(CNN)Ralph Puckett Jr. — a United States Army Ranger who led the defense against six Chinese assaults on a frozen hill in the Korean War — was presented with America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, by President Joe Biden on Friday.
Biden said that Puckett’s initial reaction to receiving the Medal of Honor was to ask, “Why all the fuss? Can’t they just mail it to me?” Biden said that after waiting more than 70 years to be recognized for his heroics, the ceremony was well-deserved.
“Col. Puckett, after 70 years rather than mail it to you I would have walked it to you,” Biden said. “Your lifetime of service to our nation I think deserves a little bit of fuss.”
On November 25, 1950, the then-first lieutenant led a company of 51 US and nine South Korean soldiers against Chinese forces on what was called Hill 205, according to an award citation from the White House and an oral history given by Puckett.
In the initial daylight assault on the hill, Puckett repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, rallying pinned down US troops to advance and take the hill from its defenders. But once night fell and temperatures on the hill dropped below freezing, Puckett and his command faced wave after wave of Chinese assaults attempting to retake the key location.
It was estimated that hundreds of Chinese troops were involved in the attack against Puckett’s group of five dozen, he said a video recorded for Witness to War, a compilation of oral histories from veterans.
Sitting atop the hill looking out over the 360-degree perimeter the US forces had set up — with the Chinese lines somewhere in the darkness beyond — Puckett could hear the sound of whistles and bugles.
“That was the way they coordinated with each other,” he said of the Chinese forces. When the notes stopped, “we were hit with a mortar barrage and automatic weapons fire and shortly thereafter a shower of hand grenades.”
Puckett radioed in an artillery strike, stopping the Chinese advance. But a grenade fragment had left him with his first wound of the night.
Six Chinese attacks
That assault was the first of what would be six attacks on the US Rangers’ perimeter into the early hours of November 26.
“We were getting more and more pressure and had more and more people wounded” with each assault, Puckett said.
Despite being wounded a second time, through five assaults Puckett was able to call on artillery, firing on points he determined in advance to hold off the Chinese troops.
“They were the overwhelming force that saved our goose,” he said.
Between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., Puckett said the Chinese whistles and bugles sounded again.
He radioed for another round of artillery but got bad news: the big guns had another mission, and Hill 205 would have to wait, the artillery unit said.
“We’re crumbling. We’re being overrun. I just gave my unit the order to withdraw,” Puckett radioed back.