Biden awards first Medal of Honor as president to Korean War hero who led Army Rangers in brutal battle against hundreds of enemy troops

President Joe Biden arrives with retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett, who will be presented the Medal of Honor, in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Washington
President Joe Biden arrives with retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett, who will be presented the Medal of Honor, in the East Room of the White House, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Washington

  • President Joe Biden presented the first Medal of Honor award of his presidency Friday afternoon.
  • The award went to 94-year-old retired Army Ranger Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. for his actions in 1950.
  • Puckett bravely led a Ranger company against a battalion-sized force of hundreds during the Korean War.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden awarded the first Medal of Honor of his presidency on Friday to a retired US Army Ranger and Korean War hero for “conspicuous gallantry.”

Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., 94, received the military’s highest honor for valor for his outstanding actions on “Hill 205” near Unsan, an area about 60 miles from the Chinese border deep in what is now North Korea, on November 25, 1950 – heroism for which he was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett stands along side troops as they prepare to start a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition (BRC) on Fort Benning, Ga., April 16, 2021
Retired U.S. Army Col. Ralph Puckett stands along side troops as they prepare to start a foot march during the 2021 David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition (BRC) on Fort Benning, Ga., April 16, 2021

Then a first lieutenant, Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company, a new unit that only had five-and-a-half weeks of training before being sent into combat, into a fierce battle for a position overlooking the Chongchon River.

Puckett commanded his soldiers during a challenging daytime assault across 800 yards of open frozen ground as the enemy poured mortar, machine-gun, and small-arms fire on them, according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.

During the assault, he purposefully and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, allowing his soldiers to find and eliminate enemy machine guns pinning down some of his troops.

Though they captured their objective, the fight for Hill 205 was far from over.

Throughout the night and into the next morning, Puckett’s Rangers faced wave after wave of counterattacks by a superior force of hundreds of Chinese troops. They were outnumbered almost ten to one.

Map showing the location of Hill 205
Map showing the location of Hill 205

Puckett was injured by a hand grenade during the first wave, but he refused evacuation and continued to lead, directing “danger close” artillery strikes against the assaulting enemy forces in the freezing cold.

Disregarding his own safety, he also moved from foxhole to foxhole, checking the perimeter and distributing ammunition so that he and his men could keep up the fight.

The White House said that “the Rangers were inspired and motivated by the extraordinary leadership and courageous example exhibited by First Lieutenant Puckett.”

1st Lt. Ralph Puckett Jr.
1st Lt. Ralph Puckett Jr.

The enemy launched a sixth and final assault on Hill 205 early on November 26. Puckett had temporarily lost access to artillery support, and it was clear that his forces could no longer hold their position.

Puckett was severely wounded by mortar rounds that landed in his foxhole and left him unable to move as their position was being overrun, with casualties mounting and the fighting breaking down into hand-to-hand combat.

He ordered his men to withdraw and to leave him behind, so as not to slow their retreat. His Rangers ignored the latter order. Two men fought to get to him and retrieved their commanding officer before retreating to the bottom of the hill, where Puckett called in tremendous and devastating artillery fire on Hill 205.

“They did not hold the hill, but they exacted a high price,” Biden said at the ceremony Friday.

Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr visits U.S. Army Rangers who are competing in the 2021 Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 16, 2021
Retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr visits U.S. Army Rangers who are competing in the 2021 Best Ranger Competition on Fort Benning, Georgia, April 16, 2021

The White House said this week that “Puckett’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”

Puckett was offered a medical discharge but chose to continue serving, according to the Army. Puckett later deployed to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.

During his 22 years in the Army, he earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars for valor, two Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts, among other military honors and distinctions. With the addition of the Medal of Honor, Puckett is among the most decorated soldiers in US history.

Puckett joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps as a private in late 1943. He was discharged in 1945 so that he could attend the US Military Academy West Point, from which he graduated in 1949. He commissioned as an infantry officer, a second lieutenant, later that same year.

He retired from the US military as a colonel in 1971, and in 1992, he was inducted in the Ranger Hall of Fame.

“He feared no man, he feared no situation and he feared no enemy,” retired Gen. Jay Hendrix, who served with Puckett, said in an Army statement. “Clearly a unique, courageous soldier in combat and even more importantly, in my opinion, Col. Puckett was an ultimate infantry leader.”

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How Delta, Rangers, and the Green Berets’ unique training would pay off in an Arctic war with Russia

Army Green Beret Special Forces Arctic
US Army Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an Arctic warfare exercise in Seward, Alaska, October 15, 2020.

  • The increasing accessibility of the Arctic has led to more commercial and military activity there.
  • The demanding Arctic environment requires special skills to survive and operate effectively.
  • US Army special-operations forces have long emphasized those skills and could put them to use in a war.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After a long period of hibernation, tension in the Arctic is increasing, with military build-ups and encounters there between the US and its near-peer competitors, Russia and China.

In a reflection of that tension, the Army recently released a strategy meant to secure its military preeminence in the Arctic.

