When the Korean War started in 1950, I was as green as you could get — I’d graduated from West Point the year before. My Ranger company arrived in Korea shortly after the war started. Two months after we got there, we took Hill 205 in what is now North Korea, about 60 miles south of the border with China. By that point, we knew we were fighting not only North Korean troops but Chinese forces who had come across the border.
It was a very frigid night, and the Chinese troops below us kept arriving, until we were outnumbered by 4 or 5 to 1. They hit us with mortars, hand grenades and machine guns. Over the following hours, we repulsed five waves of Chinese troops trying to retake the hill, but we lost troops with each assault. I was wounded several times, including in both of my feet. The sixth wave forced us few survivors off the hill, and I told my men to leave me behind so they could get to safety. “We’re not leaving you, sir,” one replied. A Ranger put me over his shoulder and staggered down the mountain. When he couldn’t go any farther, others grabbed my wrists and dragged me.
I received a Distinguished Service Cross for that battle. And that was the end of the story until more than 50 years later, when a retired Ranger named John Lock read about the battle while researching a book. He thought I should’ve earned a Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor, and he pursued that goal for 18 years. There were times when I wasn’t sure whether it was worth pursuing, but when I was finally awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House in May, I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. My Rangers were the ones who did the work.
Unfortunately, I’m a little unsteady on my feet these days, and during the White House ceremony, I started weaving. So, I leaned over on President Biden. “Just lean all you want,” he whispered.
I’d like to close the gap between the military and the civilian worlds. Unless someone has a loved one who’s seen combat, they may not really understand the commitment of the people who serve. Over the years, I’ve met countless Army Rangers. They’re all just as eager and devoted as we were on that cold Korean hilltop.
— As told to Brennen Jensen
Retired Army Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, is a highly decorated veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars.