A hero of the Korean War who went on to mentor and train generations of Army Rangers will receive the nation's highest award for combat valor in a ceremony Friday.
President Joe Biden will present his first Medal of Honor in office to 94-year-old Ralph Puckett, who taunted death as a first lieutenant in 1950, mounting a tank in view of the enemy to inspire his men, and later intentionally drawing enemy fire as a distraction so his troops could seize the upper hand.
The news that Puckett's Distinguished Service Cross would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor was first made public earlier this month.
Puckett, who retired from the Army as a colonel in 1971 and became the national programs coordinator of Outward Bound Inc., continued to stay involved in the Ranger community in the following decades as an icon and mentor, earning induction into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992 and serving from 1996 to 2005 as the first "Honorary Colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment."
A statement released by the White House on Wednesday underscored Puckett's daring and heroism in Korea more than 70 years ago.
During a daylight attack on a rise called Hill 205 on Nov. 25, 1950, Puckett's 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company took incoming mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire.
"To obtain supporting fire, First Lieutenant Puckett mounted the closest tank, exposing himself to the deadly enemy fire. Leaping from the tank, he shouted words of encouragement to his men and began to lead the Rangers in the attack," the White House statement reads. "Leaving the safety of his position and with full knowledge of the danger, First Lieutenant Puckett intentionally ran across an open area three times to draw enemy fire, thereby allowing the Rangers to locate and destroy the enemy positions and to seize Hill 205."
That night, the enemy launched a four-hour counterattack. But the Rangers' spirits were buoyed by Puckett's "extraordinary leadership and courageous example," according to the statement.
"As a result, five human wave attacks by a battalion strength enemy element were repulsed," it reads.
Puckett was wounded by grenade fragments in a first enemy surge, but he kept directing artillery fire and refused to be pulled away and treated. When, during the sixth enemy onslaught, Puckett realized the Rangers' position wouldn't hold, and having sustained "grievous wounds" from two mortar rounds, he ordered his men to leave him behind. But the Rangers refused, coming together to pull him from the foxhole while the barrage of enemy fire continued. When they reached a position at the bottom of the hill, Puckett continued to call for "devastating" artillery fire on the enemy to press the fight.
"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," the White House said in its statement.
Friday's Medal of Honor presentation will be different from traditional medal ceremonies in one key way: Biden will be joined by Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea. To this day, South Korea finds ways to honor the U.S. and its military for their aid against North Korean invaders during the Korean War.
Puckett, who has also served as an Ambassador of Goodwill for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and founded a leadership development program known as Discovery Inc., now lives in Columbus, Georgia, with his wife Jean.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.