Col. Ralph Puckett, who commanded Army Rangers and paratroopers through desperate defensive battles in two different wars, died Monday. He was 97.

One of the most revered figures in Army Ranger lore, Puckett led the defense of a position dubbed Hill 205 early in the Korean War against a force of Chinese soldiers several times larger than his 51-man Ranger unit. More than a decade later, he commanded 101st Airborne Division paratroopers in an eerily similar defensive stand in Vietnam.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for both battles. In May 2021, his DSC for the defense of Hill 205 was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after years of lobbying from the Ranger community.

“He is an icon of the Army Ranger,” Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger said when Pucket’s Medal of Honor was awarded. “Those who have met, listened to, or talked with Col. Ralph Puckett are left not only in awe of him and his extensive and undaunted courage but also of his humility and genuine warmth.”

After retiring in 1971, Puckett remained a fixture in the close-knit Ranger community and his influence and legacy remain visible across the Ranger community to this day. An award bearing his name is given to the top officer in every Ranger School class, where Puckett would present the award himself at graduation ceremonies well into his 90s. He was the inaugural inductee into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992, named the first honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1996 — a ceremonial post in which he regularly spoke to new Rangers and represented the regiment in public, and his name is also used for an annual leadership award for junior officers. 

Army photo

The hero of Hill 205

In November of 1950, Puckett was a first lieutenant commanding the 8th Ranger Company of the 8th Army Rangers. Unlike modern Ranger units, which belong to the 75th Ranger Regiment, Rangers in the Korean conflict were attached to larger conventional fighting units and were often used for reconnaissance or assaults. Also unlike today’s Rangers, Puckett and all of his soldiers had arrived in Korea as conventional infantry soldiers and were put through Ranger training near Kijang, South Korea; the current Ranger school welcomed its inaugural class that same month at Fort Benning (present-day Fort Moore).

In November 1950, Chinese forces poured south, turning back early U.S. and United Nations gains. It was against this first Chinese offensive that Puckett was ordered to take and hold Hill 205, near Unsan.

After taking the hill, Puckett was injured three times during overnight fighting. Still, he moved between Ranger positions, bringing supplies and shifting positions. Five times Puckett called in pre-planned artillery to repel waves of Chinese soldiers. A sixth wave proved too much.

“At about 0230, we heard the Chinese blowing their whistles and bugles, always the same thing,” Puckett told an interviewer at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. “I ran back to my foxhole, got on the radio again to call for artillery.”

This time, artillery wasn’t available, already firing another mission.

Puckett made one last radio call. “We’re crumbling, we’re being overrun,” he said. “I gave my unit the word to withdraw.”

Wounded three times in the fighting, Puckett collapsed in a foxhole as Chinese soldiers overran Hill 205. Two of his men found him, one asking, “Sir, are you hurt?”

“I thought that was the dumbest question I ever heard in my life,” Puckett recalled. “But I didn’t say that.”

He ordered his men to leave him behind so they could retreat. Instead, the two Rangers first carried, then dragged their commander by his wrists, bouncing Puckett down sheer rock faces and steep slopes to safety as the Chinese fired on them.

At the bottom, Puckett used a tank radio to call in a “Willie Pete” artillery strike — or white phosphorus shells — on the overrun position.

For the Hill 205 fight, Puckett was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest combat award. 

His second DSC came in the early years of Vietnam and barred striking resemblance to his first.

Army photo

Battle of Duc Pho and his second Distinguished Service Cross

In August 1967, then-Lt. Col. Puckett was a battalion commander in the 101st Airborne Division, overseeing operations near Duc Pho. Facing a large Viet Cong force, the citation says, “Puckett landed in the battle zone to coordinate defenses and to assess the battlefield situation. Disregarding his own safety, he moved across a heavily mined area to the point of the most ferocious fighting to direct and inspire his men against the hostile force.”

Puckett dispersed his command element to avoid artillery fire, taking up a position in a foxhole. From there — as he’d done on Hill 205 — he bounced between foxholes, checking on his men, bringing ammunition and encouragement.

“When rescue helicopters came in,” the citation reads, “he repeatedly refused extraction for himself and directed that the casualties be evacuated. 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.”

Col. Puckett was the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War. 

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