Valor Friday

| May 7, 2021

Colonel Ralph Puckett

This is a continuation of an article on Ralph Puckett that was initially posted on 4 May 2021. If you remember how I began, you can skip below to the break just after the image of the Medal of Honor. For those who missed it;

Colonel Ralph Puckett, US Army (ret), is already a living legend within the US Army Ranger community. His Distinguished Service Cross from the Korean War, when he was a first lieutenant, is being upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Puckett commissioned into the Army after matriculating from West Point in 1949. After World War II the Ranger units had largely been eliminated, but in 1950 with the war breaking out in Korea, the Army started up a new Ranger company. Puckett, an infantry officer, immediately applied for a position with the Rangers. Though all the platoon leader positions were filled, he volunteered to “take a squad leader’s or rifleman’s job”, well below his paygrade. Impressed by his gusto, the colonel in charge of forming the 8th Army Ranger Company gave Puckett command of the whole company, a position normally reserved for a captain.

Just after a month in Korea, Puckett and his Rangers became famous for their taking and defense of Hill 205. Leading his men across 800 meters of enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire, the Rangers secured the objective.

After capturing the hill on 25 November 1950, Puckett and 50 Rangers held the hill for several hours. Despite waves of Chinese forces attacking them and the very real chance that the Rangers would be surrounded, Puckett led the valiant defense. He repeatedly called in artillery strikes “danger close” (i.e. calling fire down essentially on his own position) to repulse the enemy. Wounded in the battle, Puckett refused evacuation. Forty-one of the 51 Rangers would become casualties during the fighting.

Puckett had led his men to repulse the hordes of enemy no less than five times! In a battle that had lasted more than four hours. On the sixth enemy attack, Puckett was wounded so severely that he was unable to move. Sensing that his position was soon to be overrun he ordered his men to evacuate. He also ordered them to leave him behind so that he wouldn’t slow their withdrawal. They of course refused.

For this battle, Puckett was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which is now being upgraded to the Medal of Honor. President Biden called Colonel Puckett last Friday [30 Mar 2021] to congratulate him on the award. Puckett is now 94, so I hope they move quickly to secure plans to make the award.


Puckett’s 8th Army Ranger Company had been the first Ranger unit formed during the Korean War. It was so successful, that it became the model for the next two decades for how Ranger formations would be made. Sixteen companies of Rangers would be stood up during the war, all based on the groundwork that Puckett laid.

In contrast to how things were done in World War II and how they have been done in the post-Vietnam Era, Rangers were organized into companies and assigned to larger regular formations. In that capacity they served as the larger element’s organic special operations force. Since Vietnam (and during World War II), Rangers were formed into battalions and regiments and wouldn’t deploy as part of a larger formation.

Colonel William O Darby, who commanded “Darby’s Rangers” onto the beaches of Normandy and General Frank Merrill, who commanded “Merrill’s Marauders” in the China-Burma-India Campaign of the Pacific War are generally considered the fathers of the modern US Army Rangers, but this sells short Puckett’s contribution to Ranger doctrine.

After suffering serious injuries during the Battle of Hill 205, Puckett convalesced and was then assigned to the Army Infantry School Ranger Department. Here he commanded the Mountain Ranger Division.

As part of the US Army Mission to Columbia, Puckett helped the Columbian military develop their own Ranger school known as Lancero. He then commanded “B” and “C” teams of the 10th Special Forces Unit in Germany.

By 1967, with the war in Vietnam raging, Puckett was again called into battle. By now a lieutenant colonel, Puckett was in command of 2d Battalion, 502d Infantry (Airborne), part of the 101st Airborne Division.

Prior to deploying to Vietnam from Fort Campbell, the 101st Airborne Division had been depleted of staff. In order to fill out the roster, non-airborne troops from the Third Army were brought in. When they went to Vietnam that year, while they retained their airborne designation, they were no longer an airborne-capable unit. In 1968 they were redesignated airmobile.

On 13 August, 1967 a large element of Puckett’s battalion was heavily engaged by enemy forces. Puckett’s rank and position would allow him to command the unit from afar, either in a remote command post or a command helicopter. He would have none of that and had his helicopter crew bring him right into the thick of the fighting.

From within the fight Puckett could assess the effectiveness of his troops and direct the defense. At one point, with no regard for his own safety, Puckett moved through a heavily mined field into the heaviest fighting. Once there he could direct the men personally and rally their spirits.

Facing heavy mortar attack from all around, Puckett decentralized his command post. Dispersing the other senior officers and SNCOs greatly reduced the risk that a lucky strike would take out the battalion’s command. Scattering his command post meant the colonel took to a foxhole like the rest of his infantrymen.

As the battle raged into the night, Puckett moved from defensive position to defensive position, while under fire, to buoy his troops’ spirits.

During the night Puckett could hear American cries for help. In the midst of an intense enemy mortar barrage, he left his position of relative safety to come to the aid of the wounded soldiers. Running through a hail of shrapnel, Puckett came upon two severely wounded soldiers. Puckett carried both men, back through the fields of shrapnel, to a position of safety where he used his years of experience to attend to their wounds.

When rescue helicopters came in, Puckett refused evacuation. He stood in the open to direct the wounded and dying onto the helicopters.

Puckett would earn a Distinguished Service Cross for the day’s battle. The citation summarizes his bravery thusly;

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. His fearless leadership and aggressive, determined actions in the face of grave danger inspired his men to fight furiously throughout the night and obtain a decisive victory over the numerically superior Viet Cong attackers.

