Retired Army Col. and Columbus resident Ralph Puckett Jr. will receive the nation’s highest award for valor in combat more than seven decades after leading his soldiers through a bloody battle on a Korean hill.
Puckett, 94, received a phone call around 5 p.m. Friday from President Joe Biden, informing and congratulating him on being the nation’s latest Medal of Honor recipient, retired Army Lt. Col. J.D. Lock and Puckett’s wife, Jean, told the Ledger-Enquirer Monday.
Lock has led the push, trying to get the Army to reconsider Puckett’s actions for nearly two decades. The White House did not respond to questions from a Ledger-Enquirer reporter before publication. Puckett’s award was first reported by WRBL News.
“We’re very honored and a little bit overwhelmed with all this coming down the pipe,” Jean told the Ledger-Enquirer. “But, we’re looking forward to it.”
Puckett, the company commander of the then newly-conceived Eighth U.S. Army Ranger Company, was wounded during a critical battle at Hill 205 on Nov. 25 and 26, 1950 where Chinese soldiers surrounded Puckett’s company. The Chinese launched human wave attacks at Puckett’s position for more than four hours.
According to an account of the battle from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s History Office and interviews Puckett has given over the years, the 23-year-old commander from Tifton, Georgia, and the company of 51 Rangers prepared for a nighttime counter-assault in near-zero weather. The Americans had captured the hill earlier in the day.
Bugles announced the first Chinese wave, and the Americans beat them back. Puckett was wounded in the left thigh by a hand grenade during this attack but refused to be evacuated.
The next two Chinese attacks were quickly repelled. Puckett was wounded again — this time in the left shoulder — but he reported that his Rangers still controlled the hill. Throughout the attacks, Puckett exposed himself to enemy fire. Ammunition was running low after the fourth and fifth waves were turned away. A call went out for the Rangers to “fix bayonets and prepare for counterattack.”
Two mortars landed a fraction of a second apart and exploded almost on top of Puckett’s command foxhole. He now had wounds to both feet, left shoulder and left arm, thighs and buttocks. His right foot was so badly mangled he later had to persuade medical personnel not to amputate it.
After the barrage, the Chinese launched their sixth and final attack. Lead Chinese soldiers threw hand grenades. Short on ammunition and unable to get artillery, Puckett made his last radio call: “It’s too late. Tell Colonel Dolvin we’re being overwhelmed.”
Chinese soldiers were moving in on the Rangers. William L. Judy found Puckett, unable to move, and the commander told Judy to leave him behind.
But Judy and Rangers Billy G. Walls and David L. Pollock got Puckett to medical aid, with Walls and Pollock eventually having to drag Puckett by his wrists down the hill. Puckett received the Distinguished Service Cross for these actions.
“I am pleased that Walls and Pollock disobeyed my orders to leave me behind on the hill,” Puckett said in an oral history interview about the battle.
He’ll receive the award much later than other distinguished service members. Puckett was one of four soldiers to benefit from a provision in the latest defense budget that waives the five-year limit between the acts of valor and approval of the Medal of Honor.
A date for Puckett’s ceremony hasn’t been set. The White House is coordinating with the retired colonel to schedule it. The event is expected to be held at the White House, Jean said.
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