Remarks on Presenting the Medal of Honor to Army Colonel Ralph Puckett, Jr., USA (Ret.)
President Biden. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the White House.
President Moon, it's a real honor to have you here participating in this ceremony today. The strength of the alliance between the United States, the Republic of Korea was born out of the courage, determination, sacrifice, and of the Korean troops fighting shoulder to shoulder with American troops. And having you here today is an important recognition of all that our Nation has achieved together—both of them—in the decades since.
And I'm joined by my wife Jill, who's as excited about this event as I am; the Vice President and the Second Gentleman are here as well; our Secretary of Defense; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the officials of the United States Army; as well as several Members of Congress—Representative Ferguson, Representative Crow, and Senator Ernst.
Because, today, we are hosting a true American hero and awarding an honor that is long overdue—more than 70 years overdue. Seventy years ago, on a frozen hilltop deep in what is now North Korea, a young First Lieutenant bravely, out of West Point—and barely out of West Point—acted with bravery and—that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second highest honor.
Today, after more than a decade of effort—including support from my good friend John McCain, God rest his soul, shortly before he passed away—I'm incredibly proud to give Colonel Ralph Puckett's act of valor the full recognition they have always deserved.
Colonel, I'm humbled to have you here today, I really am, along with your loving family, and to award you the Medal of Honor. And though I understand that your first response to us hosting this event was to ask, "Why all the fuss?" [Laughter] "Why all the fuss? Can't they just mail it to me?" [Laughter]
I was going to make a joke about the Post Office, but I decided not to do that. [Laughter] Colonel Puckett, after 70 years, rather than mail it to you, I would have walked it to you. [Laughter] You know, your lifetime of service to our Nation, I think, deserves a little bit of fuss—a little bit of fuss.
You know, when I called to tell the Colonel that I had approved this award, I also spoke to Jeannie. Excuse me for using your first name, but that was my mom's name too. And you and my mom have the same eyes, although you're much—you're too young to be my mom. [Laughter] And they've been married for 68 years. We have something else in—we have one thing in common: We both married way up. [Laughter] We both married way up.
Col. Puckett. [Inaudible]
President Biden. That's exactly right. [Laughter] Well, Jeannie and Ralph actually met while he was recovering from his wounds. And they were married 2 years to the day after the battle that we're recognizing him today for his bravery.
By the way, you all can sit down, I think. [Laughter] It just dawned on me, you all—[laughter]. I understand why you're standing. I'd be standing too, but—Jeannie, it's wonderful to welcome you, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Jill and I know firsthand that it's not just the person who wears the uniform who serves, military families make enormous sacrifices for our Nation.
So let me add our thanks to you and your life of service as well. I told you earlier that expression by the poet, "They also stand who only—they also serve who only stand and wait." And you waited a long, long time under many, many, many circumstances.
And that goes to the entire family: Marty and her husband Anthony. Thomas and partner Chip—I don't know if they're here; I didn't see them yet. And I know the other daughter—that Jeannie isn't with us anymore. Just like I wish our son Beau were able to be here to see this, he's not with us either. She's here in spirit and represented by her family. And I know she's always in your heart, Colonel, and never leaves.
I also want recognize Master Sergeant Merle Simpson who fought beside the colonel in Korea. Where are you? Stand up, sir. Come on. Who made the trip to Washington today to represent all of their fallen brothers from the Eighth Army Ranger Company. It's an honor—it's an honor—for all of their memories as well.
Hill 205 was just 60 miles from the border with China. And then-Lieutenant Puckett and the Rangers had their orders to take that hill. As a young officer, Lieutenant Puckett knew that something wasn't quite right. The intelligence briefing indicated that there were 25,000 Chinese troops in the area, outnumbering U.S. and Korean forces two to three—or excuse me, three to two. And Lieutenant Puckett, though the numbers—thought the numbers for the attack didn't align with the basic military doctrine.
