The 94-year-old, whose family also attended the event, earned the nation’s highest military decoration for his actions 70 years ago atop Hill 205, which overlooked the Chongchon River in what is now North Korea. The battle was part of a counteroffensive that marked the Chinese entrance into the Korean War.
Then-1st Lt. Puckett led the 8th Army Ranger Company in an assault to seize the hill from Chinese troops Nov. 25, 1950. They then defended it against overwhelming odds into the early morning hours, with Puckett coordinating the defense and calling in artillery strikes while showing no concern for his own safety.
Badly wounded, Puckett told his soldiers to leave him behind as they withdrew. They didn’t listen, nor did they ever forget, Biden said at the ceremony Friday.
“Those men who were there under...Puckett’s command never forgot his bravery,” said the president, who called the Korean War by its ominous nickname — “The Forgotten War.”
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, also attended the ceremony.
“Without the sacrifice of veterans like Col. Puckett and the 8th Army Ranger Company,” Moon Jae-in said, “the freedom and democracy we enjoy today couldn’t have blossomed in Korea.”
On the eve of the ceremony Puckett reflected on the honor and the actions that earned it.
Puckett’s medal was upgraded from the Distinguished Service Cross he received following his unit’s desperate, outnumbered defensive action.
Puckett is a legendary Army Ranger who also earned a second Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for valor in combat. He retired in 1971 after also serving in the Vietnam War.
The retired colonel offered his thoughts during a telephone press conference Thursday evening.
“It was quite a shock when I received a call from [President Joe Biden],” said Puckett, who learned of his imminent award in a call with the commander-in-chief April 30. “I never thought he’d be calling to speak to me. I was surprised by how humble, ordinary and friendly he sounded.”
Puckett attended the White House ceremony in one of his uniforms from 1949, when he earned his commission from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. “It means our country has survived those many years,” he noted.
The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on Puckett, either.
“It’s certainly the most important medal that we have in our country, and I am certainly honored to be the recipient,” he said.
But the former honorary colonel of the 75th Ranger Regiment also explained that his troops that night in Korea deserve the credit instead of him.
“I think it’s important for them to know that they’re the ones who did the job,” Puckett said. “They’re the ones who did the fighting; they suffered the wounds; they suffered the deaths. They’re the ones who deserve the credit.”
Puckett was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame in 1992.
Puckett was born in Tifton, Georgia, and now lives near Fort Benning, where he maintains close ties to the 75th Ranger Regiment. In April, he visited and offered words of encouragement to Rangers participating in the annual Best Ranger Competition at the Army post.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.