Dubbed “Regaining Arctic Dominance,” the strategy aims to create a dedicated headquarters and specialized Arctic warfare units, improve infrastructure in the region, and invest in individual and collective training.

Although mentioned only briefly in the document, Army special-operations units are expected to have a significant role in the region both in peacetime and during war.

Why the Arctic?

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Poland Estonia Arctic parachute
US Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish, Polish, and Estonian special-operations forces jump out of a C-130 during airborne operations over Rovaniemi, Finland, March 14, 2018.

Economic and military activity in the Arctic is nothing new, but the region’s value has been steadily increasing as it becomes more accessible.

As the ice melts and more passages open, trade becomes easier. The Northern Sea Route, stretching along the Russian coast from Norway to the Pacific Ocean, promises to connect Europe and Asia, two markets with more than 70% of the world’s GDP.

In addition, the increased accessibility caused by climate change allows for the exploitation of natural resources that have thus far been unreachable. Although the exact size of the oil and natural gas reserves underneath the Arctic is still uncertain, it is considerable enough to catch the interest of every major global player and several regional ones.

Further, climate change means that the region is becoming increasingly accessible to military forces.

Russian Arctic Elk
Members of a Russian Northern Fleet motorized rifle brigade being pulled by reindeer during an exercise in 2017.

Recent satellite images show that Russia is amassing forces in the region and testing new weapons.

In addition to Russian ground and air force buildup in the Arctic, there is the formidable Northern Fleet, which is Russia’s largest naval formation, accounting for close to 75% of its naval power. It is responsible for both the Arctic and the Atlantic oceans.

Russia is a legitimate Arctic state and has the world’s longest Arctic coastline. China doesn’t border the Arctic, but Beijing still wants a slice of the pie.

In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative. Similar to the much-criticized Belt and Road Initiative, this project aims to make the Arctic a route for Chinese goods.

Since 1996, the countries bordering the Arctic – Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Russia, and the US – have used the Arctic Council to address issues facing the region, with the exception of security matters. A number of non-Arctic states have observer status with the Council, including China.

Army commandos in the Arctic

Army Green Berets Special Forces Finland Arctic
Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) soldiers and Finnish special operations forces during live-fire training in Rovaniemi, Finland, March 16, 2018.

In the Arctic, Army special-operations units can contribute significantly to deterrence in peacetime and in a potential conflict.

Rangers, Delta Force operators, and Green Berets all have valuable mission-sets and skills that can translate very well to the Arctic domain.

The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier light infantry special-operations unit focused on direct-action missions, such as raids, ambushes, and airfield seizures.

The harsh Arctic climate means logistics and the resupply of forces are particularly challenging, making the Rangers’ ability to seize airfields especially useful in case of conflict.

Army Rangers Arctic snow Wisconsin
Students in a Cold-Weather Operations Course, including 75th Ranger Regiment soldiers, on a ruck march at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, March 1, 2019.

Delta Force is the Army’s direct-action special-mission unit and primarily specializes in hostage rescue and counterterrorism.

In the Arctic, Delta Force could conduct unconventional warfare and sabotage operations similar to the World War II missions of the British Special Air Service (SAS), a unit that influenced Delta’s formation and early days.

The SAS wreaked havoc on Nazi and Italian forces in North Africa, destroying more planes on the ground than the Allied planes did from the air. SAS operations also forced the Axis powers to use a significant number of their forces for base and vehicle convoy security rather than on the frontlines.

“We certainly have the capability and the necessary skill sets to operate all alone and deep behind enemy lines for long periods without regular resupply. The Unit has already done it in the past during Desert Storm and the invasion of Afghanistan but also more recently in Syria,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice diving
Green Berets from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) prepare for a dive during ice-dive training at Fort Carson, Colorado, February 18, 2021.

Finally, Special Forces operators can be very valuable as trainers of conventional Army units.

Green Berets thrive in foreign internal defense, or the training of foreign partner forces. They can take that knowledge to train their conventional counterparts in specialized skills such as mountaineering and cold-weather operations.

The 10th Special Forces Group already routinely trains soldiers from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in cold-weather operations.

There are many other courses run by Green Berets that could prove useful, such as the Special Operations Advance Mountaineering School and the Winter Mobility Instructor Course.

Army Green Beret Special Forces ice Arctic
A Green Beret from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) climbs a frozen waterfall at Fort Carson, November 14, 2019.

“If you look at the Multi-Domain Task Force and long-range precision fires that will be in there, the capabilities, it’s ideal for the amount of training space that we have, whether it’s a maritime component, whether it’s a land component, or an air component,” Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of US Army Alaska, told Insider during a March press briefing.

“So there’s a lot of opportunities to look at the breadth and depth of a future battlefield where Special Operations Command will play a role,” Andrysiak added.

All of the above units can also conduct special reconnaissance and direct both airstrikes and naval gunfire.

Other Army special-operations units, such as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the “Night Stalkers,” and the Psychological Operations Groups could also contribute by enabling operations or shaping the critical information environment.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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