The Lieutenant believed in the fundamentals. It was how he trained his men. It's how he'd hand-picked them, chosen them from the ranks of cooks and clerks and mechanics to the first Ranger company since World War II. Physical conditioning. Tactical training. Working as a team. Get the basics right, then build from there.
But Lieutenant Puckett also believed in being there for the fight. He'd volunteered for the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve to try to join—to fight in World War II. He volunteered to go to Korea, instead of the safer posting in Japan. He volunteered for the new Ranger company, and then he prayed, "Dear God, don't let me get a bunch of guys—good guys—killed," when he was chosen to command that company.
So, on the morning of November 25, 1950, mounted on the decks of the tanks, 51 of Puckett's Rangers and 9 Korean enlisted soldiers set out to take Hill 205. To make their charge, they had to cross about half mile of frozen rice paddies under fire. And when the enemy machine gunners slowed the Rangers' advance, Puckett risked his life by running across the area to draw fire that would reveal where the location of the nest. He did it once. He did it again. It took three runs intentionally exposing himself to the enemy to pick off the gunner.
Of course, Colonel Puckett had developed a dangerous hobby, as he recounted in his book, of challenging himself to run in front of speeding cars when he was 4 years old. [Laughter] So self-preservation, it seemed, was never a primary concern of the colonel.
When the Rangers finally reached the top of Hill 205, they found it abandoned, but Puckett knew the fight wasn't nearly over. His men established a defensive perimeter and then went to coordinate the artillery support he was sure they would need, and while he was there, to load up the ammunition and grenades, the basics.
Shortly after he returned, the first onslaught began. Mortars followed by a ground assault from the entire Chinese battalion. Puckett's Rangers were outnumbered almost ten to one. During the fight, Puckett abandoned the relative safety of his foxhole, moving from man to man, encouraging them in the fight, checking that the perimeter was holding.
He took a grenade fragment in his left thigh, but Puckett refused to be evacuated. He was a Ranger. He led his men from the front. And over the course of the next several hours, four more waves of assaults came.
Each time, Puckett made his rounds, passing out extra ammo and extra encouragement to rally his men. Each time, he was able to call in artillery support—sometimes "danger close"—to help break the advance of the Chinese soldiers. Each time, the Rangers held the hill, pushing the enemy back, at times, with hand-to-hand fighting.
About 2:30 a.m., after more than 4 hours of near nonstop fighting, the sixth wave began. By this time, the Rangers had—many Rangers had been killed, and those who are left were exhausted, outnumbered, and dangerously short of ammunition and grenades. Lieutenant Puckett had sustained a second wound, this time in his left shoulder. He had distributed all the ammo to his men, keeping only eight bullets and a bayonet for himself.
For the last time, Puckett called in artillery support, only to be told that the guns were supporting other besieged units. Then, two mortar rounds landed directly in Puckett's foxhole, tearing through both his feet and his backside and his left arm and shoulder. Puckett's Rangers had been overwhelmed, and he himself was badly wounded. He ordered one of his men who found him on the ground to leave him behind. But that's not the Ranger creed.
A private ran for help, and soon two other Rangers charged back up the hill, fighting off advancing Chinese soldiers, retrieving their commander. They had to drag him down the hill, with Lieutenant Puckett reminding them, and himself, that he could take the pain, quote, "I'm a Ranger."
Before his men loaded him on a tank to evacuate, Lieutenant Puckett called for one final barrage on Hill 205. And the Eighth Army unloaded artillery, while phosphorus on the Rangers' former—and phosphorus on the Rangers' former position. They did not hold the hill, but the Rangers extracted a high price.
Korea is sometimes called the "Forgotten War." But those men who were there under Lieutenant Puckett's command—they'll never forget his bravery. They never forget that he was right by their side throughout every minute of it.
And the people of the Republic of Korea haven't forgotten, as evidenced by the fact that the Prime Minister [President]* of Korea is here for this ceremony. I doubt this has ever happened before—I can't say that for certain, but I doubt it's happened before. The Americans—all Americans, like Ralph Puckett, joined in their fight.