Not even two weeks later Puckett was again in combat with his men. On 26 August he was flying in a command and control helicopter. Below him, a company of his men had engaged the enemy and casualties were mounting.

Medical evacuation helicopters were unable to land in the unsecured, hostile landing zone (LZ) that the soldiers on the ground had hastily designated. The weather was turning and a violent thunderstorm was also hindering the helicopter crews.

With no way to evacuate the wounded below, as they lie dying, Colonel Puckett ordered his helicopter into the landing zone. The pilots must have been superb aviators, since they flew into not just hostile weather but a hail of enemy fire.

While directing the loading of the wounded, Puckett was able to see the embattled company’s situation on the ground. He could tell they were dangerously close to being overrun. Puckett led the evacuation of the wounded to a nearby base, began to load up on all the ammunition the helicopter and crew could carry, and he returned again into the hot LZ.

The helicopter would be a large, slow, and very, very loud target for the enemy. Despite this, Puckett and his crew landed and off loaded the much needed supplies.

Taking off, Puckett resumed command of the situation from above. Later in the afternoon, casualties mounting again on the ground, and with the medevac helicopters unable to land, Puckett for a third time ordered his command and control helicopter to land. They again picked up the dead and wounded and evacuated them.

Puckett was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in action that day. His unselfish devotion to his men helped inspire them to repel the numerically superior enemy force.

Just weeks later, on 27 September, in the evening hours, a small force of enemy soldiers infiltrated the battalion command post. Attacking with small arms and grenades, they caused chaos. One of the grenades landed just inches from Colonel Puckett’s head.

The grenade exploding about 18 inches from his head, Puckett was wounded, concussed, bleeding, and deafened. This didn’t slow him down. Puckett staggered to his feet and charged into the fight.

Puckett directed his men in reestablishing the defensive perimeter. Despite withering enemy automatic weapons fire and bursting grenades he moved through the open from position to position to guide and encourage his men.

Through the night Puckett kept up his men’s spirits and directed all aspects of the defense and coordinated with an artillery battery. When medevac choppers arrived, Puckett refused evacuation despite his wounds. He supervised the loading of the wounded and only tended to his own injuries once the situation had returned to normal.

A rifle platoon leader preparing for a “last stand” during the battle recalled Colonel Puckett’s effect on the nearly exhausted soldiers. He said that “word of Colonel Puckett’s arrival spread like wildfire. We all stiffened up and felt that nothing bad could happen now because the Ranger was with us.”

Puckett received the Silver Star for gallantry in action that night, his second award of such in as many months.

Before his tour in Vietnam was complete, Puckett would receive the Legion of Merit for his exceptionally meritorious conduct. He then went on to West Point where he served as the commanding officer of 1st Regiment, Corps of Cadets from 1968-1970. He earned another Legion of Merit for service there.

Puckett’s final assignment would be commanding officer of 2d Brigade, 5th Infantry Division at Fort Carson. His time there would be as the 5th Infantry Division was being inactivated and replaced at Fort Carson by the 4th Infantry Division.

Puckett retired from the Army in 1971 as a colonel with 22 years of service spanning both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In retirement he worked for Outward Bound and created his own similar organization called Discovery, Inc. in Georgia. He then was president of a computer software and hardware company before retiring for good to the Columbus, Georgia-area. This affords some proximity to the Ranger School at Fort Benning, where Colonel Puckett remains active with the Ranger community he helped shape so much.

He also co-authored an auto-biography of his time in the service; Ranger: A Soldier’s Life

Among numerous honors and awards for his time in the Army, including being an inaugural inductee into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992 and Honorary Colonel for the 75th Ranger Regiment for 10 years, are two awards of the Bronze Star Medal w/ “V” for valor, five Purple Hearts, and nine Air Medals. With the forthcoming upgrade of his first Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor, he will join the small group of American servicemen to have received all four of the country’s top awards for combat bravery.

Category: Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (9)

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  1. MI Ranger says:

    A true inspiring leader, that took it to heart to lead from the front and demonstrate what you expect while still being able to lead!

    R.L.T.W.

    • KoB says:

      True dat, MI Ranger. One may be able to Command from the rear, but one can only truly lead from the front…with his troops. This Hero is the epitome of a Soldier’s Soldier. He should have a chest full of MoH.

      Thanks Mason.

  2. Sparks says:

    I am awed to read the stories of such men. I hope his MoH comes in time.

  3. SgtBob says:

    Some soldiers can pass between bullets.
    Grunts in the action might have two thoughts: Pumped up that a real fighter has arrived; and, “Col. Puckett’s here? Damn, we are in a fight.”

  4. MI Ranger says:

    I keep thinking that I met COL(R) Puckett at one of the Ranger Rendezvous I attended. Since his book came out in 2017, it would not have been then. I remember one after I screwed my back up, when I was “hanging out” with more of the visitors since I couldn’t participate in the events or the jump, but I don’t remember any of the folks I got introduced to. He would have been one of the younger guys, since it was almost 30 years ago.

  5. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Another great one, Mason.

  6. Andy says:

    Quick question…what is the Legion of Honor? The only reference I can find is the French award Legion de Honour and another reference to building in California.

    • Mason says:

      Right you are. Legion of Merit is what he got. Which in my defense was modeled on the French Legion of Honor. 🙂

  7. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    He’s one of those leaders that embodies the terms “Do as I do” or “Lead from the front”….

    True bad ass and hero in every sense of the word!