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Korean War hero Ralph Puckett Jr. lies in honor at US Capitol

Congress gave one of its highest final tributes on Monday — a lying in honor ceremony at the Capitol — to Ralph Puckett Jr., who led an outnumbered company in battle during the Korean War and was the last surviving veteran of that war to receive the Medal of Honor.

Puckett, who retired as an Army colonel, died earlier this month at the age of 97 at his home in Columbus, Georgia. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2021, the nation’s highest military honor, seven decades after his actions during the wartime.

The lying in honor ceremony at the Capitol is reserved for the nation’s most distinguished private citizens. Only seven others have received the honor, and the latest, in 2022, was Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, who was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. The ceremonies for both Williams and Puckett were meant to also recognize the broader generations of veterans who are now dwindling in numbers.

“Ralph Puckett wore our nation’s highest military decoration. And in the hearts of generations of soldiers to come, the courage and self-sacrifice that earned that honor will be this great man’s eternal legacy,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

He said that Puckett led 50 Army Rangers through “a crucible of staggering odds” during a 1950 battle on a strategically important hill near Unsan in which they were outnumbered 10-to-1. He “repeatedly risked his own life to defend his position, rally his men and order them to safety without him,” McConnell said.

During the battle, Puckett sprinted across an open area to draw fire so that Rangers could spot and target enemy machine-gunners. Though badly outnumbered, Puckett’s troops repelled multiple attacks from a Chinese battalion of an estimated 500 soldiers before being overrun.

When two mortar rounds landed in his foxhole, Puckett suffered serious wounds to his feet, backside and left arm. He ordered his men to leave him behind, but they refused.

“Many soldiers in the Korean War paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said House Speaker Mike Johnson. “Seven thousand others remain unaccounted for. But a select few, like the colonel, went above and beyond the call of duty.”

Eight other Medal of Honor recipients attended the Capitol ceremony and gave final salutes to Puckett.

Born in Tifton, Georgia, on Dec. 8, 1926, Puckett graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and received his commission as an infantry officer in 1949. He volunteered for the 8th Army Ranger Company, and despite his inexperience, Puckett was chosen as the unit’s commander. He had less than six weeks to train his soldiers before they joined the fight.

When Puckett took command, McConnell said, he did so “with humility and with clear eyes about the horrors of war.” He also prayed: “Dear God, don’t let me get a bunch of good guys killed.”

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