And while the enduring partnership between our two nations began in war, it has flourished through peace. It's the—it's a testament, I think, to the extraordinary strength of our alliance.
And we're joined today, as I said, by President Moon, who—I can't tell you how happy I am he's able to be here. And if I may, I'd like to invite President Moon to say a few words, if that is okay.
President Moon. Mr. President, thank you for your words. I find it truly meaningful to join the Medal of Honor presentation ceremony for Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr., U.S. Army (Retired). Upon President Biden's invitation, I learned that I'm the first foreign leader to ever attend a ceremony of such kind. As President of the Republic of Korea, it is a great honor and pleasure.
Colonel Puckett is a true hero of the Korean war. With extraordinary valor and leadership, he completed missions till the very end, defending Hill 205 and fighting many more battles requiring equal valiance. Without the sacrifice of veterans, including Colonel Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn't have blossomed in Korea.
Earlier, Colonel Puckett told me that when he was in Korea during the Korean war, it was absolutely destroyed. That was true, but from the ashes of the Korean war, we rose; we came back. And that was thanks to the Korean War veterans who fought for Korea's peace and freedom.
And now, thanks to their support and efforts, we are enjoying prosperity. On behalf of the Korean people, I express deep gratitude and respect to them. Through the war veterans, the Korean people saw a great soul of America that marches toward freedom and peace. Their acts of gallantry, sacrifice, and friendship will forever be remembered.
The R.O.K.-U.S. alliance, forged in blood of heroes, has become a linchpin of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Colonel Puckett and his fellow warriors are a link that strongly binds Korea and the U.S. together. I pray that they stay with us in good health for a long time.
Thank you very much.
President Biden. Well, thank you, President Moon. Now, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Ralph Puckett's service to our Nation did not end in the Korean war. It did not end after his service in the Vietnam war, where he earned a second Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars with "V" for Valor. And add to that, during his service, five Purple Hearts for injuries suffered in combat.
And it didn't end after his retirement from Active Duty or his induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame. It didn't end there either, when he served as the Honorary Colonel for the 75th Ranger Regiment, where he'd help new generations of Rangers during their training missions. Even now—even now—you can find him out at Fort Benning, cheering on the Rangers and letting them know he's there with them.
Over his career, he mentored countless young people. He's always believed that all that mattered to be a Ranger was if you had the guts and the brains. That's the standard he applied when he picked that first Ranger unit in Korea.
In an Army that had only recently been integrated, he chose with—his team included a Black, a Latino, and Asian American members. As my mother would say, "God love you, man."
In 2015, during the Obama-Biden administration, when the military was considering opening all combat positions to women, including Rangers, Colonel Puckett let it be known that he thought women could meet the standards and said: "I want to see them do it."
He leads from the front. He leads by example. He leads with heart. He is a Ranger, and that's how Rangers lead—that's how you lead.
So now, it is my great honor to ask for the citation to be read and to award Colonel Puckett, Jr.—Ralph Puckett, Jr., with the Medal of Honor.
[At this point, Lt. Cmdr. Jayna G. McCarron, USCG, Coast Guard Aide to the President, read the citation, and the President presented the medals, assisted by Maj. William M. Yang, USA, Army Aide to the President.]
President Biden. Let me invite the family up. Come on, get the family up here—all of you, including the grandkids.
[Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Solhjem, USA, Army Chief of Chaplains, said a prayer.]
NOTE: The President spoke at 1:16 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten, USAF; Martha Wilcoxson, daughter of Col. Puckett, and her husband Anthony Wilcoxson; and Chip Whitman, partner of Col. Puckett's son Thomas. President Moon spoke in Korean, and his remarks were translated by an interpreter. This transcript was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on May 22.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Presenting the Medal of Honor to Army Colonel Ralph Puckett, Jr., USA (Ret.) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/350044