ignored his order, much to Puckett’s objection, and carried him to safety. “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 and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

Responding to his award in typical humility, Ralph said: “The people who earned that medal are the Rangers who did more than I asked. I think it’s important for them. They’re the ones who did the job; they did the fighting and suffered.”

Though he was offered a medical discharge in 1951 for his severe wounds, Puckett refused and continued to serve on active duty.

In 1967, then-LTC Puckett was commander of 2d Battalion, 502d Infantry (Airborne), 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross in August of that year for his actions during a night-long battle near Chu Lai. In that firefight, he once again exposed himself to intense enemy fire while rallying his Rangers to defeat a substantially larger force of Viet Cong. A rifle platoon leader who believed his “last stand” was imminent recalled the response of his Rangers when they got word of Puckett’s arrival: “Word spread like wildfire. We all stiffened up and felt that nothing bad could happen now because the Ranger was with us.”

When Ralph retired in 1971, his decorations included the aforementioned Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts, along with his Master Parachutist Badge, Special Forces Tab, and Ranger Tab. He was also the recipient of the Taegeuk Cordon, the Republic of Korea’s highest military decoration.

After leaving active duty, Ralph was a lecturer at Fort Benning near his Columbus home, both as an Honorary Instructor for the Army Infantry School and as Honorary Colonel for the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Yes, make that “Fort Moore.” While I classify the renaming of military installations much as I do the tearing down of historic monuments, in this case, it was fitting to honor LTG Harold “Hal” Moore, a USMA graduate, Vietnam War Veteran, and Distinguished Service Cross recipient.

Ralph frequently encouraged Infantry School graduates with these words: “I’m proud of you. Be proud of yourselves, and never be satisfied! You can always do better!” For his post-retirement service, he received Benning’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award.

In 1992, Ralph was an inaugural inductee into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame and would later be recognized as Ranger of the Year for the Ranger Infantry Companies of the Korean War. He was also inducted into the USAF Gathering of Eagles and selected as a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Military Academy.

GEN Jay Hendrix (USA, Ret.) said of Puckett’s service career: “He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy. Clearly a unique, courageous Soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, COL Puckett was an ultimate Infantry leader.”

In 2007, Ralph authored Words for Warriors: A Professional Soldier’s Notebook, a compendium of advice about battlefield leadership from a legendary Ranger.

Though he was a bold battlefield warrior, according his wife Jeannie, Ralph was a quiet and reserved man — observably true. They had been married 72 years, so I suspect she knows! She is a funny, smart, and assertive woman, who now apparently outranks Ralph by three or four grades. In his book, Ralph described her as “the most attractive, vivacious and outgoing person I had ever met.” She still is!

Jeannie shared how she met Ralph: “The first time I saw him … I was a senior in high school and I saw a photograph of him in a newspaper and I said, ‘Oh, that is a cute man.’” One of her teachers held up a news clipping about Ralph’s actions in Korea and said, “Some of you girls go out and see this young man,” but Jeannie added, “Nice girls didn’t go to Benning to see soldiers.”

However, she eventually did go with a friend to meet Ralph at the hospital at Benning while he was recuperating from his wounds, recalling: “We walked into the room, and Ralph’s father said Ralph is going to marry one of you girls because last night a fortune teller came on the ward and said a blonde and a brunette would come visit him and he would marry one of them. And we all joked and laughed and he turned so red. He was very shy. I thought he was adorable. I really did. So a year later we got married. We actually married on November 26th, which was the day he was wounded on Hill 205.”

Ralph Puckett died on April 8, and on Monday of this week, he was honored by our nation, Laying in Honor under the U.S. Capitol rotunda. He is one of only six citizens who were not politicians, who have previously lain in honor, including Hershel “Woody” Williams (USMC), the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, who died in 2022.

A joint statement from House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) noted: “The extraordinary valor of COL Ralph Puckett Jr. represents the best of the 1.7 million Americans who left home to fight for freedom in the Korean War. He demonstrated tireless sacrifice for our country and his fellow Rangers and is an exceptional model for service members and civilians alike.”

You can view his Laying in Honor ceremony here.

COL Puckett: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Rangers lead the way!

We ask your prayers for Jeannie, their daughter Martha and son Thomas, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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Join us in daily prayer for our Patriots in uniform — Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen — standing in harm’s way in defense of American Liberty, honoring their oath “to support and defend” our Constitution. Pray for our Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please consider a designated gift to support the National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund through Patriot Foundation Trust, or make a check payable to “NMoH Sustaining Fund” and mail it to:

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